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How an LGBT activist saved herself from the occupation in the Kherson region

, 08:31, 16.02.2023
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes 259

Russians are known for their homophobia all over the world. The woman survived terrible weeks, but was able to leave the occupation.

How an LGBT activist saved herself from the raZZian occupation
AliExpress WW

Russians are known for their homophobia all over the world. Olena Vincent, a Crimean woman who has been an activist of the Ukrainian LGBT movement for many years, met the beginning of a full-scale war in a Kherson hospital overlooking Chornobayivka.

The woman survived terrible weeks, but was able to leave the occupation, enroll in two majors at the master's degree, and take her mother and four pets from the annexed Crimea to a safe country.

LGBT Ukrainians are at risk

How an LGBT activist saved herself from the raZZian occupation
Crimean Olena Vincent

Olena told "Ukrainian Pravda.Zhyttia" about almost punitive psychiatry, difficult decisions and fateful events that she had to experience in the last eight months.

I learned what real hunger is.

We did not know whether Kyiv was occupied or whether our state existed at all

In 2014, Olena left Crimea, where her mother stayed. For some time she lived in Lviv, then in Kramatorsk. The woman is an active public figure, engaged in the protection of the rights of the LGBT community, displaced people, and those suffering from the occupation and hostilities on the part of Russia.

For some time she lived at home - in the Crimea and in Kherson. And at the beginning of 2022, she decided to officially register her disability status: the woman lives with a systemic disorder of the emotional sphere. According to the practice that has remained in the health care system since Soviet times, for this it is necessary to stay in the inpatient department of the hospital for several weeks. Recently, Olena lived in Kherson to be closer to her mother, so she chose the hospital in this city.

I was already confirmed with the diagnosis and asked to wait a week to submit all the documents. And during this week, the occupation began, - the woman recalls. - No one told us anything. We learned about the full-scale invasion almost by accident - the cooks whispered to the girls delivering the food. They whispered to us. Then the doctor gave us phones for 15 minutes, saying that you have a chance to call your relatives to take you away, because the war has started.

She called her mother, but she could not leave Crimea, so she could only support her by phone. These conversations are very important for Olena, who was aware of all the dangers of hostilities, and especially of falling into the occupation for an active human rights defender. But even such support was not allowed to the patients: telephones in this medical institution were issued for good behavior once a day.

There were absolutely adequate people with me. Almost all confirmed disability due to depressive or anxiety states, had no exacerbations, were not in threatening conditions, were in a long remission and got there only for another re-commission. Therefore, there was absolutely no need for restrictions on communication with relatives and friends in a difficult situation, - Olena explains, talking about the terrible remnants of the Soviet era, which have hardly changed in the Ukrainian psychiatry system.

It was not possible to leave there, although Olena had the right to leave the institution on her own. The hospital is outside the city, it was already impossible to get to Kherson at that time: neither taxis, cars, nor minibuses passed through the Russian checkpoints. Only from her mother on the phone did Olena find out where the fighting was going on.

There were few options - only to wait. In complete obscurity, with the inability to assess risks. Although according to the law, patients must be informed about important events, says Olena. - Even in the early days, when there was still electricity and Ukrainian channels were broadcast, they were not turned on for us. We didn't know anything... Maybe Russia has already captured Kyiv, maybe there is no state anymore. It was very scary...

I learned what real hunger is

Elena remembers the first weeks of the occupation, which she spent in the hospital, as complete horror. The management seemed to talk about the possibility of evacuation, but no action was taken: people remained there even in May, as Olena learned from those who could not get out in time. They found themselves, in fact, in helpless hostages - occupiers, poor management, a system that considers patients as condemned to slavery.

It was very cold, there was not enough food. We were fed once a day, but only if it was light, says Olena. Her voice still trembles when she remembers those terrible ordeals. - Patients used to mostly eat what was handed down by their relatives. And here - complete isolation. With the occupation, even the shops around stopped working, so even if you had some money and could ask the workers to buy something, there was nowhere to do it.

Olena admits that during that week she understood what it was like to starve. The stoves in the hospital did not work because there was almost no electricity. So the only food for the day could be a spoonful of cold canned porridge spread on a piece of bread.

I cried. Because I wanted to eat. This is the state: you can't think about anything except food, - the woman recalls emotionally.

How an LGBT activist saved herself from the raZZian occupation
Olena admits that during that week she understood what it was like to starve. The stoves in the hospital did not work because there was almost no electricity.

At that time, the Russian military set up their positions under the hospital itself - a kind of defense line that had a cover - a medical facility. The girls saw a lot of military equipment, a heavy installation was arriving that launched rockets right from under the window. And one day they disappeared.

