A care center for Ukraine’s disabled deals 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 her patients’ fragile bodies in trash bags and buried them in a hastily dug mass grave in the frigid cold under threat of Russian fire. It will haunt her forever.

Hanitska, 44, is the director of Borodyanka’s psychoneurological hospital, a government-run center for men with schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, high-needs autism, and other disabilities and disorders.

For about 50 years, the facility near Kyiv has treated the complex needs of some of Ukraine’s most vulnerable. But there was no precedent for treating the trauma of Russian occupation.

As the nation’s attention shifts to the new front lines in the east and south, people in Borodyanka are struggling to come to terms with what they lived through in the early days of the war, and what they lost. With grit and grace, Hanitska is doing all she can to ensure her patients are not left behind.

The 17-acre care center is fenced off from a quiet street at a key junction on the road to the capital. Inside, its aging halls and bedrooms are spare but clean. On-site is a small farm, laundry house, bakery and morgue. In a far corner, young trees grow in memory of those Hanitska had to bury.

Shortly after invading in February, Russian forces besieged the facility and occupied the working-class town, about 50 miles northwest of the capital. Their swift arrival upended Hanitska’s plan to evacuate her patients by rail. An additional 84 residents from a nearby center, including 14 children, were evacuated to Borodyanka and placed in her care. She and about 10 staffers stayed as Russian bombings knocked out water and electricity. The nursing home’s blue and yellow trim, painted to match Ukraine’s colors after Russia first invaded in 2014, still showed in the daylight.

“The 355 people at our institution needed care,” she said of her decision to stay. “That is what the situation was. No one was coming to pick us up.”

Twelve patients died in the three terror-filled weeks that followed. Russian troops stationed themselves next to the facility, which they surrounded with mines and artillery.

“They were using us exclusively as a live shield,” Hanitska said. “They could fire wherever they wanted to. We would sit there and think, ‘Will the next strike hit us or that house nearby?’ It was extremely difficult to calm people down.”

Separated from her own family, she pleaded for soldiers to let them go. When a Chechen commander demanded she praise Russia’s president on video, she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. Instead, she thanked him that she was alive.

Under constant shelling, patients and staffers leaned on one another. “We could somehow find common language with all of them,” Hanitska said. She promised to give out medals to residents of the facility who were able to help.

After nursing home staffers spent weeks caring for patients in hiding and cooking by campfire, Ukraine’s emergency services finally arrived. On March 13, they evacuated nearly all the patients, many of whom had not 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 more residents, many of them elderly, died in the chaos of the evacuation or in the weeks that followed.

Having lost the battle for Kyiv, Russian forces retreated in early April, although not before soldiers trashed the care center.

Elsewhere in Borodyanka, and in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs of the capital, Russian troops left behind a shattered landscape and the bodies of hundreds of civilians.

Here can be seen the remains of high-rises split in two by Russian missiles.

Officials assumed the nursing center would not be able to reopen and cut its budget by about 75 percent, according to Hanitska. “Everyone thought it was over,” she said.

Instead, Hanitska and the other staffers got to work. She cried as they scrubbed the center’s geometric tile floors and repaired its bullet-punctured windows. Volunteers brought mattresses, pillows and plates to replace what Russian soldiers had pillaged.

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 ground, rejoicing that they were home,” she remembers.

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

Nearly all 250 staffers have returned, but Hanitska has had to impose vacation limits. The workers are needed more than ever.

Patients still ask whether the Russians and their bombs are coming back.

“They ask these questions every day, every day, many times a day,” said Kateryna Nikonchyk, 66, a nurse of more than 40 years who stayed through much of the Russian occupation. “We say, ‘They won’t. Everything will be fine,’” she explained.

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

If they need to leave again, evacuating everyone together is best for patient health. Abroad, she said, would be even better. She has sent letters and asked around. So far, nowhere in the world is willing to take them all in.

Instead, she has hired a Ukrainian company to be responsible for getting them out. She lost confidence in her government after the last plan fell apart.

The war has changed her patients. “One can see it immediately. We have known them for a long time now,” Nikonchyk said.

Some residents are uncharacteristically aggressive. Hanitska winced as she showed a recently taken photo on her phone of a nurse with a nose bloodied by a patient’s cup.

Other residents came back depressed, unable to move. Nurses say patients remain restless at night, and some cry uncontrollably. Some started hoarding bread, the Ukrainian staple they did not have during the occupation.

“They still have this postwar idea that they need to stock up on bread and hide it in the bedside table,” Hanitska said. “I just walk around getting it out of there and throwing it away because it gets moldy.”

Many days are tense, but Nikonchyk said her patients continue to inspire her. In July, eight residents waved their hands and sashayed side-to-side in a dance choreographed to “Stefania,” Ukraine’s song that won the Eurovision contest. “They started attending dance classes and expressing themselves in dance,” she said. “They wouldn’t try before the war. We were just astonished. We never thought they could do that.”

Chef Natalya Mayakova, 46, has also marveled at how residents have improved since they arrived back at the center “the color of pale tile.” Mayakova remained by patients’ sides the first two weeks of the occupation. Then she escaped to be with her sick child and husband. She returned in May to a kitchen missing metal plates and cups, a blender and a table. The roses in the cafeteria, which is full of natural light, had wilted.

Mayakova is still afraid the Russians will strike again. That fear is now a fact of life. “I don’t know how long we are going to stay, but as long as we can,” she said. “We cannot leave our patients.” She added, “These people are special. They cannot live without our support.”

As the day’s lunch of cucumber salad and porridge ended, a man holding several chunks of bread passed by Mayakova and leaned in. “I love you,” he told her. She smiled in return.

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

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.