Evacuation of People with Disabilities: Ukraine’s Failed State Exam
“Had the occupiers come to my city, I wouldn’t have been able to remain silent or obey them. There would only be one path for me. Recently, I heard on the news that an activist in a wheelchair was shot dead. It could have been me,” shares Tetiana Gerasymova.
“All of February 24th was spent sitting on my apartment floor in Kyiv. My building has no elevator, and my apartment is on the fifth floor. The nearest shelter is very far from us. I just wouldn’t be able to make it there physically: I would be killed somewhere in the middle of the road by something flying. All nearby metro stations – such as Chernihivska and Darnytsia – are above ground and therefore not suitable for shelter. So I sat on the floor in the apartment, in the hallway. I didn’t hear sirens because our siren was broken. We tracked air raid alerts in the online chat. When I saw that there was an alert, I would sit on the floor,” says Victoria Kharchenko.
“When we approached the door of the train car, it became clear that I still had no chance to get inside. The military guards of the train helped me. They protected us from the crowd because we were at the very edge of the platform. A crowd of men and women with giant suitcases was pressing on us, it was easy to fall into the gap between the train and the platform.
The guards stopped the frenzied crowd by threatening to start firing. I got on the train, but my daughter was still on the platform. I began to scream at the top of my lungs: “The girl! Throw the girl in orange into the train! ” She was grabbed by her orange hood and thrown into the train car. All of this took place at gunpoint by machine guns,” Tetiana Kovalchuk recalls, barely holding back her tears.
These are excerpts from the stories of three women with disabilities, specifically with musculoskeletal disorders. At the beginning of the war, they were evacuated abroad: Victoria – to North Macedonia, the two Tetianas – to Denmark. Today, they help to evacuate people with disabilities, mothers with children, the elderly, and others from various locations in Ukraine, including hotspots.
The NGO Fight for Right, where they work, has co-organized, together with other volunteers, civil initiatives, and international organizations of people with disabilities, a network of activists. Since the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, these activists have been providing evacuation assistance, legal support, and psychological assistance. Ultimately, at the beginning of the war, the government completely forgot about 2.7 million of its citizens – people with disabilities.
As of now, the situation has moved on from its standstill, say my interlocutors in tandem. In particular, on March 13th, the government simplified the border crossing procedure for people with disabilities and their guardians. Fight For Right activists played a key role in lobbying for this decision.
The three women decided to share their stories with ZMINA. After all, in the words of Victoria Kharchenko, “at least it will be useful to document this hell now.”
At the end of the article, we provide contact information and resources for people with disabilities and reduced mobility and explain how to receive help from civil initiatives.
“The military guard of the train helped me and my daughter to get in”
Tetiana Kovalchuk, Evacuation Logistics Manager
I didn’t believe that there could be a war on Ukraine’s entire territory. In that scenario, my chances to survive in Kyiv would be none. My building is 10-stories tall, and the bomb shelter is not wheelchair accessible. I was looking at the map of bomb shelters nearby trying to find an accessible one to which I would be able to get quickly and didn’t find any such option.
I live on the ground floor and have a private entrance to my apartment, which is an advantage. However, it is also a disadvantage, because once the territory is occupied, nothing separates you from that cruel world – no buffer of additional doors into the building, etc. My door leads directly to the street, offering easy access for occupiers, looters, etc.
I made the decision to evacuate only after having devised a clear plan on how to do it, and a key consideration became that I must take my animals with me. For this reason, we only left on March 2nd, a week after the war began. It took us two days to leave Kyiv. On the first day, we were all packed and ready, yet we couldn’t leave. On the second day, our evacuation nearly failed too, because the car that was supposed to pick us up broke down on its way to us.
I was standing under wet snow, on the road with my 14-year-old daughter and our cats in her arms. We were waiting for the car to pick us up, but it wasn’t coming. We had already decided to return home when a friend called me. She was driving around Kyiv at that time, doing volunteer work. She called to ask if I had food or maybe needed something brought to me. And I told her: “It’s me who needs to be brought to the train station!”
