So Antonina and Leonid join thousands of elderly Ukranian citizens in the separatist regions to negotiate the no man’s land of checkpoints and adjacent minefields to pocket their pensions, which average around $90 a month.
Ukraine’s war, meanwhile, grinds on with no end in sight and remains one of the major tension points between Russia and the West. The death toll stands at more than 10,000 people, with the two sides still shelling each other and trading sniper fire daily.
For Ukrainian citizens caught in the war zone, the conflict is an unending litany of complications, disruptions and danger.
“She’s dead,” said Antonina, pointing to a woman, who looked to be in her 80s, lying motionless on a stretcher outside the Ukraine government office in Stanytsia Luhanska, about 530 miles east of Kiev and 15 miles from the Russian border. Antonina, her husband Leonid and others gave only their first names for fear of drawing the attention of authorities in the pro-Moscow regions.
The woman, however, was not dead. First-aid workers took her into a nearby prefab building and assured the crowd they would look after her.
Everyone then went back to the official business at hand. That includes getting their pensions and making plans to head back across the lines to homes in the Luhansk People’s Republic — one of the two self-declared territories under control of Moscow-backed separatists and by all appearances partly occupied by Russian troops.
“We’re always together,” said Antonina, 69. “I’m next to him all the time, so that he gets his pills,” she said, pointing to small, wheeled knapsack next to her, which contained all their necessities for their trip.
“The situation is horrible,” said Leonid, 75, making a face.
As Ukrainian passport holders, these elders are eligible for social benefits. But to receive them, they must declare themselves as “internally displaced persons.”
That requires registering at an address on the Kiev-controlled side. This is often a government office or a shell address.
In the eyes of the law, they are living on the government side and visiting the rebel side as necessary. The reality is the opposite. They choose to stay in their homes on the separatist side and make the trek into Kiev-held soil for their pensions.
As a result, the Stanitisa Luhanska checkpoint is a steady river of the aged and infirm.
Around 80 percent of those crossing — which averages between 10,000 and 11,000 per day — are pensioners, said Oleksandra Lytvynenko, an official covering Stanytsia Luhanska for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The populations of the Luhansk region and the other breakaway enclave, known as the Donetsk People’s Republic, are heavily weighted toward the elderly, as many young people have fled to the Kiev-controlled side.
Antonina and Leonid were sharply dressed for their pension run: Leonid in a pressed blue work shirt and a gray vest, and Antonina in a blue and black striped sweater, light blue kerchief and matching mascara.
They left their home about 6 a.m. The first leg was a bus from their town to Luhansk city, the capital of the separatist region. From there it was a short taxi ride to the checkpoint and then the walk into government-held territory.
Stanytsia Luhanska is one of five locations where Ukrainians can pass between rebel and government-controlled land — which average in total more than 1 million crossings per month. But it is the only one located in Luhanksa region and is also the only that bans automobiles. So all crossings must be on foot.
There is a large crater from a car bomb at the end of a bridge. Wooden steps lead in and out of the hole. Then there is the passage across a no man’s land with “Warning: mines” signs lining the edges of the road.
Finally, on the Ukrainian side, the wait times in line can be more than five hours.
Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross said that usually between two and six people per day collapse — the most being 17 in one day. Five people died this past year of health problems during the crossings, the ICRC said.
“The elderly often don’t eat, because they’re afraid to go to the bathroom, and then they faint while waiting,” said the U.N. refugee official Lytvynenko. “And these are the cases that we know about, since they’re on the government side.”
The Kiev government recently introduced improvements to its checkpoint, including more portable toilets, a corrugated roof to protect those waiting in line, fresh asphalt on its part of the crossing and double the number of windows processing the crossers’ documents.
Antonina said the wait time for this latest trip was about an hour and a half.
Her husband Leonid was recovering from a recent heart attack and clearly suffered from the journey, having to sit down suddenly in mid-conversation.
Once past the checkpoint, many pensioners, depending on where they are registered, also have to travel dozens of miles by bus or shared cab to nearby towns to pick up their money and verify their presence on Ukrainian territory.
For Leonid, this step happily has been eliminated. The Ukrainian government, as part of its improvements, also set up an office and cash machine next to the entrance to the checkpoint so some pensioners have only a short walk to take care of their affairs.
By 2 p.m., Leonid had his money.
Still, they decided to postpone their journey home and spent the night on the government-controlled side. They took up an offer from a businessman named Dima, who was offering the pensioners beds for around $3 per night, including transport to the checkpoint in the morning.
Leonid protested, mildly. He wanted to get home.
Antonina overruled him.
“No, we’re going,” she said, and they walked slowly toward Dima’s minivan. “He’s always such the nervous one.”