“That evacuation was an absolute nightmare.” The story of a disabled displaced woman who escaped occupation.
This interview was conducted in Ukrainian and then translated into English.
More than 11 million Ukrainian men and women left their homes because of russia’s full-scale invasion to Ukraine. 4.2 million went abroad, and more than 7 million became internally displaced persons. That is information published by the International Organization for Migration. In the midst of a full-scale war, the Ukrainian social welfare system faced the urgent task of swiftly evacuating and providing refuge for millions of Ukrainians. Although local authorities and public organizations had dealt with similar situations in 2014 during russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the current scale of the challenge is significantly larger. Since February 24, 2022, the number of internally displaced persons in the country has more than quadrupled compared to previous years. According to the Ministry of Reintegration, 60% of IDPs are women, 25% are children, 25% are pensioners, and almost 200 thousand are people with disabilities.
On the very first day of the full-scale invasion, February 24, russian troops entered Kherson Oblast and occupied most of the territory, including Kherson. In the grip of occupation, Liubov and her two sons, Mark and Matvii, aged 11 and 13, faced their challenging new reality.
- We lived in the Kherson region. I have a small house there, I bought it long ago when my second child was born, we made repairs there, and we arranged everything with our own hands. When the war came to us, my kids and I were home alone. I remember clearly that day: 6:00 AM, they (russian occupation forces) already reached our location. Me and my kids lived under occupation for 3 months, but we were planning to relocate every single day.
Liubov’s sister was waiting for her in the territory controlled by Ukraine. The woman rented a house in Pokotylivka village near Kharkiv. As soon as Liubov found the way to leave, she rented a car and went to Kharkiv.
- That evacuation was an absolute nightmare. No one helped us, there were no green humanitarian corridors, and we had to do everything on our own, at our own risk. The invaders checked carefully, almost no one was released, except for children and women. It wasn’t an option for all women though. You had to possess a disability certificate or be pregnant to be allowed to leave. All others had to go back home and live under occupation. I have a disability, so I was released with my kids.
For nearly a year, Liubov resided in a rented accommodation, covering the expenses personally. Sometimes she had to pay UAH 7,000 solely for the rental of the house. At some point, Liubov could no longer afford that, so she decided to seek help.
- I was sitting there and thinking, searching for cheaper options on the internet but I didn’t have enough money. I subscribed to Iryna Vereshchuk on Facebook and decided to DM her. I described the situation, said that we do not have enough money to rent a house. And she answered that they can help us.
So, Liubov and her kids got into the men’s dormitory of Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics. It is used now as the space for the collective accommodation of internally displaced persons, people call it “the shelter for IDPs”. These are places of temporary stay or transit points. People live here for some time until they find something more permanent. Public organizations, together with local authorities, are looking for housing. They use all possible options: dormitories, schools, sanatoriums, and even several restaurants. Utilities are paid from local budgets. Public organizations and philanthropists work on providing food and necessary things.
- We were given two rooms in the dormitory. One is for me, and the other is for my sons. We also have a shared kitchen. There are not many people here in the dormitory, so it’s only me and one more person cooking in the kitchen (laughs). We do not pay rent, and we receive money as IDPs, UAH 3000 each. I also have a pension, so I can buy groceries. I can say that I have enough. The only problem now is the internet and computers for boys who will study online, and I cannot afford that now.
Modular towns are another option the state has been offering to IDPs since 2014. They are mainly funded by international donors. One key benefit of modular houses lies in their swift assembly and ease of transportation to different regions. For example, people who are left homeless do not need to go to another region, they can live in a modular house while their destroyed housing is being restored and continue working at the same place.
However, none of these options are designed to accommodate people with disabilities. Modular towns are not architecturally or informationally accessible. Modular buildings are not construction facilities, so developers are not obliged to follow at least minimum inclusivity standards because it is not required by laws. We don’t even start talking about Soviet approach to inclusivity in constructing dormitories, sanatoriums, and schools, and yet those buildings have now been repurposed as shelters for IDPs. Liubov uses a wheeled chair and cannot enter the dormitory without assistance.
- Our rooms are on the first floor. It is an advantage. There’s a ramp here, but I can only get off it, so if I go outside and must go back, I call my son, and he comes out and helps me to get in.
According to the latest data, as the result of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 2.5 million Ukrainians‘ homes were destroyed or damaged. That number is not accurate because it does not include destructions in the occupied territories. During the 9 years of the war, the state did not properly assess the housing needs of IDPs, considering different segments of the population. Therefore, local authorities and the public sector can only specifically cover the urgent needs of internally displaced people with disabilities. Ukraine needs a large state program to restore the country, considering architectural and information accessibility to meet the needs properly in accordance with European standards. And Ukraine has already declared the „Plan for the Recovery of Ukraine“ and it says about the restoration and modernization of housing and infrastructure in regions.
In the meantime, the state has committed to accommodate people and help them adapt and integrate in new places. The Ministry of Reintegration, together with the Council of Europe, has declared the State Policy Strategy on Internal Displacement. That means helping them find a job, admit children to kindergartens and schools, meet new people, and integrate as much as possible into the new environment. Now, primarily owing to the diligent work of public organizations and the support of donors, diverse assistance centers are emerging. These centers offer courses, master classes, and psychosocial rehabilitation services for IDPs.
- I’m eager to work, says Liubov, – before the war I was quite active, I volunteered at the local church, we helped homeless children. But I don’t know anyone here yet and I need time to adapt.
Fight for Right NGO, fighting for the rights of people with disabilities in Ukraine, implements the project “Barrier-free Safety for People with Disabilities”. That project is part of INKuLtur-Programme implemented by Austausch e.V. together with Eastern Partnership countries funded by the German Federal Foreign Office. The programme focuses on helping people with disabilities who are in their country during the war or who moved to other countries because of military invasion. As part of this project, Fight for Right will tell the stories of Ukrainian men and women who were forced to leave their homes due to a full-scale invasion of the russians. Our first material is about Liubov Braha. The woman has the first disability group and uses a wheeled chair. Before the full-scale invasion, Liubov and her two sons lived in Kherson, and now the family has moved to Kharkiv. We talked about her escape from the occupation, challenges in finding a new place to live, and her living conditions now.
Austausch e.V. is responsible for the content of this publication. It does not necessarily reflect the views the German Federal Foreign Office.