My friend changed her plans then and dropped us at the station. It was a miracle! But, as it turned out, the real horror was only about to begin…
I often travel by using the railway and airplanes. Usually, when I buy a train ticket, I am accompanied as a person with a disability. Such support is provided by Ukrzaliznytsia [Ukrainian Railways]. At minimum, an accompanying person helps you get on the train.
Since the beginning of the war, all these institutions of state support have fallen apart.
Arriving at the station, I saw that everything was closed. There was an announcement on the door of yet another booth “Not in service.” Paper signs with something scribbled on them were hanging everywhere. Information for the visually impaired was completely absent.
“The first horror was the lack of information and the inability to obtain it. The second was the lack of accompaniment.”
I was told to contact the police. But they refused to help us, even though it is their responsibility to help people with limited mobility. The police “explained” that they were now assigned other functions and had neither the time nor the ability to help.
We were helped by some men who looked East Asian. They did not understand the language well, and we were completely helpless without them.
Trains were arriving with no numbers, no announcements, and no one knew where they were going. People learned where they were going when already on a train.
When our train arrived, it was these men who protected me by making a living corridor with their bodies between the crowd and myself, so that I wouldn’t fall between the car and the platform. All the while the frantic crowd was squeezing: everyone trying to get inside at any cost. It was the train’s military guards who helped me and my daughter get into the train car.
When I realized that my daughter was by my side and that we were indeed leaving, I burst into tears. We were shaking.
A similar situation occurred to another mother with two children. She got into the train car, while her children, about six or seven years old, were thrown into the car over people’s heads like sacks of potatoes. It was horrible! Like a torture chamber in Auschwitz!
We were going to Lviv. The train did not make any stops, and no stations were announced. We rode for 11 hours, checking for geolocation on our phones. Volunteers were supposed to meet me in Lviv, but for a long time, I could not tell them the time of arrival. We later learned that shortly after we left, a rocket landed at Kyiv’s railway station.
During this 11-hour journey, we all calmed down, got to know each other, and helped each other as much as we could. We gave one another medical assistance, water, and food. We helped to distract young children when they cried. When we arrived in Lviv very late at night, I was met by volunteers. They recognized our train only by description because we were just two train cars that used to take travellers from the central train station to the Boryspil airport. For the next morning, we planned to cross the Krakovets border crossing to Poland.
At the border, asking to be let ahead as a “woman in a wheelchair” wasn’t an option. What is more, I didn’t even try. Because when I got out of the car and saw who was standing in line, my conscience did not allow me to go to the front of the line. There were women with small children, old women, weak, very different… I think we were all in the same situation. At the crossing, we were let through in batches. In my case, it took about three hours, because of the hurdles that the Krakovets crossing has: stairs up and then stairs down, and these stairs are very high and steep.
Several men were accompanying their large families. I was helped by a Kazakh man, who had seven children and a wife. He took me up the stairs. There was no help from the staff. Part of the way, I was only able to move on the rear wheels, lifting the front, because my front wheels couldn’t pass through.
It was impossible to hold onto the cat box: it kept falling off my lap. A driver from one of the cars that was parked nearby noticed how I was struggling in my wheelchair, so he jumped out of his car, picked up the cat box, and carried it part of the way.
On the Ukrainian side of the border, there was no possibility to eat or use the bathroom.
All of the above made the stark contrast with what was on the other side of the border, in Poland, even more prominent. The difference in attitude towards us was so striking that I started crying. At least four Polish police officers approached me. They were of different sexes, dressed in different uniforms, but all were considerate and polite, even though the flow of Ukrainian migrants was huge and unending.
I was shown where the accessible toilet was located, and where to look for zoological control because we needed to vaccinate our cats and get them permits. We were offered food, hot drinks, and the opportunity to warm up. “Madam, eat!” But how could I eat? I could not eat. But they still brought me hot coffee, because I was very cold.
