Ukraine: "I won't leave, my son and husband are buried here"

Parts of the world seem to forget there is a conflict in eastern Ukraine. After five years, traumas and tragedies are still affecting people. This article was written in memory of Maria, who lived in the Ukrainian frontline village, Opytne, which MSF press officer Iveta and her colleague Zdeněk visited earlier this year. 

Maria, a resident of Optyne village in eastern Ukraine

“They killed my son,” said 80-year-old Maria, or Masha as she is known in the village  

There was shelling that day and she had begged her son Vitja to stay at home.

But he went out. He wanted to help their neighbours protect the gas pipes from damage.    

“All of a sudden, Sasha (an acquaintance) was running towards me, saying ‘Vitja is wounded!’,” Masha added.

Her son had been hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel and blood was gushing from the wound.  

“I poured some zeljonka (antiseptic) over it and wrapped his head in bandages. I always had a first aid kit on me.”

A race to save Vitja

Neighbours and soldiers came running. They provided first aid and offered to drive Masha and Vitja to a hospital.  

“There was shooting in Avdiivka. There was shooting in Dimitrovo,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Finally, they managed to take her son to Dnipro, almost 250 kilometres (155 miles) away, where he underwent surgery to remove the shrapnel from his head.

His condition improved and he was able to return home, but later he felt unwell again.

“He had a stroke and died in my arms. I’ve been alone since then. It’s been years now.”

From 800 to 38

Opytne is a frontline village in a government-controlled area of eastern Ukraine.

It’s just a short distance from the ruins of Donetsk airport, which is now on the other side of the contact line.

Snipers lurk behind their poverty-ridden homes and there is trauma in their souls

Four or five years ago, violent clashes to gain control of this strategically important place were commonplace.

Of the 800 residents, only 38 have remained in their damaged houses, which are riddled with bullets.

Everyone else has either fled or died.

The conflict has left residents without electricity, running water and gas. They have been cut off from the world, hemmed in by the frontline on one side and minefields on the other.

Life on the frontline

Most of the people who remain and struggle to survive amid the conflict are elderly.

Snipers lurk behind their poverty-ridden homes and there is trauma in their souls.

The only road connecting Opytne with the outside world runs between fields strewn with mines. When it rains, it’s impossible to drive along the muddy road.     

“There used to be a post office here. A shop. Now, there is nothing. They bring us humanitarian aid,” Masha explained.


MSF staff deliver Masha's medication
MSF staff deliver Masha's medication

Suffering from high blood pressure, Masha was one of the patients received by a Médecins Sans Frontières mobile clinic in Opytne on the last Wednesday of November. 

"We should have left" 

Masha was born in Zakarpattia, western Ukraine.

She moved to Opytne with her husband in the 1970s. She didn’t really want to, she would rather have stayed in the Rostov region, where they lived before.

But she went. Her husband’s brother was already in Opytne.

They bought a house, so they stayed and, over time, she got used to it. She worked on a farm milking cows.

Then her husband died. The conflict started.    

ʺMy son wanted to stay. I should have convinced him… We should have left,” she sobbed.

“I live alone with two cats and a dog now,” she added with a mild smile.

ʺI have a sister in Zakarpattia; we call each other from time to time. But I won’t leave now. My family is here... My husband and my son are buried here.”  

Remembering Masha

A few days later, MSF staff learnt Masha had died in a fire.

Her house had burned down. It’s not yet known why.

One theory is that the fire may have been started by a kerosene lamp or a candle.

In Opytne, they are widely used as electric cables have been cut during the conflict.


A road in Opytne, where power lines have been destroyed
A road in Opytne, where power lines have been destroyed


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