Blasts echo through Siversk’s battered streets in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine every few minutes, shaking the ground. Sometimes it’s Ukrainian fire coming from the outside, and sometimes Russian fire comes back.
The elderly woman walks up the street in dirty gray overcoat, heavy shoes, black pants, and a headscarf. There is yet another explosion. She takes one step even though she flinches and her eyes widen. She joins a group of several dozen people, most of whom are elderly, who are covered up against the cold.
Mud and debris from numerous rounds that have come in cover the roads. The few vehicles have to veer around bomb-filled craters filled with water. Some apartment buildings’ upper floors have been reduced to rubble, and not a single street window remains. Long-dead telephone and electrical wires run along the ground.
Lubov Bilenko, 72, is standing alone on the edge of the crowd. Her dark eyes are expressionless, and her face is flat and emotionless—the thousand-mile stare.
She says lowly, “Of course, we were very scared before.” She refers to the shelling, saying, “Now we’re used to it.” We no longer even pay attention.
According to Bilenko, she has ventured outside of her apartment, where she lives alone, to the main road to collect her monthly pension, which was brought to town by a mobile Ukrposhta unit. The monthly amount of Bilenko’s pension is just under $80. It’s enough to buy some food from one of the few remaining stores.
Once a month, the little yellow-and-white Ukrposhta van makes its way to Siversk.
The mobile unit is led by Anna Fesenko, a blonde woman with a quick smile. Anna elicits a grin and occasionally a chuckle from tired town residents as she and her colleagues check documents against a list of recipients and distribute cash.
According to Fesenko, Ukrposhta has been her partner for 15 years. She was unprepared for the work she does now because of those years of predictable, methodical postal work.
Fesenko worked at the post office in Bakhmut, which is approximately 22 miles south of Siversk, prior to leading the mobile unit. But in the middle of the fall, the fighting around the town got so bad that she and her coworkers had to leave.
She knows that her job is more than just giving out pensions: It’s to let Siversk’s residents know that they won’t be forgotten. She asserts, “I think we are the only link between them and the rest of the world.”
However, not everyone is willing to even venture outside.
Volodymyr, 63, says, “I live within a 20-minute walk from here, but my wife is afraid to come here,” but he didn’t say his full name because he was smoking before joining the line.
He chuckles and takes another big puff. “My wife told me not to spend our pension on cigarettes,” he says.
73-year-old Olha has advanced to the front. She has spent months huddled with others in the basement of her apartment building, like many others who live in the war zone. Living there is cramped and uncomfortable. However, she is willing to endure it.
She says, pointing her head in the direction of emphasis, “I was born here.” This is my home country.
After that, another loud explosion. Olha doesn’t even notice. I won’t travel anywhere. “Whatever is, will be.”
Oleksi Vorobiov, the head of the military administration in Siversk, is in charge of the operation. Being in the open with so many people makes him nervous.
The pension distribution point can see Russian forces occupying hills across a wide valley. Ten kilometers, or six miles, to the north are they.
People should move back and spread out, according to Vorobiov, “for your own safety.” They disregard him.
Regarding the pension distribution, Vorobiov states, “We are trying to choose the right time and place.” To avoid being targeted by the Russians, the mobile unit must arrive at a different location and time each time.
He continues, “But this is warfare.” He says to the line of people, “Today it’s like this, and tomorrow it can be totally different.”
Around noon, we left Siversk. Only half of the distribution was completed.
Fesenko, the postal official, told us over the phone that an hour later, a Russian artillery round hit a block away.
She claimed that no one was hurt, but she and her coworkers skipped the formalities. She stated that they quickly distributed any cash they could to those who were still waiting and then left.