Alevtina Shernina was a young girl when she survived the brutal siege of Leningrad in World War II. Eight decades later, so frail that she can barely speak or move around unaided, she is under siege again.
The 91-year-old lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and one of the worst-hit urban areas of the Russian invasion. The bombardment came so close that the windows of his building were blown out.
And yet, Shernina cannot escape, even in an air-raid shelter. Her heart problems make her too fragile to be carried up the stairs to the basement when the air raid sirens sound.
She could communicate before the invasion of Russia, but now she is almost unresponsive, her daughter-in-law Natalia said.
A bombardment this week also rocked Natalia.
She said she was in the kitchen pouring tea: “Then I opened the door and didn’t understand what was going on. There was fire behind the window and the windows were breaking.”
Cold air now enters through a window left damaged by the attack. Pale-faced, eyes closed, Shernina sits nearby in a blanket, an electric heater at her feet, a medicine table beside her.
“I feel inhuman anger that Alevtina started her life in Leningrad under siege as a starving girl, who lived in cold and hunger, and she ended her life [in similar circumstances]”, said Natalia.
She spoke bitterly of the Russian forces and compared them to the “fascists” who besieged Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, for almost 900 days so long ago.
“What kind of defenders are they? she asked. “Who did they come to defend?
She showed an official card indicating her mother-in-law’s status as a survivor of one of the deadliest sieges in history. German forces surrounded and starved Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, and hundreds of thousands died.
Today Kharkiv, just over 25 miles (40 km) from the Russian border, sees little escape from invasion. Some residents managed to flee. Others, like Shernina and her family, have no choice but to stay and wonder how long this will last.
“We cannot leave because of Alevtina, she is in such a state that she cannot be transported,” Natalia said. “We would like to leave, but my daughter is also here who works as a doctor at the 3rd Maternity. She goes [for work] for four days in a row, because it is dangerous to travel at night.
Her daughter now walks the six miles to work, as public transport no longer operates in Kharkiv. Only a third of his fellow doctors remained in hospital. Some were evacuated, fearing new Russian bombardments.
She and Natalia fear him too. They considered trying to protect Shernina by moving her to the basement, where metal cots secured by the bare concrete walls offer little comfort.
“But as you can see, wearing it would be very difficult,” Natalia said. “We just won’t make it in time.”