My state did not take care of me, however. Government agencies can say that they do not have statistics. But this is not true. We are all tracked via individual codes. After all, when it comes to social benefits and their provision, they know everything: how many people with disabilities there are, in what physical condition, how many wheelchairs have been given out, how much money has been given out, and to whom. We are officially under state care!
“Yes, it is true that they [the government agencies] did not have instructions on how to act during the war. Nobody did. But, certainly, they could have called and asked whether I was safe? Thus, the state has failed the test of evacuating people with disabilities. Without expecting support from relevant government services and bodies, I had to make quick decisions and act on my own.”
“The war affected everyone, not just people with disabilities”
Victoria Kharchenko, Fight for Right Advocacy Manager
I did not run to the shelter. Did I think of anything while sitting on the hallway floor as the sirens were going off? No, I didn’t think of anything. Earlier I had been interested in the nearest bomb shelters – they were not accessible. Moreover, I heard stories of people in wheelchairs being brought down to a shelter, and then sitting there for three days unable to use the bathroom… So I stayed home. And if I hadn’t gone abroad with the help of people I knew, I would probably still be sitting on the floor. My mother suggested I return home to Kakhovka. She thought it was better for us to be together. Kakhovka is under occupation today.
Currently, the Kyiv City Administration has gotten better organized and is helping children, mothers, and people with disabilities leave. In the first days, however, people left using whatever means they could find.
I think that the Administration has gotten organized because, among other things, they understood that they are affected too. They realized that the war affected everyone, not just people with disabilities.
I know people in Kyiv who currently spend most of their daily lives in the Kyiv metro. One of my friends, who does not have a disability, only comes home to wash up and charge her devices. But if you are in a wheelchair, then you need to find people who will lift you down. For the most part, these are male neighbours, of whom there are not as many left as before. In the shelter you are without the opportunity to see the sun, go to the bathroom, you cannot meet your basic needs, such as food, sleep, and security.
At the same time, if you are in a wheelchair, you are not mobile, even if you want to be evacuated. There are more options for those who can switch seats on their own. But if you are bedridden, weak from the disease, post-stroke, or “merely” an elderly person – it becomes more and more difficult.
I personally contacted the Kyiv State Emergency Service and said that we have someone bedridden, for whom we need a special car. And I was told that there are no evacuation points for medical vehicles, look for yourself…
At the moment, I have three people on my waiting list from Kyiv who are waiting to be evacuated because they cannot move on their own at all. A car’s backseat, where you cannot lie down, is not an option for them. They also need to be met and admitted into medical institutions.
Since people are forced to sit on the floor in bomb shelters for a long time, their chronic conditions usually worsen. I see it on my legs. In Kyiv, I was sitting as if paralyzed. Crossing the borders of five or six European countries, I was worried that I would lose the use of my legs after a long journey without much rest. And now I see that if the level of stress does not decrease, I will lose the opportunity to walk not just on the road but also in Europe.
“A painful and silenced topic is the evacuation of orphanages, retirement and disability homes from occupied territories and hotspots. Yes, they are being evacuated, even those severely ill and hard to transport. However, it is done by activists and volunteer initiatives.”
Perhaps, even with some involvement of government agencies. Unfortunately, however, there is no centralized assistance from the state.
Today it has become clearer where people with disabilities can be evacuated, both in Ukraine and abroad. We are able to find affordable housing, and provide contacts and follow-up. Most often we ask those who are ready to provide housing: “Do you have an elevator? Does it work? ” Usually it is a school gym on the top floor of a two-story school. So we are clarifying whether there are enough volunteers who will lift people up and down. As my colleague says, “accessibility in Ukraine is made with people’s backs.”
“It was a time of quick decisions that I took upon myself. And now I do not regret anything”
Tetiana Gerasymova, Project Manager, Media Coordinator
I knew for sure: if the war begins – I am leaving.
