For a Deaf Family in Ukraine, the Bombs Came Without Warning

SALTIVKA, Ukraine — In her rundown apartment building on the edge of Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, Antonina Andriyenko felt the vibrations but couldn’t hear the explosions when Russia invaded in late February. She knew something was happening only when her panicked neighbors rushed to leave.

“At first I thought it was an earthquake,” said Ms. Andriyenko, 74, who is deaf and lives with her 48-year-old daughter Tanya, who is deaf and autistic. In an interview through a sign language interpreter, Ms. Andriyenko described the fear and confusion as the Russian forces pounded the city.

“We were afraid to sleep. We stayed in a corner hiding,” she said. “The windows were breaking.”

Like others with disabilities, for the estimated 40,000 deaf and hearing-impaired Ukrainians, the war is particularly dangerous and difficult to navigate. While several thousand deaf Ukrainians have been evacuated to safer areas or neighboring countries, Ms. Andriyenko was among the many more who remained.

Ms. Andriyenko, right, and her 48-year-old daughter, Tanya. For the estimated 40,000 deaf and hearing-impaired Ukrainians, the war is particularly dangerous and difficult to navigate.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

She and her daughter were among only a handful of residents left in her 72-unit building in a heavily damaged apartment complex in Saltivka, a suburb on the northern edge of Kharkiv. She said that the remaining neighbors watched out for them.

Saltivka, with its sprawling Soviet-era apartment blocks, is just 20 miles from the border with Russia and took the brunt of the initial assault. Attacks and counterattacks continued for months.

Kharkiv is calmer now, after Ukraine pushed Russian troops back across the border during the summer. And the recent offensive that routed the Russians in the northeast has given Ukraine more control over the broader region.

But anxiety has not completely disappeared in Kharkiv. Russia is still sending occasional rockets into the area amid reports that it is also massing troops along the border.

One day in July, Ms. Andriyenko, an outgoing woman who gestures animatedly and communicates by writing simple notes in Russian, was standing outside her apartment. Not far away, the sound of shells could be felt as well as heard. Muffled shrieks came from inside.

“Sometimes she screams, and I don’t know why,” Ms. Andriyenko said, referring to her daughter.

After the invasion, Ms. Andriyenko said, neighbors wrote her a note telling her that she and her daughter should leave.

Saltivka, with its sprawling Soviet-era apartment blocks, is a suburb of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Just 20 miles from the Russian border, the suburb bore the brunt of the initial Russian assault.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“We stayed because we didn’t know where to go,” she said. “At first, I didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t have any information. People started leaving but we stayed at home.”

Later, when aid volunteers later came to tell her that they would evacuate her to Poland, her daughter would not leave.

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“I agreed, but my daughter refused,” said Ms. Andriyenko, who has raised Tanya on her own. “I don’t know why — she just wanted to stay at home.”

The Ukrainian Society for the Deaf has said that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of information. The society translates President Volodymyr Zelensky’s nightly addresses into sign language on television and rebroadcasts them on social media.

But Ms. Andriyenko and her daughter do not have a working television or cellphones. She pointed to a small TV set given to her by aid volunteers, but she said that there was no signal and that it did not have an antenna.

For Ukrainians who are disabled, shelters are not easily accessible; for the deaf, the darkness in most of them makes it even more difficult to communicate. Such barriers make for a crisis within a crisis, advocacy groups say.

Ms. Andriyenko, left, and her 48-year-old daughter, Tanya, right, sometimes sit on a bench in a small park between the apartment buildings or pick sour cherries from the trees.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

In the months since the invasion, Ms. Andriyenko and her daughter have carved out a difficult routine — they are isolated and afraid of the shelling, but they have lived in the apartment for decades, and Tanya is more afraid of the unknown outside the building.

With no running water and no working elevator since the war started, each bucket of water has to be carried up six floors to their apartment.

When the invasion began, Russian attacks destroyed the gas lines and, in the bitter cold of winter, there was no heat.

“We put on all our clothes to try to stay warm in bed,” Ms. Andriyenko said.

There is enough electricity to power light bulbs and they had a hot plate before the fuse shorted. Like others in the complex, their days are bookended by chores such as cleaning and carrying water and then lining up for food brought to a courtyard by volunteers.

Sometimes, they sit on a bench in a small park between the apartment buildings or pick sour cherries from the trees. When they have leftovers, they feed the cats who wander the garden.

Pictures in Ms. Andriyenko’s apartment, including an image of Tanya with a bow in her hair, right, and a drawing of Ms. Andriyenko as a young woman. In the center, a photograph of Tanya’s son, who was taken away when he was eight.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Their small apartment has an artificial Christmas tree in the corner. Calendars with pet pigs and exotic landscape scenes from years ago decorate the walls along with cutouts of cartoon mice with candy canes.

On a shelf is a photo of Tanya as a little girl, with a large bow in her hair, and a picture of Tanya’s son, whom she has not seen in years — a small, serious-looking boy dressed up in an air force officer’s cap.

Ms. Andriyenko said that her son-in-law’s family, who are hearing, took the boy away from her daughter years ago, when he was 8. He is now in his 20s.

A drawing of Ms. Andriyenko as a young woman depicts a heart-shaped face framed by lush, wavy hair. She was working at a sewing factory then, she said, after attending a boarding school for the deaf in Kharkiv.

Tanya had wanted to finish school but left after 10th grade to work in a factory.

Even now, seven months after the Russian invasion, Ms. Andriyenko was unsure what was happening in her country.

“Is there a war all over Ukraine?” she asked.

Ms. Andriyenko in her apartment. She and her daughter have lived in the block for decades. Despite the fear of shelling, Tanya is more afraid of the unknown outside the building.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

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