The Current

People with disabilities feel trapped in Ukraine as war continues

People with disabilities in Ukraine feel like they have no way to escape, with war on their doorstep. Yulia Klepets has a daughter with autism, and an 82-year-old mother in a wheelchair, and they feel stuck in their apartment in Kyiv.

Yulia Klepets, her daughter with autism, and mother with mobility issues feel stuck in their Kyiv apartment

Ukrainian service members walk on the front line near Kyiv as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues on March 29, 2022. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

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People with disabilities in Ukraine feel like they have no way to escape, with war on their doorstep.

"We understand that the battle and the fights are happening not that far from us. So there is a bit of that sense of being trapped," Yulia Klepets told Matt Galloway on The Current through a translator. 

Klepets has a daughter with autism, and an 82-year-old mother in a wheelchair, and they feel stuck in their apartment in Kyiv. 

They hear bombings throughout the day. Klepets says she hears an air raid siren at least 10 times a day. At first, they didn't hide when the sirens went off. But on the second day of the war, a building close to them was hit by a missile. 

But as people hide when the sirens go off, Klepets's mother can't make it to safety because of her mobility issues. She just stays in her bed. 

"She cannot stay in a wheelchair for longer than 30 minutes. She would have severe pain and sometimes airstrikes, they take longer than an hour or two hours, right? So that would also cause her some suffering," said Klepets.

Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch says anyone with a disability is "at higher risk of harm" during war time.

"There's enormous obstacles that they have been facing just to survive, but also to flee," said Gorbunova.

She said the challenges depend on the person's disability, from those who can't get to safety during bombs easily because they are in a wheelchair, or someone who is deaf so can't hear the sirens. 

Five weeks into the invasion, with death tolls estimated to be in the thousands on both sides, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering four million, or about a 10th of the population, according to the United Nations. Half of those who have fled are children, the UN said.

A city market is seen damaged by night shelling in Chernihiv, Ukraine on March 30. (The Associated Press)

Klepets's 25-year-old daughter, who has autism, is also struggling during the war.

"She couldn't identify the sounds of war," said Klepets.

At first, her daughter tried to calm Klepets, telling her that one day the war would end and it was going to be okay. But after a few days, her mood changed.

"She would probably sense this negative energy and also our worries, and she would also become really aggressive. She would be kicking us, hitting me, her sister. So she actually needed some different medication so she would take pills," said Klepets. 

Klepets says her daughter is doing better now, but the family still feels trapped.

She had considered trying to flee Kyiv early when the invasion started, but her car broke down just days earlier. And she doesn't feel her daughter would be able to handle traveling on a tightly packed train.

"We are not leaving the city right now, so we are not sure if that's the right decision. But in this situation, probably there is no one right answer to what we should be doing," said Klepets.

Widespread issue

There are an estimated 2.7 million people in Ukraine who live with a disability according to the European Disability Forum, and some have managed to leave the danger. 

Oleksandr Nikulin is visually impaired and HIV-positive, and that diagnosis makes him exempt from military service. He was able to make it across the border into Poland, and is now in Germany. But it wasn't easy for him and his partner to make it across. 

Damage is seen on apartment buildings after shelling from fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol on March 29. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

"We are men, and all men in Ukraine have a responsibility for our army. In fact, we had to dig out the documents that we are excluded from this responsibility, but it was not enough for military guys from the border," said Nikulin.

Eventually they were able to make it across, but it was still a tough decision for Nikulin as his parents remain in the country. 

As the war continues, Gorbunova wants to make sure people recognize the special needs of people with disabilities living in Ukraine and other war zones, and help them get out of danger.

 "I think it's very important to remind warring parties about their obligations under international humanitarian law, which include ensuring safe evacuation, specifically for people with disabilities," she said.

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Joana Draghici and Kate Cornick.

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