Thirty-one years ago, on August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union – a date celebrated as the country’s Independence Day.
But far from the parades, fireworks and concerts of times past, this year the day also marks six months since Russia’s invasion and the start of the Ukraine war – a full-scale assault that has ravaged the country and its people.
Six months on, 17.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Mass displacement continues, with 6.4 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe and a further 6.6 million having fled their homes for safer areas within the country.
A quarter of Ukraine’s population is over 60, according to HelpAge International, a charity that supports older people. Even before this war, one in every three people affected by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 was older.
Older people are among those who have been displaced or who have become refugees, while others remain at home through choice or their lack of mobility. Many need specific support in terms of healthcare, emotional support or crucial hard-to-get supplies; yet older people’s needs are often overlooked by the humanitarian response, HelpAge reports.
At the same time, there are many older people volunteering to do all they can to support others in need.
We spoke with some of these volunteers to hear their memories of Ukrainian independence in 1991, how life has changed in the decades since Soviet times, and what this year’s Independence Day in the shadow of Russia’s war means to them.
“Independence Day will definitely mean more this year,” says Tatyana Milko, 62, a grandmother in Dnipro who together with HelpAge, assists older people in need of support. “The country is closer together now. Before, it was just another holiday and a day off. We used to make jokes. Now, it represents the inner strength and pride of Ukrainians.
“In future, I know we will be fine, happy, and independent. Everything will be Ukraine.”