Facility for the disabled on Ukraine’s frontline weighs evacuation

TAVRIISKE, Ukraine (AP) — There are lawn dances and ball games. A gentle wind blows, cooling the spring sun. But there is an ominous accompaniment to the music and laughter: the unmistakable thud of artillery fire not far away.

Still, the ball game continues unabated at the facilities for the mentally and physically disabled in the village of Tavriiske, near the front lines of the Ukrainian war. But it is another reminder of the dilemma facing staff: Do they evacuate the facility, and how can it be done with minimal disruption to residents, some of whom have very severe disabilities and others for whom changes in the environment can be disorienting and highly stressful

Then there is the question of where to go and how. With around 425 residents, it is the largest facility of its kind in the Zaporizhzhia region of southeastern Ukraine. Finding suitable accommodation elsewhere is not easy, said director Oleksandr Starosvitskyi. Various options are being explored, including moving 250 residents to a regional psychiatric hospital, where beds are being made up, and possibly also using a former orphanage.

Several meetings have already been held with the regional authorities and another is pending. But for Starosvitskyi, it is clear what must be done.

“This facility must be evacuated immediately,” he said, emphasizing that its residents include many elderly and severely disabled people who cannot move easily or quickly. It would take about two days to get everyone out, depending on how many transportation facilities are provided, he said.

Orikhiv, a neighboring town about 6 miles (10 kilometers) to the south, is frequently shelled by Russian forces that invaded Ukraine in late February, and the war front stretches just beyond. The southern part of the Zaporizhzhia region is now in the hands of Russian forces.

Starosvitskyi believes that Tavriiske will not be invaded. But the facility is still too close to the front line for comfort. On Tuesday, a shell landed in the town for the first time. It fell in a field, causing no damage or injury, and Starosvitskyi barely blinked at the sound of the explosion. But it was a stark reminder of how close war is.

Most of the facility’s residents are people without families, but relatives of those who do have have been contacted and their consent has been sought for a possible evacuation, Starosvitskyi said. They have all agreed.

While they wait, staff have conducted air raid drills with residents who may participate, taking them to the bomb shelter. For those who cannot understand what is going on, they have explained the sounds of war like thunder.

The institution is spread over several buildings in the town. Before the war, one of the sections that housed about 150 people organized lively disco dances twice a week. “Everyone participated, they loved it,” said deputy director Liudmyla Melnyk.

But that stopped when the war started, for security reasons. “We have really big speakers and we want to be able to hear what’s going on” in case they need to seek shelter, Melnyk explained. Much smaller dances are now held, with fewer people and low volume.

“It’s scary living in a situation like this,” he said. “I never thought that in my life I would live a war.”

Other signs of trouble have also leaked beyond the institution’s walls. Among the brightly colored artwork by residents that decorate the immaculate hallways is a mine awareness poster. Some of the residents are knitting and sewing socks and other handicrafts for the Ukrainian soldiers.

But in general, the staff tries to ensure that conflict intrudes as little as possible and that much of daily life remains unchanged. There are fiercely contested ping-pong games to play and drawing classes to attend, art projects to work on, pets to feed, and the manicured grounds of the institution to care for.

Some residents, however, understand what is happening.

“I’m a little scared,” said Maksym, 19, who has cerebral palsy. “I would like this war to end as soon as possible.”

Before the conflict, there was the possibility that he could start studies under a program recommended by volunteers.

“I dreamed of being an actor,” said Maksym, who declined to give his last name. He loves action movies, especially those with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and he has a pair of carefully placed weights on his rolling walker to help him work on upper body strength.

But “everything changed” with the war, he said. “I wanted to go to study, I even planned it many times, and now I can’t go anywhere.”

Across the street, another section houses mostly elderly people who can’t move from their beds. For them, accessing a bomb shelter is not an option.

“There is no chance for that, not for these people,” Starosvitskyi said. “They need to be evacuated. This is the only way to save them.”

Borys Dudchenko, a disabled former Soviet Army soldier, said he was “somewhat scared, but everything else is fine.” Sitting in the garden with the sound of artillery in the background, he said that he thought it best to evacuate.

But not all residents agreed.

A young woman who loves to play table tennis and teach dance moves she learns on the Internet to other residents said she didn’t want to leave.

“I don’t want to move anywhere,” said Katya, who gave only her first name.

Inevitably, any evacuation would also heavily affect staff, most of whom live locally. More than 200 people worked at the facility before the war, although about 100 people have left, the director said.

In his 18 years working at the institution, Starosvitskyi, a soft-spoken man with sparkling blue eyes, never thought he would have to protect his residents from war.

“I could never, ever even imagine this,” he said.

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Associated Press journalist Inna Varenytsia contributed to this report.

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