‘We are one connection’: Postal workers risk their lives to receive pensions for Ukraine’s elderly

Siversk, Ukraine

Every few minutes, the ground shakes as explosions reverberate through the devastated streets of Siversk, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Sometimes it was Ukrainian fire, sometimes the Russians returned fire.

An elderly woman in black pants, heavy shoes, a dirty gray coat and a headscarf trudged down the street. Another explosion sounded. She flinched, her eyes widening, but she didn’t miss a step. She joined the crowd of several dozen residents, mostly elderly, huddled together to fend off the cold.

The roads were covered with mud and rubble from countless bullets flying at. Some vehicles had to go around the water-filled craters where the bombs fell. The upper floors of some apartment complexes have turned to rubble and barely any windows on the street are intact. Telephone and electrical wires crisscrossed the ground, long dead.

Lubov Bilenko, 72, stood alone at the edge of the crowd. His face was flat, emotionless, and his black eyes were emotionless – a gaze of a thousand miles.

“Of course, we were scared before,” she said in a low voice. “We’re used to it now,” she said of the shelling. “We don’t even notice anymore.”

Lubov Bilenko, 72, a resident of Siversk, ventures out to receive his monthly allowance.

Bilenko told CNN she ventured out of her apartment, where she lives alone, to the main road to receive her monthly pension, brought to town by a Ukrposhta mobile unit, the Post. Ukrainian electricity. Bilenko’s pension is only $80 a month short. It was just enough to buy a bit of food from one of the few stores still open.

The small yellow and white Ukrposhta truck arrives in Siversk once a month.

Anna Fesenko, a blonde woman with a quick smile, heads the mobile unit. As she and her colleagues checked documents against a list of recipients and handed out cash, Anna coaxed a smile and occasional giggle from the town’s weary residents.

Fesenko said she has been with Ukrposhta for 15 years. Years of predictable, methodical postal work did not prepare her for what she is doing now.

“I could never have imagined such a nightmare,” she told CNN.

A resident walks near his house destroyed by Russian shelling, in Siversk, Donetsk region of Ukraine, on November 6, 2022.

Before leading the mobile unit, Fesenko worked at the post office in Bakhmut, about 22 miles south of Siversk. But in mid-autumn, fighting around town became so intense that she and her colleagues there had to evacuate.

She understands that her job is not just to hand out pensions, but to remind the people of Siversk that they are not forgotten. “I think we are the only connection between them and the rest of the world,” she said.

However, not everyone is ready to go out.

“I live a 20-minute walk from here, but my wife is afraid to come here,” said Volodymyr, 63, who declined to give his full name, and smoked a cigarette before queuing.

“My wife told me not to spend our pension on cigarettes,” he chuckles, taking another long drag.

Olha, a pensioner from Siversk, insists she won't leave her

Olha, 73, took the lead. Like so many people living in war zones, she spent months hanging out with others in the basement of her apartment building. It was a cramped, uncomfortable existence. However, she is willing to endure it.

“I was born here,” she said, jerking her head forward for emphasis. “This is my country.”

Then there was another loud bang. Olha barely noticed. “I’m not going anywhere. What comes will come.”

Oversaw this operation was the head of the Siversk military junta, Oleksi Vorobiov. He was worried because too many people gathered outdoors.

An elderly man walks among the rubble at a residential area in Siversk on October 3, 2022.

Russian forces were just across a vast valley, occupying hills visible from the pension distribution point. They are about 10 kilometers (six miles) to the north.

Vorobiov urged people to step back, spread out “for your own safety”. They ignored him.

“We are trying to choose the right time and place,” Vorobiov said of the grant being distributed. That means every time the mobile unit arrives, it is a different place and time to avoid being targeted by the Russians.

“But this is war,” he added. “This is what it is today” – he nodded to the waiting crowd – “and tomorrow could be completely different.”

We left Siversk around noon. The distribution is only half done.

An hour later, a Russian shell hit the ground just a block away, Fesenko, the postal official, told us by phone.

She said no one was injured, but she and her colleagues skipped the procedure. They quickly handed out the cash they could to those who were still waiting, she said, and left.


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