“I Am Tired, I Don’t Know Where Else to Go”: The Story of a Man with an Intellectual Disability Rescued from Russian Occupation



This interview was conducted in Ukrainian and then translated into English.

I met Oleksii[1], an internally displaced person (IDP) shelter resident in Lviv, during an accessibility monitoring visit in autumn 2023 as part of the Fight For Right project. A middle-aged man caught my attention, so we began talking. Oleksiy said that he evacuated to Lviv from the occupied city of Zaporizhzhia region, has been living in the shelter for over a year and has a disability due to a childhood head injury.  We arranged a follow-up discussion to explore his life and escape from occupation in further detail.

I returned to the shelter in November 2023. A staff member forewarned me that Oleksii had grown depressed and anxious, often mentioning his late stepfather. She doubted he could share his story.

I was prepared for different scenarios because I have been researching the lives of people with intellectual disabilities for several years, and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I began to record the experiences of people with disabilities during the war.

I was prepared for a declined interview, interrupting the conversation at any time, or even a heartfelt and candid account. That is why my first duty was ensuring no harm would come from our conversation.

I found Oleksii awaiting me in the shelter’s large common room. He seemed ready to talk.

“He Would Grab and Hit Me”

Oleksii cannot pinpoint his age but vividly recalls his Zaporizhzhia birthplace and early childhood. He often referenced his father and stepfather, highlighting their vastly different treatment of him.

His biological father physically abused him: “He would grab and hit me. I felt blood pouring from my ears, nose and head. My speech turned bad and stuttering.” A rhetorical question emerged: could early abuse have caused Oleksii’s disability? After his parents divorced, Oleksii’s mother remarried and they relocated within Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Unlike his biological father, Oleksii’s stepfather nurtured him with love and support.

Oleksii aided his parents and neighbours by performing household chores and tending livestock and produce gardens in exchange for pay.

“It Got Dangerous There, Katsaps[2] Settled in Town”

In early March 2022, Russian forces occupied Oleksii’s town; some residents collaborated. Oleksii openly rebuked these traitors, risking his safety. Invaders began robbing and destroying property of local residents.

He witnessed an occupier murder a defiant civilian: “Here they (AN: Russian soldiers) drive, and he gives them the finger …So the Russian soldier pulls his gun out and ‘boom!’ Shoots him right in the forehead. He dropped dead instantly.”

After this incident, Oleksii resolved to flee, begging his mother to join him. When she refused, he fled through the woods alone, carrying only money. He narrowly avoided tripwires and a Russian checkpoint: “The soldier held his gun to my head, trying to scare me, yelling ‘Get down on your knees! What’s in your pocket?’ But I am smart and hid everything in my socks (laughs). Who knew where they’d look?”.

Eventually Oleksii reached Ukrainian controlled territory. Soldiers contacted volunteers who evacuated him to Zaporizhzhia. He recalls trembling uncontrollably enroute from terror and stress: “I came to Zaporizhzhia, my whole body shaking. I was petrified. Maybe God saved me, maybe my late father watched over me…”.

Looking for a Safe Haven

Realizing Zaporizhzhia’s instability under frequent attacks, Oleksii continued his search for security in Lviv with volunteer assistance, settling at his current shelter in spring 2022. He fondly describes the premises, residents, provisions, and his eagerness to contribute through chores such as overseeing garbage collection or shifts in the kitchen.

Lacking income for new clothes, food, or entertainment, Oleksii hopes to work locally as a janitor, rent a room, and achieve self-sufficiency.

Oleksii’s survival story exemplifies the proactive attitude of an intellectually disabled person during conflict or other life-threatening events. He demonstrated enough determination and clarity of mind not only to attempt escaping occupation, but also to think through logistics and locate helpers to facilitate adjusting to new surroundings.

His firsthand experience successfully living independently in a shelter can serve as an illustrative example for comprehending the autonomy intellectually disabled persons can exhibit if given the opportunity. Administrators of compact residences for internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially those disabilities, should explore establishing customized support services or assistants to aid such residents. These could help occupants acclimate to unfamiliar living conditions, make social connections in isolation, and access employment assistance – facilitating self-sufficiency during displacement.

For me, Oleksii’s story was important to show the damaging assumptions that intellectually disabled people are solely passive victims and vulnerabilities during wars, disasters, and upheavals. His experience during Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine highlights the distinct challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities and their varied contributions in the collective effort against the enemy[3].

[1] Name has been changed to retain confidentiality.

[2] (pejorative) A word for Russian, invoking an image of a stereotypical Russian man with a goatee beard.

[3]   To find analytical conclusions about the diverse experiences of people with disabilities, please read “Disability and War: Research-Based Analytical Report”, 2022. https://ffr.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/invalidnist_ta_viyna-analitychnyi_zvit_za_rezultatamy_doslidzhenya.pdf

This material was prepared by Hanna Zaremba-Kosovych, Disability Studies Researcher for the “Barrier-Free Safety for People with Disabilities” project, which is part of the INKuLtur Programme funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Austausch e.V.  is responsible for the content of this publication. It does not necessarily reflect the views the German Federal Foreign Office.