Two years of war in Ukraine:

A visit to a country devastated by conflict

A man in a wheelchair is outside on the street in front of a building


"The first thing we notice is the absence of people."

Till Küster, a seasoned humanitarian professional and the Team Leader for Inclusive Humanitarian Projects at CBM Christian Blind Mission, is at the forefront of implementing emergency aid projects, including in Ukraine. As part of his responsibilities, he travelled to Ukraine shortly before the second anniversary of the Russian attack to visit projects supported by CBM and to assess the relief measures provided on the ground. In his travelogue, the 44-year-old provides a firsthand account of the direct effects of the ongoing war, the coping mechanisms of the people, and the significant challenges that are expected to persist even after the war's end despite the country's remarkable solidarity.

My colleague and I, accompanied by our partners, navigate a treacherous muddy road to the villages of the municipality of Storozhynets in the countryside around the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. The stark reality of the war becomes painfully evident as we are greeted by the 'Starosta', the elected chairman of the municipal council. Of the just over 700 inhabitants, a staggering 110 men are currently at the front or in military service, leaving a significant void in the community.

"Whenever we have a dead person to mourn, we put a small flag next to his grave in the cemetery," he tells us. We see dozens of these blue and yellow flags as we pass the small community cemetery.

The war in Ukraine is is now in its third year. While the fighting is mainly in the eastern part of the country, its impact is felt throughout Ukraine. In villages, the absence of men and the sound of air raid alarms serve as constant reminders of the war's reach.

In Germany, the main topics of discussion revolve around arms deliveries: what should be added, what must not be added, when negotiations can begin, and how this war can be brought to an end. On the other hand, discussions in Ukraine are different. During our visit, we observed the challenging, unresolved, and difficult daily situation for many people in Ukraine, and it became evident that this war is likely to continue for a long time.

The attack by the Russian army is too brutal; too many war crimes are being committed against Ukrainians, making concessions and territorial cessions seem impossible. From all the people we are allowed to listen to, no one is talking about a ceasefire - the will of the population to win the war seems unbroken. And this is despite the fact that the attack by the Russian army has had terrible consequences: Tens of thousands dead, millions displaced, and people have fled abroad, massive destruction of cities and public infrastructure and a nationwide impediment to providing for those in need of relief and those living in dire situations.

In Strorozhynets, we visit families who received relief supplies and services through projects supported by CBM. The international aid programs primarily focus on assisting internally displaced persons and refugees. At the same time, the projects supported by CBM primarily concentrate on providing care for persons with disabilities in host communities and cities. This also includes people who have been forced to flee despite their limitations and those who have been seriously injured by the war.

It's the little things that quickly bring improvement


As in most crisis regions, persons with disabilities are particularly dependent on different levels of support here in Ukraine. There are various reasons, ranging from a lack of barrier-free infrastructure, structural poverty and unemployment, a lack of education and health services, and long, arduous transport routes from the communities to the cities.

Through CBM's Ukrainian partner organisations, the "National Assembly of Persons with Disabilities" (NAPD) and the "League of the Strong" (LoS), persons with severe disabilities, elderly people in need of care, and single mothers receive cash assistance and orthopaedic aids (wheelchairs, prostheses, orthopaedic beds, or toilet attachments). The social assistance paid by the Ukrainian state is around 30-50 euros a month, an amount that is insufficient for the additional needs of the people.

The cash assistance can help alleviate chronic undersupply, particularly during the cold winter months, and significantly enhance the self-sufficiency of the respective families, albeit temporarily.

The mood is correspondingly moved and depressed when we get into conversation with people.

“What are the biggest problems in everyday life?” we ask.

An elderly, bedridden woman who fled Mariupol to Strorozhynets with her daughter waves it off in tears. Her daughter tells us what a difference the newly procured diapers alone make. So, it is the little things that bring about rapid improvement. The constant challenge will remain how this supply can be maintained in the long term.

In the front yard of another small house, we speak to the father of a young man with physical and intellectual disabilities. The father can no longer carry his son down the stairs due to a lack of strength. Additionally, the public buses are not suitable for wheelchair users.

So how do you get to the hospital, 30 kilometres away?

Where possible, CBM's partners support the provision of inclusive "social taxis"—specially rented, handicapped-accessible buses that can be used to organise trips to community centres and cities. In addition, discussions are being held with the local municipal administrations on whether existing buses can be converted to be barrier-free. They are small pieces of the puzzle in a broken, large, and expansive country.

