Huddled in an underground shelter in war-battered east Ukraine, Oleksander and Lyudmila Murenets spend more time together these days than at any other point in their four decades of marriage.
The tension is starting to show.
“You talk a lot,” Oleksander, 68, sneered at Lyudmila, 66, on a recent morning as she tried to explain how much water is required to make homemade vodka.
Later, when Lyudmila corrected his attempt to say “thank you” to a foreign visitor, Oleksander cut her off completely. “Who is the boss of this house?” he said.
These flare-ups have become routine after 10 months in the cramped basement of their apartment block in Siversk, a former front-line town that was shelled almost beyond recognition and where windows still rattle day and night from artillery booms.
“We used to spend time at work and we would meet each other only in the evening. Now we bicker more,” said Oleksander, who repaired railway vehicles before the war.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Shut up, woman,’ but she doesn’t.”
Theirs is far from the only marriage in eastern Ukraine buckling under the stresses of wartime.
Throughout the eastern Donbas region, the combination of fighting and freezing winter temperatures is forcing couples to spend long periods in close quarters, straining some relationships and strengthening others.
- Winter woes -
A mining town set amid rolling fields, Siversk came under sustained missile and rocket attacks last summer by Russian forces, who made several unsuccessful attempts to capture it.
The Ukrainians managed to push them out but homes, schools and factories today lie in ruins and most of the town’s pre-war population of 12,000 have fled.
In basement shelters like the one occupied by Oleksander and Lyudmila, the constant sound of shelling from the front line, currently around 10 kilometres (6 miles) to the east, is a reminder that Siversk still falls within artillery range.
On top of that, the couple must grapple with a lack of phone service, limited access to drinking water and the fact that their only heat source is a woodstove.
“In the summer we were cooking in the street. It was scary always but at least we could go outside,” Lyudmila said.
With winter conditions worsening, she has turned to science fiction novels for a mental escape, not to mention a break from arguments with her husband.
“It’s good that our apartment is nearby,” she said, gesturing upstairs. “I can easily go and take another book.”
- ‘I protect her’ -
Another couple, Oleksander and Tamara Sirenko, have a different method of stress-relief: chopping and stacking firewood, of which they need plenty.
Nevertheless, the eight months they have spent together in a basement shelter have taken their toll.
“In the beginning, yes, it was difficult to be constantly together and together and together again. As we say, ’If every day you have porridge, then in a few days you want soup,’” Oleksander said.
“The time in the basement did not bring us closer,” he added, laughing and pointing at their separate twin beds.
“Our beds stand as they stood before.”
Adopting a more serious tone, he noted that life would be far grimmer without Tamara’s company.
“At least there is somebody else here in the basement, even if she is just grumbling,” he said.
“Otherwise, you sit here like a deaf-mute.”
He takes evident pride in the care he provides for his wife, a diabetic with a swollen leg that needs bandaging every day.
“I don’t give my wife the opportunity to droop. I protect her, so that she feels the war less, and the anxiety,” he said.
“She knows that I’m a joker. I joke with everyone, regardless of whether there is a war or not. I don’t let her get in a bad mood.”
Tamara nodded, saying: “I couldn’t cope with it on my own.”
They both readily acknowledge that, arguments aside, they are far luckier than those whose spouses have died in the war.
Across town, Iryna Pavlova, 56, spent the weekend trying to obtain a death certificate for her husband, Viktor.
He was killed in a cluster bomb attack on Siversk back in July, after she had fled to safety in western Ukraine, where she is still based.
“It’s so hard for me,” she told AFP, crying while describing her first visit home since his death.
“He knows that I am here,” she added.
“I want to stay near him.”
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