To the east of Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol, the village of Lebedynske was once a hub of agriculture, with villagers making a profit from selling vegetables and dairy produce to their metropolitan neighbours.
But three years into a conflict on its doorstep, which has seen shells fall on homes, streets and community buildings, residents left behind live a daily existence of anxiety and fear over their future.
With a checkpoint placed at the entrance of the village and buses running just two days per week, many have fled. A school and kindergarten have been rebuilt as one, yet there are no children left to teach.
Those left behind are mostly elderly, living with chronic diseases, high anxiety and a severe lack of access to healthcare. The beginnings of a village health clinic can be seen in the centre, a brick building half completed with trees growing inside.
Villagers say a nurse operates but has limited capacity to treat those suffering from diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.
62-year-old Vyacheslav has spent his whole life in the village and attends a mobile primary health and psychological support clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
He stood outside the clinic smoking on a frosty October morning, nearby his magnolia Lada was parked, with his disabled sticker placed clearly on the windscreen.
As is the case with many of his neighbours, his ailments include type two diabetes, thyroid problems, damaged knees, hypertension and high blood pressure. What sets Vyacheslav apart is that he developed a number of these health issues after being sent to work in Chernobyl, following the nuclear disaster which sprayed the area with radioactive particles.
“I was 35-years at the time. I was called to the military service building and they told me I should protect the building in Chernobyl,” he said.
“I was a driver. We brought some remains from Chernobyl station into storage, from the fourth block. It was 1987 and I was there for two months.”
After showing signs of radioactivity in his body, Vachaslav was allowed to leave Chernobyl, certain he would have been killed by the effects if he had stayed longer.
“There were no people there, there where trees without leaves because of the radiation, everything was burned and black. There were military units and that’s all,” he recalled.
With the team of drivers, Vyacheslav lived in tents in Ivankovo, 30 kilometres from Chernobyl.
“We went there every day to work. Everybody understood it was dangerous but what should they do, cry? Men don’t cry.
“The body needs to get used to radiation. In the first days we had red faces and felt it so much but we adapted to the situation.
“We were treated in the hospital in Donetsk once a year and used to stay in the hospital for around two weeks.”
This treatment included intense oxygen therapy, which Vyacheslav said helped to bring down his blood pressure. However, since the conflict broke out in 2014, those living in Lebedynske no longer fall under the Novoazovs’k region, which accepts patients to Donetsk hospital and they are instead sent to Mariupol for a less specialised treatment.
After his two months in Chernobyl, Vycheslav returned to his village and worked as a driver in a kolkhoz, or Soviet collective farm.
“In September 2014, they started to shell, my two houses are partially destroyed,” he said, calmly.
“[The shell] fell in the yard, two metres from the wall of the house.
“I was called by my neighbours, they told me there was no windows, no roof anymore. I was at my brother’s house in Mariupol.”
With the help of NGOs and using his own money, he has managed to restore the buildings but has been attending MSF’s clinic since it opened in 2015, visiting a nurse, doctor and psychologist for healthcare and support.
“There is a nurse [in the village] who can only measure blood pressure and doesn’t have any medicine,” he said.
He spoke fondly of a once vibrant village, known for selling vegetables, fruit and dairy products to nearby Mariupol.
Now villagers do not risk spending precious pensions on growing crops, for fear the fields will be destroyed. As we speak outside the clinic, the grumble of a loud bang can be heard in the distance.
“It was the best village in the raion [administrative territory],” he said, remembering a village pickle factory and thousands of cows used for milk.
Pointing to a large abandoned building with the marks of shelling and a part collapsed roof, he described the opportunities which once existed in Lebedynske.
“We had this dormitory for specialists; teachers, agronomists, young people and our own banya (sauna).
“Everybody was really happy. Now it’s just ruins.”
By Eleanor Davis, field communications manager for MSF in Ukraine
MSF has been running mobile clinics providing free primary healthcare and psychological support to people living near to or along the frontline in the southern Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine since May 2015. Each clinic consists of a doctor, nurse and psychologist providing consultations, awareness sessions and medication to those unable to access healthcare as a result of the conflict.