A 92-year-old grandmother survived World War II and built a life in Ukraine. Now she is forced to live underground

After surviving World War II, Maria Nikolaevna lived a busy and full life, working as an engineer and raising two children in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Today her world barely exists beyond the dim walls of a shared basement where she was forced to flee when bombs damaged her apartment.

Life in the dark basement, which Maria shares with her daughter, son-in-law and the family cat, requires makeshift sleeping arrangements.Reuters: Nacho Doce)

For the past four months, 92-year-old Maria has been living underground with her daughter, son-in-law and the family cat.

The only glimpse of natural light is sitting in a doorway at the foot of the stairs leading up to the street.

With their houses uninhabitable because of the war, the family lives in limbo.

Maria Nikolaevna, 92, talks to Kisiau, the family cat, held by her daughter NatalyaThe Kisiau family cat joined Maria and her daughter and son-in-law in the basement.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, withstood a Russian assault during the first two months of the invasion, but has recently come under near-daily shelling after a period of relative calm.

Damaged apartment buildings in KharkivMaria’s apartment in Kharkiv has become uninhabitable because of the war.Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Maria suffers from mobility problems, progressive memory loss and confusion that has worsened since the attack on her home.

“She has forgotten what the city is like, she is confused and doesn’t know where to go, what to do, how to lie down, how to sleep, how to hide”, says her daughter Natàlia.

Portrait of Maria Nikolaeva, 92 years oldMaria suffers from memory loss and confusion, which have worsened since her forced relocation. (Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Natalia’s house was in one of the most heavily bombed areas of Kharkiv. He believed his mother would be safer staying in her own suburb eight miles away, with neighbors to bring food and check on her.

But one night the call came that there had been an explosion next to Maria’s flat, and the electricity had been cut.

A sandbagged window in Maria Nikolaevna's basement shelterThe basement offers some protection as the war continues to rage around Kharkiv.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Natalya’s husband, Fedor, found a taxi driver willing to drive across the besieged city to retrieve Maria and the few belongings they could grab.

“The taxi driver carried her down the stairs and very quickly rushed through the city to get her to safety,” says Natalya.

Ukrainian grandmother - family helpMaria’s health has deteriorated and she now depends on her family for everything.Reuters: Nacho Doce)

War is not new to Maria. As a child, her family was forced to house a German officer during the occupation of Ukraine in World War II. Vasilii, the man she would marry, fought in that war.

Maria and her husband came from the same village in the Poltava region, but met after the war in Kharkiv, where they went to night school, shared a desk and fell in love.

A photograph showing Maria and her husband Vasilii as young parents with their daughter NatalyaMaria’s son-in-law shows a photograph of his wife Natalya as a baby with her parents Maria and her late father Vasilii. (Reuters: Nacho Doce)

She then worked as an engineer in a state-owned factory that made aerospace parts. The couple got married, had a son and a daughter and bought a flat with a garden.

“They put the hard times behind them,” recalls Natalya

Today, as her memory fades, Maria occupies her time reading dog-eared magazines and rearranging her husband’s medals, among the few things Fedor salvaged while fleeing his home.

The medals recovered from Maria's apartment are among his few possessionsMedals belonging to her late husband are among the few possessions recovered from Maria’s bomb-damaged home.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

A physical reminder of his family’s place in history, it includes the Order of the Patriotic War for Vasilii’s participation in Soviet operations against the Germans, and a medal for fighting against Japan at the end of the war.

A letter of thanks sent to Maria's husband regarding the Soviet victory in the war with JapanA relic from the past: a letter of thanks about the Soviet victory in the war with Japan, written to Maria’s husband, Vasilii.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

In the basement, Maria sleeps on a mattress propped up on wooden pallets in a makeshift bedroom punctuated by three cheap wool blankets.

Wearing a fleece jacket and a thick collar against the cold, he lives for WhatsApp calls from his granddaughter Masha, 31, who lives in New York.

Ukrainian grandmother 12A WhatsApp call to granddaughter Masha in New York provides a vital connection to the outside world.Reuters: Nacho Doce)

As for the future, the family has no answers, only questions, says Fedor, 62.

“When will this war end? And who does it depend on? The politicians? Us? The military? Because it is unacceptable in our time, it is barbarism.

“Let my mother-in-law and other elderly people who are 95 or 97 years old end their lives in these conditions. The sooner it ends, the better.”


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