Ukraine has the world’s highest proportion of elderly affected by war. The ongoing conflict has a staggering human toll on the elderly. 3.4 million people depend on humanitarian assistance, and one third of those people are over 60 years old.

In 2014, many young people left when violence broke out, while the elderly stayed behind, just barely surviving.

Ukraine’s elderly are trapped in a war zone, listening to the occasional bursts of shelling near the line of contact separating the Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed rebel forces. For pensioners who have exhausted their resources, economic difficulties add to the stress of daily life.

Recent government measures led to hundreds of thousands of elderly losing their pensions (their only financial security). Caught in this bureaucratic nightmare, the elderly are forced to travel across eastern Ukraine, waiting in long lines to collect their pensions. Often reluctant to leave their homes and the last to flee from danger, they are left abandoned without resources of family care.

Donetsk, DPR: A war-torn cemetery full of tombstones that has been hit by shelling and gunfire over the years in the devastated neighborhood near the Donetsk airport in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). © Paula Bronstein

Donetsk, DPR: Raisa Andreyevna, 72, walks by the ruins of a local market, destroyed in 2015. She works as a janitor, which pays her enough to survive. Originally from Russia, she lives alone as her children and grandchildren have all moved away to safer areas. “I am not afraid to get killed because I have already lived my life.” © Paula Bronstein

Opytne, Donetsk Region: Raisa Petrovna, 80, and her husband Stanislav Vasilyevich, live in a village often caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists, too close to the contact line. They have learned to live with the daily sounds of shelling and gunfire. Her husband suffered from several medical issues, including dementia. He was injured twice by shrapnel, once in his abdomen. “I have to treat him as a child. I am so sorry that he is like this now, and I am afraid to leave him even for a moment.” Their two sons live on the other side of the contact line, unable to visit often because of the war. Opytne depends on humanitarian organizations to help the elderly who refuse to leave their homes and are trapped in a dangerous situation. © Paula Bronstein

Opytne, Eastern Ukraine: Mariya Gorpynych, age 76, lives alone. She speaks with tears in her eyes, talking about the death of her son Victor, 48, who was killed in 2016. He was fatally injured by shelling that hit near the home. He died in her arms. Her husband died from a heart attack from extreme stress over the conflict. Mariya refuses to leave her home, as her family is buried there. © Paula Bronstein

Chasov Yar, Donetsk region: Lyudmila Yevgenievna, 64, lives in a home for the elderly who are alone because of the war. She has dementia and spends most days gazing out of the windows. © Paula Bronstein

Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine: Vladimir Mamoshyn, age 65, lives alone. He is an amputee who had a heart attack last year, and is dependent on his wheelchair. Vladimir lost his leg due to a vascular disease, with poor access to health facilities and inadequate health care. His wife died eight years ago and his children abandoned him. He resides in the war-torn old Avdiivka village, less than a kilometer from the contact line where daily shelling and gunfire can be heard.
© Paula Bronstein

Varvara Arkhipovna, 81, lives alone on a small pension in Katerinovka, Lugansk region, which has a population of less than 300 people. The village is also exposed to the sniper fire as the military positions lay just over the hill a few kilometers away. Varvara lives with a puppy that was recently given to her by a health worker in order to improve her mental health, suffering from depression and high blood pressure. © Paula Bronstein

Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine: Elena Parshyna, 66, is blind and lives alone, and is seen here with her dog who passed away shortly after the death of her husband, who died from a heart attack in April. Her son also died in 2017 by the same fate. Both her husband and her son have been buried in a small cemetery that is mined, too close to the military positions, so she can never visit the graves. The home was shelled last year and is still damaged, but Elena refuses to leave. Her remaining family lives in Makeyevka city, controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
© Paula Bronstein

Eastern Ukraine: Aleksandra Losipovna, 91 and from Kramatorsk, was brought to the nursing home by her only relative, her grandson, because she lives alone and he is afraid she can harm herself. There has been no medical treatment provided besides painkillers. Aleksandra passed away in the nursing home in May.
© Paula Bronstein

Nadezhda Borisovna, age 76, from Dobropolye, died in the nursing home from diabetes and obesity. Her body remained in a room with other sick elderly women, untouched for almost 2 days as the nursing home has no resources to deliver it to the morgue, while the healthcare institution from her village delayed the transfer of her body. Finally, her neighbors took the responsibility to organize a funeral service for her, as she has no relatives. © Paula Bronstein

As a photojournalist for three decades, I examine under-reported human, economic and political issues to expose silent victims of conflict in a variety of war-torn countries. This series focuses on the vulnerable, fragile, elderly population in Ukraine that is frozen by conflict; trapped in a war, impoverished, and abandoned to survive in dilapidated homes.

—Paula Bronstein

Editors’ note: This work is one of 36 remarkable stories discovered this year via the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2019. Be sure to see all of the other inspiring winners and finalists.