For disabled boy in Ukraine's war-ravaged east, volunteers are a lifeline

Ivan is one of about 500 children helped by volunteer collective Base UA, one of whose main aims is to foster creativity and communication among children

Max HunderIvan Lyubysh-KirdeyReuters
Published : 9 Feb 2024, 07:37 AM
Updated : 9 Feb 2024, 07:37 AM
  • Volunteers visit boy with cerebral palsy near frontline

  • They are rare link to outside world as war rages on

  • War, pandemic have taken heavy toll on children in region

For 16-year-old Ivan, living with cerebral palsy is made harder by the war raging less than 30 kilometres from his home in eastern Ukraine.

His village of Tetianivka was badly damaged by fighting in the first year of Russia's full-scale invasion: almost every house bears the scars of artillery shelling, and locals say fewer than 200 of 750 residents remain.

Ivan is one of about 500 children helped by volunteer collective Base UA, one of whose main aims is to foster creativity and communication among children, including those with special needs, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

For the past eight months, when staffing levels allow, volunteers from the organisation have come to spend an hour or two with Ivan twice a week, providing face-to-face time.

For most of 2022 the Russians were less than a kilometre from Tetianivka, held back by the waters of the Siverskyi Donets river. Shelling was constant, frightening Ivan.

"He became agitated. When the (shells) hit, he couldn't sleep at night," recalled Ivan's grandmother, 76-year-old Olena Martynenko, the boy's primary carer.

In the summer of 2022, Martynenko and Ivan, along with the boy's mother and another relative, were evacuated to Dnipro, a city further from the frontline, and spent several months there.

After the Russians were pushed back in a Ukrainian counter-offensive that autumn, the threat to the village subsided, and they returned to a house which bore the scars of war.

"Our roof was damaged, and the windows were blown out," Martynenko said.

Martynenko can buy food and other essentials in Tetianivka with her meagre pension and Ivan's disability benefit payment.

However, transport has become more difficult since a car belonging to Ivan's aunt was destroyed in the fighting. The only public transport is a bus which comes once a week.

Despite the challenges, the family does not want to leave the village. Being in a new environment was stressful for Ivan.

"He said: 'Grandma, whatever may happen, even if they start shooting ... I won't leave home to go anywhere'," Martynenko recalled, through tears.

VOLUNTEER CARERS

The volunteers working with Ivan are 23-year-old Svitlana Korzun and 28-year-old Valeria Bezkluba, women who live in faraway cities - Svitlana in Kyiv and Valeria in Warsaw. They come to Donetsk for stints of several weeks at a time.

They also visit another boy in the same village, 13-year-old Mykyta, who has a learning disability.

"I don't just want to do this to tick a box, I want to really help," Korzun said.

When they are not going on field visits, the volunteers hold art classes and film viewings for children in a makeshift cultural centre in the former premises of a shop in Kramatorsk, the largest city of Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk.

Although the children of Kramatorsk have better access to resources than their peers in villages, they still lack in-person contact, a problem that Base UA's co-founder Anton Yaremchuk believes does not get enough attention.

"If we identify (a child's) particular talents or interests, we try to find a programme or an approach for every child to get access to able to fulfil their potential."

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the war, children in the region have not been in a learning environment with their peers since 2020.

"They don't know what they're interested in, what they want to do in life, because they've been absolutely isolated for many years," Yaremchuk said.

Ivan does not go to school. A teacher used to pay occasional home visits but those sessions moved online after the invasion.

This makes the Base UA volunteers the only other people who spend regular time with Ivan outside his immediate family.

"Last time we came, we assembled his new chair together. For him, it's also socialisation - we talked while doing something useful," Korzun said.

This time, during a drawing session with Ivan, he held aloft a dragon he had sketched earlier and declared proudly: "In Japanese mythology, the dragon is the symbol of the defender."

Bezkluba said Ivan often picks up information from the Internet, which he browses on his tablet computer.

She said the most rewarding moment came when Ivan unexpectedly sent her a video message on the Telegram app, which the volunteers had previously shown him how to use, thanking her for coming to visit him.

"He said he was grateful for the experience and that he had done things he didn't even know he had the ability to do."