We are visiting a small infirmary in a neighbouring village of the same municipality. With the support of our Belgian party organisation, the European Disability Forum (EDF), we are working with our Ukrainian partners to carry out conversion measures in pilot projects. This includes building a ramp, relocating the infirmary to the ground floor, expanding it, and enhancing the equipment and care provided to better meet the needs of sick people and persons with disabilities.

This requires a significant financial investment, but the need for similar measures in numerous hospital wards across the country is equally pressing. As a result, EDF and NAPD's approach is to establish pilot projects to lobby political decision-making and comply with national (and European) legal requirements in Ukraine.

It is, therefore, essential to work closely with the respective local councils and local governments, whose own public budgets have been massively cut since the beginning of the war. A large part of the money has to be diverted to military spending. Here, too, it becomes clear that things are interconnected. If the war continues, the Ukrainian state will not be able to provide for its population. This makes such pilot projects even more important. In cooperation with local authorities, they set standards in the long term and can sustainably improve the situation of persons with disabilities.

In addition to working directly in Ukrainian communities, CBM supports the work of our partners in the United Nations and Ukrainian state's coordination groups. It is also important to anchor the rights and needs of persons with disabilities and those needing care in national and international aid programmes.

"Drop-out" is the term used in humanitarian jargon to describe the failure of international aid to reach entire population groups, whether in Ukraine or other crisis contexts. Very often, persons with disabilities are left alone in acute crises due to limited financial resources and the need for aid programs to be implemented quickly.

In the meantime, however, significant progress has been made at the level of the international aid programme for Ukraine—also due to the work of EDF and other Ukrainian NGOs—and persons with disabilities have been increasingly included as a target group. If the aid programmes are also adequately funded by the donor states, more funds can be systematically made available for corresponding programmes in the future.

Many clinics cannot adequately treat persons with disabilities

In the evening, we took the train north to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. There, we visited a municipal hospital where our partners from LoS had conducted training for the clinic staff. The need for occupational therapy and rehabilitation for the severely wounded and amputees has significantly increased since the outbreak of the war. In some places, the personnel and professional equipment are alarmingly inadequate, even in larger hospitals and small health posts in the villages.

LoS organises multi-day training and further education for health workers at selected centres and hospitals. It also provides social and inclusive buses to the facilities. In conversations with the doctors, the great need for more staff and the lack of training in this medical field, which has become so important for Ukraine, have become clear.

Many clinics are not equipped to accommodate persons with disabilities. They lack suitable beds, adequate space in patient rooms, and accessible washrooms and bathrooms. Improving the medical infrastructure and increasing the number of trained personnel is essential in the future. Currently, Ukrainian civil society organisations and the public are providing much support since the public health system cannot handle everything independently.

Our last stop is the famous city of Lviv, near the Polish border. The nightly nationwide curfew also applies here. But until then, the restaurants and bars in the old town are buzzing. In seeming defiance, live music can be heard in the streets in the evenings, primarily young people singing and entertaining each other, creating a sense of melancholy cheerfulness amidst all the uncertainty and fear.

Emergency Response by Momentum Wheels for Humanity


The following day, we visit our partner's rehabilitation centre, "Momentum Wheels for Humanity." With the support of CBM, a modern hub has been established here to store orthopaedic and other aids centrally. These are then distributed to hospitals and aid organisations nationwide as required. Additionally, existing medical equipment in the country is systematically recorded, repaired, and made usable for future relief efforts.

In Ukraine, providing aid is hindered not just by shortages but also by chaos.

"Again and again, we go to hospitals and find masses of donated wheelchairs in rooms that are not catalogued or are damaged. We then record these devices and repair them so they can be distributed to patients on-site," Yuriy, one of Momentum's employees in Lviv, tells us.

Momentum has become a one-stop shop for the public health system as well as major international aid organisations like the Red Cross. At the Momentum warehouse, up to 6,000 modern orthopaedic devices and aids are stored and distributed throughout the country. Momentum also dispatches mobile teams to train hospital staff on patient treatment and proper adjustment of wheelchairs and other equipment.

Unfortunately, the future of this success story is uncertain.

"We don't know how long this war will last. Russia does not want peace but to occupy our country. The number of persons with disabilities is already increasing drastically; the need is enormous and increasing," Yuriy also confirms to us.

As in Lviv, we feel the same way in the other places we visited this week: everywhere, there is a great willingness to help and solidarity in the country. However, the challenges remain daunting. Everyone we have talked to acknowledges that the need for assistance will continue until the war comes to an end. The necessity for medical and psychological support for the tens of thousands who have been seriously injured in the war is a task that will persist for many years after the war ends.