Behind enemy lines, Ukrainian woman survives with her chickens


Behind enemy lines, Ukrainian woman survives with her chickens

Zinaida Makishaiva, 82, who survived Russian occupation, hugs one of her chickens in Borodyanka, Ukraine April 12, 2022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Behind enemy lines, Ukrainian woman survives with her chickens


After surviving World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union, among other seismic events, Zinaida Makishaiva now has her chickens to thank for getting through her most recent ordeal - the brief but brutal occupation of her town by Russian troops.

The 82-year-old was not too shaken when Russian tanks first showed up in early March in Borodyanka, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, but then Grad missiles smashed into her home, destroying her chicken coop.

A neighbour next door was killed by shelling. And then Russian troops began to visit every day.

Her daily routines, established since early childhood when she started "rural work", were soon punctured by shelling and missile attacks.

"Scared doesn't fully describe how I felt. I felt dead, senseless... I didn't have time to bring logs because of the shelling, small and big. That's how they destroyed all those houses... What I know is: one missile - no house," said Makishaiva, who spent much of her life in Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa.

"The doors were blown out. I took the chickens in because I needed something to eat. I didn’t have anything to eat except for potatoes, just that. There is no water, no gas, nothing."

The Russian troops came in three waves, she said, the first being the most violent. One day several soldiers entered her house, demanding that she stay in the cellar.

"'Get in the cellar, you old bitch!’ (the Russian troops said). I told them: 'Kill me, but I won’t go'," said Makishaiva.

Makishaiva walks past a destroyed Russian army vehicle after receiving humanitarian aid supplies, in Borodyanka, Ukraine April 12, 2022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


During the days of occupation, Makishaiva braved crossfire to fetch pails of water from a nearby well.

When food was scarce, she still had the eggs laid by her own chickens. Her family was far away, as her one son and three grandchildren live in different parts of the country.

Since Borodyanka was retaken by Ukrainian forces over a week ago, Makishaiva, who used to love dancing the waltz when she was younger, walks more than three hours a day, past shattered buildings and wrecked Russian tanks, to collect whatever food aid is available at the town's community centre or church.

Thirty days of sleepless nights are now a thing of the past, with the help of the herb valerian.

“It’s calmer now, we have radio again. There was nothing for a month, I felt deaf, no conversations, except with my dogs and cat,” she said.

“Now when the radio says it’s midnight, I take some valerian and sleep soundly until 5. The dreams are better now, more happiness. Because it was so bad before, so many people died. It was frightening.”

“What God decides will happen. I’ve been through two wars and now this. I pray that this has passed and the fighting won’t come back again,” Makishaiva said.

Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called “a special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its southern neighbour.

Kyiv and its Western backers say this is a pretext for an act of unprovoked aggression. Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance to the invasion and the West has imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Russia.

The Wider Image

Photography: Zohra Bensemra

Reporting: Joseph Campbell

Additional reporting: Zohra Bensemra

Photo editing: Kezia Levitas

Text editing: Gareth Jones

Design: Eve Watling