When my mother woke me up with the words “Russia has attacked us,” I called a friend who lived on the ground floor. I felt scared of heights. I urgently needed to ground myself and sit on the floor to feel the ground. After coming back to our senses, my mother and I decided to go to my aunt’s for the night.
In the meantime, I sent my mother to the train station to buy tickets. She was able to get them, two lower bunks, from the number of slots reserved for people with disabilities. But only for the next day, February 25th.
My aunt has a cellar. I took my cat with us. After settling in, I said, “We will probably not go to Lviv, everything seems calm and safe.” I felt the ground underneath my feet. And I understood that if something were to happen, we could hide in the cellar.
Later in the evening, I had an interview with an Irish radio station where a journalist asked me: “You have left your home: do you think you may never return or not return soon?” I did not have an immediate reaction. What do you mean I’m not coming back? I’m not far from home. Even now I can go there!
In the morning, however, I had a disturbing dream. Then I read in the news that the attacks on Kyiv were continuing. A friend called me and said: “Not saying goodbye, but just in case – I love you…”
It was all very difficult, and then I realized that I had to survive at any cost. And I had to do it then because when panic and mass evacuation begin, it will be too late for me.
The last drop for me was when I tried to imagine Russian troops entering my city. I would not be able to remain silent, obey, or adapt to the circumstances. And I told my mother that we were going.
There were already many people at the station, but not yet a crowd. People started to be let in for free. The door was shut right in front of us, even though the employees of the station were screaming: “Here are people with disabilities who have tickets.” We wouldn’t have boarded the train if we hadn’t bought the tickets.
The train attendants did not even use walkie-talkies on the train: it must have been dangerous.
In our train car, all the bunk beds were full – three to four people per bunk. It was impossible to walk in the car because people were standing in the hallways. So the attendants passed the information by shouting, “Lyuba, the lights need to be off.” And the attendant would come and ask everyone to turn off the lights.
And what about people? Everyone had to send text messages, some were taking pictures.
It was late at night. The attendant simply came and yelled at everyone: “This is the safety of your children! Enemy planes are flying over us now! ” We all fell silent and looked out the windows. Military planes were flying over us. And we rode in silence, tiptoed… You could hear a fly but not our train.
The train attendant was standing and reciting, like a prayer, the same phrase: “Our train is a ghost. All we need is to get to Vinnytsia. We will get there, how can we not! ”
On our route to Lviv, we stopped at Taras Shevchenko station. There, new passengers started turning on flashlights to get on the train. What a mayhem ensued! We began screaming at them to turn off the lights. At the station itself, the lights were off, everything was off. I heard the sound of sirens. And yet people continued to switch on their lights. And this courageous train attendant continued to insist that the lights be turned off and was calming everyone down.
And in the end, she was able to have her way and silence and darkness were instilled. She kept reassuring people: “You will all get in. There is another train from Mariupol coming, right behind us.”
I am the type of person who all my life had been very critical of Ukrzaliznytsia [Ukrainian Railways] for its inaccessibility. But here everything worked concertedly like a clock. I asked if the station staff were working, and I was reassured: “Don’t worry, a lot of people are there, we will find someone to help, you will get off the train”. Routes were well thought out and systematic. The attendants continued to work. And this prevented the chaos that would have otherwise ensued.
Even though it did seem chaotic at the time, everything was very well planned and executed. I kept moving forward, because the Fight For Right team was behind me, telling me, “You are strong, you can do it, go ahead.” A friend met us in Lviv, she offered us to stay for the night, saying “things are calm here”. We sat down to eat, and suddenly there was an air raid siren. We went to the basement. Coming out of the shelter, I said, “We are leaving today. Either today or never.” It was a time of quick decisions that I took upon myself. And now I do not regret anything.
My mother also has a disability, she moves with crutches. She entrusted the evacuation completely to me. It is difficult for her to adapt: she does not speak the language, and has no job, even though she has worked all her life. But I thank her for being here with me.
