ZAPORIZHZHIA: With her wheelchair perched on her lap, Ukrainian world champion powerlifter Raisa Toporkova escaped with friends from the occupied city of Enerhodar where Russian forces were shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power facility.
They had lost their homes, but not their sense of humor.
“If the Russians came after us, at least we have our sticks to defend ourselves,” joked Yevhenii Razikov, who has cerebral palsy and shared the perilous journey to safety.
Crammed into a car with several others with special needs, Toporkova spent 12 hours negotiating a series of checkpoints to flee the city in southern Ukraine.
“It would be impossible to get out of the car if something happened,” Toporkova, who was fifth at last year year’s Tokyo Paralympics, told AFP in the regional capital Zaporizhzhia.
“My wheelchair was on me and two of the others need a stick to walk.”
More than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia invaded on February 24, but for people with disabilities, the often long and difficult journey can be an almost impossible undertaking.
Russian troops shelled Enerhodar, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, in early March, causing a fire, which was eventually put out.
The attack led to international outrage with memories still fresh of the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Toporkova, who has been in a wheelchair for most of her life due to a musculoskeletal growth disorder, said the situation was deteriorating fast in Enerhodar after a month under Russian control.
She was barely able to go out and her first-floor home had no basement to take shelter from the many explosions.
Food supplies were running low and prices had risen by as much as four times. Pharmacies were out of vital prescription medicines.
Another uptick in violence at the nuclear plant could mean a lethal radiation leak.
Worried that the opportunity to leave could close, Toporkova fled on Monday with husband Anton Vavryshchuk, 37, who is also physically disabled.
They were joined by their friends, Razikov and his wife, who did not want to be identified. Both have cerebral palsy.
“My wheelchair was on our lap and there was shelling constantly. We were scared we would be killed there and the explosions got even louder when we reached the checkpoint,” Toporkova said.
After their minibus broke down on the outskirts of the city they were worried their chance was gone, but a Red Cross volunteer managed to transfer them to a car.
Yet at one checkpoint, they were held for seven hours.
It was a long and painful wait for the group, whose physical difficulties were exacerbated by long periods of sitting in a car.
There are more than seven million people aged 60 or older in Ukraine and 2.7 million people with disabilities, according to the European Disability Forum.
Advocacy groups have warned that many would not be able to escape or seek shelter due to lack of mobility.
Out of a column of more than 100 cars, the group said they were eventually one of only two vehicles that were allowed to pass. The journey took 12 hours instead of the usual two because of difficulties at checkpoints.
“There were three possible outcomes: one is that we got hit by the shelling, another is we got stuck and then who could possibly save us. The third is that we got out, and thankfully that’s what happened,” said Razikov.
Toporkova started powerlifting 19 years ago and is a two-time world champion.
She has not been able to train since the war began in late February and gyms closed and she also faced losing her job and means to earn a living if she stayed. She used to do three two-hour sessions a week.
“If I don’t train for one week, it’s OK, but two weeks is terrible,” she said. “Let’s say I could lift 100 kilograms before, after that time I would only be able to lift 80kg.”
“I’m losing results if I’m not training and I won’t get invited to international competitions anymore.”
Now she is heading to Lviv in western Ukraine and hopes to be able to return to the gym.
“I cannot wait to start training again.”
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