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A care center for the disabled in Ukraine copes with the trauma of occupation

Patients and staff in the town of Borodyanka are still recovering from the brutality of a three-week Russian occupation. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Jon Gerberg, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)


BORODYANKA, Ukraine — Maryna Hanitska had no choice. She wrapped the fragile bodies of her patients in trash bags and buried them in a hastily dug mass grave in the freezing cold under threat of Russian fire. It will haunt her forever.

Hanitska, 44, is the director of Borodyanka Psychoneurological Hospital, a government-run center for men with schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, high-needs autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For about 50 years, the facility near Kyiv addressed the complex needs of among the most vulnerable in Ukraine. But there was no precedent for dealing with the trauma of the Russian occupation.

As the nation’s attention shifts to the new front lines to the east and south, the people of Borodyanka struggle to come to terms with what they went through at the start of the war and what they have lost. With courage and grace, Hanitska does everything she can to ensure that her patients are not left behind.

The 17-acre care center is gated off a quiet street at a key junction on Capital Road. Inside, its aging halls and rooms are sober but clean. On site is a small farm, laundry, bakery and morgue. In a far corner, saplings sprout in memory of those Hanitska had to bury.

Shortly after the February 24 invasion, Russian forces besieged the installation and occupied the workers’ town, about 80 km northwest of the capital. Their rapid arrival upset Hanitska’s plan to evacuate her patients by rail. An additional 84 residents of a nearby center, including 14 children, were evacuated to Borodyanka and placed in its custody. She and about 10 staff members remained as Russian shelling cut off water and electricity. The retirement home’s blue and yellow trim — painted to match Ukraine’s colors after Russia invaded in 2014 — was still visible in daylight.

“All 355 people at our facility needed care,” she said of her decision to stay. “That was the situation. No one came to pick us up. »

Twelve patients died in the three weeks of terror that followed. Russian troops positioned themselves next to the installation, which they surrounded with mines and artillery.

“They used us exclusively as a living shield,” Hanitska said. “They could shoot wherever they wanted. We just sat there thinking, ‘Is the next strike going to hit us or that house nearby?’ It was extremely difficult to calm people down.

Separated from her own family, she begged the soldiers to let them go. When a Chechen commander asked her to congratulate the Russian president via video, she couldn’t bring herself to say the words – instead, she thanked him for being alive.

Sub constant shelling, patients and staff leaned on each other. “We could kind of find a common language with all of them,” Hanitska said. She promised to give medals to residents of the facility who were able to help.

After nursing home staff spent weeks caring for patients in hiding and cooking by a campfire, Ukrainian emergency services finally come. On March 13, they evacuated nearly all of the patients, many of whom hadn’t left the facility in decades. They were sent to overwhelmed hospitals in other parts of Ukraine or to their families, which were ill-equipped to care for them.

Twenty-six other residents, many of them elderly, died in the chaos of the evacuation or in the weeks that followed.

After losing the Battle of Kyiv, Russian forces withdrew in early April – but not before soldiers ransacked the health center.

Elsewhere in Borodyanka, as well as in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs of the capital, Russian troops remained in place a shattered landscape and the bodies of hundreds of civilians.

You can see the remains of skyscrapers cut in two by Russian missiles.

Officials took over the nursing center wouldn’t be able to reopen and cut its budget by about 75%, according to Hanitska.

“Everyone thought it was over,” she said.

Instead, Hanitska and the other staff got to work. She wept as they cleaned the center’s geometric tiled floors and repaired its bullet-punched windows. Volunteers brought mattresses, pillows and plates to replace what the Russian soldiers had looted.

Patients returned to the nursing home in May and June; some were dropped off, while Hanitska, known to her staff as “the commander”, personally picked up others.

“They were so happy; some of them were even kissing the floor, rejoicing to be home,” she recalls.

The Kyiv regional government has since restored some funding – although it only covers medicine, food costs and salaries for the next three months.

Almost all 250 staff have returned, but Hanitska had to impose vacation limits. Workers are needed more than ever.

The patients are still asking if the Russians and their bombs are coming back.

“They ask these questions every day, every day, several times a day,” said Kateryna Nikonchyk, 66, a nurse in her 40s who remained through much of the Russian occupation.

“We say, ‘They won’t [come back]. Everything will be fine,” Nikonchyk explained.

Hanitska hopes it’s true. But it is his job to prepare for the return of the war.

If they have to leave, evacuating everyone together is better for the health of the patients; abroad, she said, would be even better. She sent letters and inquired. So far, nowhere in the world is willing to welcome them all.

Instead, she hired a Ukrainian company to take care of getting them out. She lost faith in her government after the failure of the last plan.

The war changed its patients. “You can see it immediately – we’ve known them for a long time now,” Nikonchyk said.

Some residents are unusually aggressive. Hanitska grimaced as she showed a photo recently taken on her phone of a nurse with a bloody nose from a patient’s cup.

Other residents returned depressed, unable to move. Nurses say patients remain restless at night and some cry uncontrollably. Some started hoarding bread, the Ukrainian staple that they didn’t have during the occupation.

“They still have this post-war idea that they have to stock up on bread and hide it in the bedside table,” Hanitska said. “I just walk around to get it out of there and throw it away because it’s moldy.”

Many days are tense, but Nikonchyk says his patients continue to inspire him.

In mid-July, eight residents waved and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a choreographed dance to “Stefania,” Ukraine’s Eurovision-winning song.

“They started taking dance classes and expressing themselves through dance,” she said. “They didn’t try before the war. We were just amazed. … We never thought they could do that.

Chef Natalya Mayakova, 46, also marveled at how residents have improved since returning to ‘the color of pale tiles’.

Mayakova remained with the patients the first two weeks of the occupation; then she escaped to be with her sick child and her husband. She returned in May to a kitchen lacking metal plates and cups, a blender and a table. The roses in the cafeteria, bathed in natural light, had faded.

Mayakova is still afraid that the Russians will strike again. This fear is now part of life.

“I don’t know how long we are going to stay, but as long as we can,” she said. “We can’t leave our patients.”

“These people are special,” she added. “They cannot live without our support.”

As the day’s lunch of cucumber salad and porridge ended, a man holding several pieces of bread walked past Mayakova and leaned over.

“I love you,” he told her. She smiles back.

Heidi Levine in Kyiv and Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.


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