First, we crossed the border with Poland, and in the small town of Jarosław, we stopped at an independent living facility for people with intellectual disabilities. A young woman gave us her room.
People were checking on us and constantly asking if we needed any help: to wash things, to make coffee. “We already remember that you don’t take sugar”… Such incredible human kindness and unity.
People… they are fantastic. They support us so much, abroad as well. You feel that you are a refugee once you recover, but when you are welcomed you feel at home.
“The world community of people with disabilities has never been more united than it is today”
And we need to unite. I want Ukrainians going abroad to unite, not quarrel, not compete for help. We still need to return and rebuild the country together. I want us not to divide Ukraine into Western and Eastern. We have only one Ukraine.
“People simply need to be asked: how are you?”
According to my heroines, the evacuation of every person with a disability is a unique story. For some, it is a matter of simply finding a car at the right time. For others, an entire rescue operation is conducted from a hot spot, such as Bucha.
The Fight For Right evacuation team is comprised of about 50 volunteers and experts from around the world. It was formed by representatives of local volunteer initiatives in Ukraine, as well as leaders of the Obama Foundation, the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and the World Institute on Disability.
The hotline for people with disabilities in Ukraine is +38 097 883 15 08
A coordinator will take the call and write down the request. Personal networks play a role here too, such as when questions and requests come from friends, relatives, acquaintances, etc. Managers also respond to requests from social media pages of people with disabilities. No matter where the request comes from, it is recorded and sent for processing.
The organization’s priority is the evacuation of people with disabilities to safety. The maximum amount of resources is dedicated to this: searching for cars, fuel, funds, involvement of medical staff or rescue team, providing information, coordination of local volunteers both at the place of evacuation and on the receiving end, search for affordable housing.
The team is often required to act in the middle of the night because the war leaves no other choice.
Evacuation is carried out both to safer places in Ukraine and abroad. Assistance is provided in finding affordable housing, legal advice for border crossing, and residency in the EU.
While humanitarian aid is not the main activity of the team, they respond to requests, such as the delivery of medicines, medical supplies, medical nutrition, and rehabilitation services for those who cannot be evacuated.
Two weeks before the attack on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, when the level of tension reached its highest point, they launched psychological counselling for people with disabilities.
At the international level, work is underway, primarily informational, to spread the word about people with disabilities in Ukraine. There is also fundraising and awareness-raising.
“Even before the war, we launched a fundraising campaign for people with disabilities. A huge number of people from all over the world have supported us and continue to support us. This is fantastic.
These are ordinary people, most of them people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities. People share their stories with us. One girl sent us 112 euros saying that on her birthday she wants to transfer money to us instead of presents,” shares Tetiana Gerasimova.
“In Ukraine, people with disabilities were remembered by the media only recently.
During the first weeks, there was a total absence. For example, the official sign language translation began to appear only in the third week of the war. All of the president’s important statements were translated by volunteers. People with hearing impairments could only read text messages.
People called our hotline and thanked us for merely picking up the phone and for simply wanting to help. People from all over the world still write to my Instagram, surprised that they haven’t heard anything about people with disabilities in Ukraine.
People need information. People simply need to be asked: how are you? We call all the contacts of people with disabilities that we have and ask about their needs. People are often afraid to ask for help because they have given up on being helped.”
As of the end of March, the team of volunteers has managed to help 477 Ukrainians with disabilities cross the border. Currently, about 1,500 people are waiting for evacuation assistance (not only people with disabilities but also families with children, the elderly, and others). Everyone is invited to join and contribute.
Fight For Right Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/fightforright.ua
Learn how to become a volunteer here https://ffr.org.ua/support-in-crisis
Donate to help the evacuation of Ukrainian people with disabilities here https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-disabled-ukrainians
Iryna Vyrtosu, Ukrainian journalist, columnist
The original article in ZMINA.info
(Translator Valeria Nechaeva)