2014–2015 *  KHARKIV, UKRAINE


How the war in East Ukraine twice incidentally saved life
of a mentally disabled orphan

Five-year-old Dimka has been suffering from an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (hydrocephalus) from birth. Which is nothing to write home about for starters, but in combination with the war in Donbass, we can talk about a tragedy. In this Kramatorsk orphan’s case, however, war played its cards against expectations – it saved his life two times already.


The first time it was when he happened to be so lucky as to get on an evacuation transport of mentally-disabled children from the institution in Kramatorsk. Due to shifting in the war frontline, the danger of getting shelled increased, and evacuation of the home was thus called for. The trip through the war zone was extremely dangerous and complicated, just as the negotiations with the separatists, which took place on a diplomatic level. The children, whom no one had taken active interest in up till then, and who knew nothing but the inside of the institution, were suddenly in the centre of attention.


Eventually, eighteen children with various forms of CNS damage were evacuated and found their safe haven in the Kharkiv Oblast Specialised Infant Home.


There can be no talk of a happy ending, though. On the one hand, the orphans escaped the war, on the other, they got caught up by paperwork issues.


The evacuation was contingent on the fact that all the documentation and personal files of the children be left behind in the regions under control of the separatists. Thus the whole process of potential adoption or guardianship got even more difficult, as according to the law for the approval to go through, a supervision is necessary on the part of the local authorities. Who pretty much do not communicate with Kharkiv whatsoever.


Little Dima was lucky even the second time, because in his case, even though still complicated, the paperwork went through after all. Since September 2015, his name has been Zebadiah and he has been a proud citizen of the U.S.


“As long as the skull keeps growing, the risky surgery is not recommended. And even then there is only a 50% chance of survival. So far, Zebadiah and I have been exercising to get him into a better shape. He is trying to get up, but the weight of his head won’t let him,” explains Ruth Chaves, the American who adopted Dimka into her big family. Children with hydrocephalus do not get to live to a great age, but Ruth believes that this little orphan from Kramatorsk was at least given chance for a better life than the one he was living within the walls of the institution.


That is also why he was given the name A gift from God.


The story may sound like a pitch for a miracle. Nothing out of this world played its part in it though. Just pure humanity, willingness to sacrifice oneself and a good deal of common sense. It’s good to know that in the face of war, there are still people who will risk their lives just to help children in need nobody cares for. x

© All words and images Petr Toman, translation: Jakub Kašpárek, David Sládek

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An independent photojournalistic project of a Czech photojournalist Petr Toman covering social issues within East and Central Europe