Disabled Ukrainians Are Fighting For Survival

WWhen Tanya Herasymova, a Ukrainian hen, woke up to hear that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, her first instinct was to flee. Her apartment on the 4th floor would have been at higher risk if the Russian army started bombing Kamianske in the vicinity of the separatist area Donetsk. But there was a problem: none of the city’s bomb shelters were accessible to wheelchair users, leaving Herasymova with nowhere to take cover.

“It was a horrible feeling because I knew that I couldn’t go down there by myself. I can’t be alone, I need someone to help me,” Herasymova says. “I realized that the only way for me to be safe during the war was evacuation.”

Herasymova was like other disabled Ukrainians. She felt cut off from assistance and safety programs that were intended for the more able-bodied. European Disability Forum and Inclusion Europe both estimate there are approximately 2.7 million disabled Ukrainians. Other estimates, however, suggest this may not be the case. Many Ukrainians who are disabled face greater vulnerability to Russian aggression, but also have greater risks of being left behind, attacked by violence and discriminated in their local communities.

Herasymova, her mother and their daughter bought train tickets to Lviv the day after. They were located near the Western frontier of Ukraine. Many people were standing on the train, some without tickets. “For half of our journey it was pitch black without any lights,” Herasymova says, to avoid the train being spotted by Russian jets. “It was really dangerous. There were a lot of people, a lot of children who cried and cried all the way.”

They finally reached Poland after many hours of traveling by minibus from Lviv to the border. Speaking to TIME from Denmark, where she is now staying, Herasymova says she wouldn’t have made it to safety without her friend and fellow disabled-rights activist Yuliia Sachuk, who found her accessible accommodation in the country and organized her onward journey.

Since 2014’s annexation, Sachuk was preparing for a Russian invasion. She was the chairperson of Fight For Right Ukraine, which supports people with disabilities and is responsible for coordinating inclusive conflict response strategies.

“I had a feeling that in a situation of war, we [the disabled community] would be the first victims,” Sachuk says. “Maybe not directly, but we would become victims because of our disability. We understood clearly that nobody would come and help us in our efforts to survive.”

Sachuk claims that Fight For Right worked with the authorities for several months to create plans to evacuate disabled persons. The organization’s volunteers were ready—they had received donations through GoFundMe, but they needed help in scaling up. Sachuk states that they received no support. “In Ukraine we still don’t have a systemic approach to help different priorities groups, elderly people, people with disabilities, children.”

Disabled Ukrainians feel abandoned by the government and aid organizations. They have rushed to mobilize their support for their communities. With the help of existing grassroots networks, activists managed to quickly coordinate with international communities that are disabled. Already, Fight For Right’s team of 40 volunteers—many of whom are disabled themselves—have helped 400 people flee the country.

With the destruction of formal support networks and the emergence of latent prejudices, the need to build solidarity among disabled people has never been more apparent. In a 2020 report on disability rights in Ukraine, the pan-European human rights NGO Council of Europe found that disabled people are often excluded from Ukrainian society because of negative stereotypes, legal and workplace discrimination, and high levels of institutionalization. The war has exacerbated these issues, resulting in what Yannis Vardakastanis, chair of the International Disability Alliance, called “a humanitarian crisis within a crisis.”

Some cases have been made difficult by a lack in education or understanding that disabled Ukrainians may not be able to get help. Oleksandr Nikulin and his partner are HIV-positive—they are excluded from government measures which ban men of conscription age from leaving Ukraine. After a sixteen-hour journey to the border of Ukraine and Slovakia, the couple found themselves in a position to tell the military about their disability.

“On our first attempt at the border, a guard got onto our bus and said, ‘You are a man, what are you doing here?’” Nikulin says. They said they had health certificates that proved their exemption from the army. “But the guard said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you are a man, go back.’”

Nikulin met his partner again, but this time he was able to meet a volunteer and take them to the border patrol. He fought for their safety. Nikulin still felt shaken from the experience. “It was so awful because I didn’t understand why,” he tells TIME from Frankfurt, Germany, where he is staying with a friend. “I’m not a criminal, I’ve got documents. I don’t know about war or how to kill people. I can be more useful helping other people with disabilities to evacuate from Ukraine.”

