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An elderly couple in Ukraine says their resilience is all about happiness

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Imagine going to sleep every night while artillery - Russian shells - rain down. It's a reality. Many elderly residents in Ukrainian cities along the front lines lived for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: There is fear and loneliness, trapped in apartments, cities, they couldn't leave. In the eastern city of Slovyansk, there were worries winter would come without heat. But instead, things have gotten better there. NPR's Elissa Nadworny revisited the city and some of the elderly residents who stayed.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Viktor Lada ushers us into the apartment he shares with his wife, Lubov. They fuss over us.

LUBOV LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Help them with their coats, Lubov instructs her husband, who she calls grampa (ph). Lubov bangs and long hair. She's wearing yellow and pink slippers.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Do you know how old we are?

NADWORNY: Tell us.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: I am 92.

NADWORNY: Viktor's in a collared shirt and sweater. They dressed up for our visit.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He's one year younger. He is 91.

NADWORNY: They've been together for more than 70 years.

What a lovely home.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's not our flat," Lubov says, "our flat was destroyed." Lubov had just gone to bed when the apartment they lived in for 63 years was hit by Russian artillery.

VIKTOR LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: The building's exterior wall crashed and fell into their apartment. Lubov was covered in ash and dust, surrounded by debris. She remembers calling out for Viktor.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: His arm was hurt and cut. She says she remembers seeing his blood on the wall.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: So many of their beautiful things - destroyed.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She's still grieving, Viktor says.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: But they survived.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Their survival, their resilience - it's a metaphor for this city, says Svitlana Domoratska.

SVITLANA DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She's a social worker who's worked with the couple for years, bringing them meals, helping around the house. In the fall, Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian front line further back from this city. Now the shelling is far less frequent. City services have resumed. There's more consistent water, power and heat. Since the summer, the city's population has doubled. About 50,000 people live here now, about half of what it was before the war.

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Svitlana still remembers rushing to the Lada's apartment when it was hit. It was terrifying, she says. She stayed with them for hours, cleaning the apartment, and then later helped them move into an apartment their grandson bought for them a few blocks away.

DOMORATSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: They filled the new place with things they could salvage - a lace table cloth, porcelain dolls, a lamp with bright flowers and the couch they cleaned and cleaned and cleaned to make it white again.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: There's still a hole in the back left over from a piece of shrapnel. Perhaps it was love, Lubov suggests, that helped them survive those long months.

Can you remember what made you fall in love?

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "He was so attentive," Lubov says.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She was very neat and had a good figure, Viktor says. They were teenagers when they met. When I asked them the secret to living so long...

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Hobbies. Lubov cared for her plants. Viktor loves photography. He takes out his digital camera and snaps a photo of us. Right as we're chatting, the power goes out. Things have improved here.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But we're still in Ukraine," Viktor says, "we're still at war." But that doesn't halt the hospitality. Viktor and Lubov are both extremely agile in their 90s, and they bustle around the kitchen, lighting the gas stove with a match, boiling bottled water for coffee.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: And they offer puff pastries. We sit and talk some more about how life is better now. Their house is warm. They have family nearby. The supermarkets are full. But the effects of the attack still linger.

L LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Sometimes we cry and feel sad, Lubov says. Viktor lost his dentures in the blast. And Lubov still has a frog-like sound in her ears.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But this is not a story about sorrow," says Viktor.

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "We survived. We're still here. It's a story about happiness."

V LADA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Slovyansk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.