IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — One building in the recaptured but devastated Ukrainian town of Izium is filled with those at the end of their lives. It reeks of unwashed sheets and unbathed skin and needs more heat to fend off the approaching winter. Despair weighs on its occupants like a blanket and the sound of weeping echoes in its rooms.
Now an orphan wanders the cold hallways among the elderly and infirm, his eyes firmly upon the phone in his hand. Until a few days ago, 13-year-old Bohdan had a father. Now he has no one.
Bohdan’s father wasted away for weeks in the corridor room of a shelter for the injured and homeless before stomach cancer finally claimed him on Oct 3. During every dwindling waking moment at the end of his life, Mykola Svyryd worried about his son.
“He runs to me and says, ‘Papa, I love you.’ I tell him, ‘Who else could you love?’” said Svyryd, cheeks sunken and skin pale, in a bedside interview only a few days before his death at 70. “His mother is dead, his father is old. … When his father is gone, I won’t know if there is someone with him and where they will send him.”
The small compound in the eastern town opened in January as a rehabilitation center for people recovering from surgeries or injury. When the war started a month later, Russian forces quickly engulfed the town. Within a matter of weeks, airstrikes, artillery and fires had left their mark on nearly every building.
Those who didn’t have the means to flee the city quickly enough cowered in its basements, surviving — but only just — without electricity, gas or running water. In early September, a Ukrainian counteroffensive swept through the Kharkiv region, sending the Russians into a disorganized retreat from Izium and other towns.
But their departure did little to lessen the deprivation in Izium. The 39 people sleeping in the rehab center have nowhere else to go. They are infirm and impoverished , their homes are destroyed, and the rest of their families are dead or gone.
The realization of all that is what brings on the tears.
And this is how Mykola Svyryd and Bohdan ended up here. Svyryd was already dying when the war started, and cancer had taken Bohdan’s mother two years earlier.
The boy himself was born with a brain injury that his father had hoped doctors could eventually treat with surgery. Between timid glances and shy smiles, Bohdan says little, only a few short words at a time.
“He was born disabled. He never went to school. I taught him to read a little, to write numbers and letters,” Svyryd said of his son.
A retired former worker in a factory that made eyeglass lenses, Svyryd sheltered with his son from the Russian assault on the town, which had blown out all the windows in their apartment. Neighbors helped where they could as his health gradually failed.
“We had to sit in a basement for three months. When we came out, my health became worse and worse. And then my legs stopped working,” Svyryd said. By the time he spoke to AP reporters, he was bedridden and emaciated, his voice barely rising above a whisper.
Bohdan embraced his father tenderly and often in the older man’s last days. He whispers along with Ukrainian pop music and plays small-screen video games as avidly as any teen.
He seems to find nothing odd about being the only child in a building filled with the elderly, but nor does he particularly interact with them. Standing in a knit cap and blue hooded parka beneath the trees in the rehab center’s small front courtyard, he shuffles about uncertainly.
Svyryd was buried in a simple grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Izium, a wooden cross and colorful bouquet of artificial flowers marking his final resting place.
Since his father’s death, Bohdan has often sat in the room they shared at the shelter, staring out distantly. He sleeps elsewhere in the shelter now, and the staff hope that a new environment will dull his pain a little.
The surgery that had been postponed because of war and his father’s illness is finally scheduled for the coming days. Ultimately, Bohdan will go up for adoption, one more Ukrainian orphan among so many.
But sometimes, he still asks where his father is.