People with invisible disabilities in Ukraine, such as Nikulin and Raisa Kravchenko, are often subject to greater levels of discrimination and misunderstanding. Raisa Kravchenko (61), was forced to evacuate Kyiv together with her 28 year-old son. Her son has an intellectual handicap and she had to move. They moved to Kravchenko’s home town 60 miles west and have tried to establish a routine to make her son feel comfortable. They go on walks together every evening, but she can’t control how other people react to him.

“There are military checkpoints at the entrance and the exit of the town,” Kravchenko says. “He entered a checkpoint and he was told to stop by the army but he didn’t. They shot. Thank God, they were shooting into the air, but they called the police who brought him home.”

It has occurred three times before, she claims. “The police say why don’t you control him? And I tell the police: try and tell the wind where to blow.” Now, her son is often afraid when they go out in the town.

Kravchenko had to make the exact same difficult decision as many others with disabilities. She knows her son wouldn’t cope in a refugee camp or in an unfamiliar environment, and she worries she would fall ill if subjected to a long journey out of the country. Her son and she will remain in Ukraine.

They also struggle to get to bomb shelters when the alarm sounds—so they’ve decided to stay put. “By ignoring all these alarms I have a better chance of survival but if I react and go to the cellar, I could definitely have either a stroke or something,” says Kravchenko, noting the sound of a bomber plane passing overhead.

“I’m a kind of fatalist,” Kravchenko says. “Why should I spoil the rest of my life? I don’t know how long I’m going to live. Why should we rush and be in crowded places and suffer?”

Kravchenko, who has dedicated decades to improving the lives and well-being of people with disabilities in Ukraine, is now a retired lawyer. Dissatisfied with the state’s preference for caring for people with intellectual disabilities in institutions, Kravchenko founded the VGO Coalition, an alliance of 118 local NGOs with the aim of improving policies and support for the intellectually disabled. She was the leader of the local NGO and successfully lobbyed Kyiv’s local authorities to create a day centre for people with intellectual disabilities. It provided a hub for their guardians—mostly mothers—to meet and share support.

Having that network was “life changing,” Kravchenko says. “We brought up a new generation, a different generation of people with intellectual disabilities with an absolutely different quality of life. They could live in the city and communicate with each other, as well as engage in meaningful activities. They had friends, sometimes they fell in love and some of them married.”

The war prompted the closure of the center. Kravchenko is now cut off from her group and must find other ways to contact other mothers. They have an instant messaging group on Viber where they can exchange updates and messages from all over Ukraine. Kravchenko was informed by a friend that an accident had killed a mother and son with cerebral palsy. His son sustained severe injuries. He was severely injured and his mother watched him pass away for more than two days before she could reach medical help.

The situation is clearly taking its toll on Kravchenko, but she hasn’t stopped trying to help in whatever way she can. The VGO Coalition has so far received €20,000 ($22,000) in donations from Inclusion Europe, an international NGO supporting people with intellectual disabilities. Many of the mothers live in rural areas, and don’t have cell phones or bank cards. The word of the alliance has spread to relatives and neighbours, but it has not stopped there.

Fight For Right is similar to the VGO Coalition. It is led by the same group of people that it seeks support. Katarzyna Bierzanowska is a Polish activist that helps Fight For Right to secure accommodation in Poland for disabled refugees. However, she worries that it falls on an overly large number of disabled volunteers. “We do not need exhausted heroes,” she says. “We need ready volunteers.”

Many disabled volunteers believe they are able to do their job better than others, despite having mental and physical disabilities. “We know how to talk to people, how to make them more confident because we have the same experience,” Sachuk says. Herasymova concurs that being able to relate to other people is crucial. “When I say I use a wheelchair and I was evacuated, they think ‘okay if you can, maybe I can do this too.’”

Their colleagues, as well as other disabled persons in Ukraine will remain there. However, disabled evacuees from abroad will be able to continue their support. The reality is still hard for them to accept.

“We continue to live there. Physically we’re here, but our thoughts and minds are in Ukraine,” Sachuk says. While she was able to escape the warzone with her son and husband, Sachuk says that her parents still live in an area of conflict.

“Of course, I feel safe,” Nikulin says from Frankfurt. “But happy? I don’t know. Many people living with disability are still there. I can’t believe that war is in my country in the 21st century. I still can’t imagine it.”

Sachuk, Herasymova have no clue when, or how, they’ll be able back. They are looking for comfort and support in the international network of disabled people. It is stronger than ever. “I have worked in this area for many years,” Sachuk says, “but I have never seen such unity and solidarity among the disabled community.”

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