A facility for the disabled on the front line of Ukraine is considering evacuation

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TAVRIYSKO, Ukraine – In the garden there are dances and ball games. A soft wind is blowing, cooling the spring sun. But there is an ominous accompaniment to music and laughter: the unerring blunt blow of not-so-distant artillery fire.

However, the game of ball continues uninterrupted in the institution for people with mental and physical disabilities in the village of Tavriyske, near the front line in the war in Ukraine. But this is another reminder of the dilemma facing staff: whether to evacuate the facility and how it can be done with minimal disruption to occupants, some of whom have very severe disabilities and others for whom environmental changes can be disorienting. and very stressful.

Then the question arises where to go and how. With about 425 inhabitants, this is the largest such facility in the southeastern Zaporozhye region of Ukraine. Finding suitable accommodation elsewhere is far from easy, said director Alexander Staroswicki. Various options are being explored, including relocating 250 residents to a regional psychiatric hospital, where beds are being prepared, and possibly using a former orphanage.

Several meetings have already been held with regional authorities, and another is forthcoming. But for Starosvitskyi it is clear what needs to be done.

“This facility must be evacuated immediately,” he said, stressing that it has many elderly people and people with severe disabilities who cannot be moved easily or quickly. It will take about two days to get everyone out, depending on how many vehicles are provided, he said.

Orikhov, a neighboring village about 10 kilometers (six miles) to the south, is often shelled by Russian forces that invaded Ukraine in late February, and the front line of war runs just beyond it. The southern part of the Zaporozhye region is already in the hands of Russian forces.

Staroswicki believes that Tavriysk will not be conquered. But the facility is still too close to the front line for comfort. A shell fell for the first time in the village on Tuesday. It fell into the field without causing any damage or injury, and Staroswicki barely blinked at the sound of the explosion. But it was a stark reminder of how close the war was.

Most of the occupants of the facility are people who have no families, but the relatives of those who have have contacted and their consent for a potential evacuation has been sought, Staroswicki said. Everyone agreed.

While they waited, officers conducted air raid exercises, and these residents could participate by taking them to the bomb shelter. To those who cannot understand what is happening, they explain the sounds of war as thunder.

The institution is located among several buildings in the village. Before the war, one of the housing sections with about 150 people held live discos twice a week. “They all participated, they liked it a lot,” said deputy director Ludmila Melnik.

But that stopped when the war began, for security reasons. “We have really big speakers and we want to be able to hear what’s going on, in case they have to seek shelter,” Melnik said. There are now much smaller dances, with fewer people and reduced volume.

“It’s scary to live in that situation,” she said. “I never thought I would go through a war in my life.”

Other signs of problems beyond the institution’s walls have also crept in. Among the brightly colored works of art of the residents, decorating the impeccable corridors, is a poster about the awareness of the mine. Some residents knit and sew socks and other crafts for Ukrainian soldiers.

But in general, employees try to ensure that conflict enters as little as possible and much of everyday life remains unchanged. There are fiercely contested ping-pong games and drawing lessons to attend, art projects for work, pets to eat and well-kept gardens of the institution to take care of.

However, some residents understand what is happening.

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

Before the conflict, he had a chance to start training on a program recommended by volunteers.

“I had a dream to be an actor,” said Maxim, who declined to give his last name. He loves action movies, especially those with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and has a pair of weights neatly stacked on his cycling aid to help him work on the strength of his upper body.

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.”

On the other side of the road are mostly elderly people who cannot move from their beds. For them, access to a bomb shelter is not an option.

“There is no possibility for that, not for these people,” Staroswicki said. “They must be evacuated. That’s the only way to save them. “

Boris Dudchenko, a former disabled soldier in the Soviet army, said he had “some fear, but everything else is fine”. Sitting in the garden with the sound of artillery in the background, he said he thought it best to evacuate.

But not all residents agreed.

A young woman who enjoys playing ping-pong and teaching dance moves she learns from the Internet to other residents said she did not want to leave.

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

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

In his 18 years at the institution, Staroswicki, a soft man with gleaming blue eyes, never thought he would have to protect his residents from war.

“I could never, ever imagine that,” he said.

Associated Press journalist Inna Varenitsa contributed to this report.

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