We saw them in the morning, and then they disappeared. I also said then: girls, we will be fired upon, they specifically moved away, - says Olena.

That night, the hospital was really shelled, the roof was pierced and the food block was destroyed. The patients were in a nearby room. Because the hospital had no storage, they were forced to sleep on the floor in the corridor. True, there was still a potato cellar where you could hide. But it seems that the management considered the patients to be second-class people, because the people were never brought out to the basement, where they hid themselves.

We were forced to sleep in the same ward, because it is further from the outer windows. Where there were usually 10 people, 20 or 30 of us slept - two or three people per tub. The staff didn't care about the cold, - the woman admits - we were forbidden to take a third blanket, although half the department was empty and the blankets were full. We slept fully clothed, in jackets, I put on all the things I had.

Saved the hitchhiking experience

As soon as Olena received the documents from the hospital, she decided to immediately go to Kherson to get a certificate of disability. She admits that at that moment, tired and scared, she was ready to walk the 15 kilometers to the city. And it was dangerous to stay in the hospital: from the windows of the wards you could see Chornobayivka, where explosions were constantly thundering.

I was hoping to stop the car to get to Kherson. Then, little by little, civilian cars began to drive - with white sheets tied to the windows. They picked me up ten minutes later, - says Olena, already smiling. - I don't get used to hitchhiking - the experience is huge! Only in recent years I have traveled independently in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Traveling in the last two countries taught me how to survive and move even when there is no transport, communication, military roadblocks everywhere, danger, etc.

In Kherson, Olena found an acquaintance of a friend on social networks who could shelter her for the night. But it turned out that she does not have the opportunity to give a place to sleep, but there is Internet. Then the woman, remembering the experience of her travels, quickly found a place for herself, where she stayed for several days while waiting for documents from the disability commission. They were issued: doctors hurried to make them so that they were legal Ukrainian documents.

But she did not have time to issue pension payments. So from Kherson we had to go to the Crimea, where her mother was waiting, who was very concerned about her fate. Semi-legal carriers took passengers from the bridge, which Olena reached on her own. He says that the experience of traveling in wild cities with military conflicts helped again.

My LGBT chats were found in the "filtration concentration camp" 

In order to issue pension payments, it was necessary to leave for an unoccupied territory. Olena decided to go to Lviv, where she had friends and a place to live. The first time, the car used by a woman to get through Velika Oleksandrivka passed 70 roadblocks, but the Russians did not let her go at the last one.

They said: don't try to leave before May 9, they won't let you out anyway. Olena was afraid that Kherson would hold some kind of victory sabbath, so she decided to spend this time in her Crimean village.

It was a very exhausting trip that did not bring me closer to the goal. At all these dozens of checkpoints, we were checked - things, tattoos, phones, - Olena recalls. - When I was entering back to Crimea, they saw chats of the LGBT community in my phone at the filtering post. They asked: are you really a lesbian? Yes, I say, can you imagine?! They questioned me for a long time, but I think it is better to let them discuss this topic than to demand a confession as to why I am not a patriot of Russia. But I was still included in some list.

I managed to leave with an acquaintance who, as Olena jokes, is also "lucky": in 2014, he fled from Donetsk to Kostiantynivka, and then moved to Kherson. Now he had to run away from there with his family. In order to leave as early as possible, Olena walked around Kherson while the curfew was still in effect. But everything turned out to be not so simple: it took 21 hours to get to Kryvyi Rih, from there the family went to Kostyantynivka for things, and she went to Lviv. She lived there for two months in an LGBT shelter. But those unfortunate payments could be issued only after the personal intervention of Ruslan Bereteli, a lawyer of a powerful human rights organization.

How an LGBT activist saved herself from the raZZian occupation

The department of the Social Security Administration stated that there is no consolidated list of people with disabilities throughout the country, therefore, for the first time, you can receive payments only where the commission was held.

I ask: in occupied Kherson? Despite having all the documents confirming my disability, they demanded a repeat procedure already here - from hospitalization to passing the commission. I could not bear this horror again, - says Olena. - It turned out that this situation has existed since 2014, and it was not resolved in any way. And only the perseverance of the lawyer, who repeatedly went with me to all instances, allowed me to receive legal payments in two months. Due to the state of my emotional health, there are periods when I cannot work fully - then this financial support will simply allow me to survive them...

Difficulties of a different tonality

Olena already has two higher educations. But just this year, she decided to try to add two more specialties to her competences - to study "public health" and "management of post-conflict territories". Because difficult times require non-trivial decisions, including the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. And the hope for victory can be converted into a desire to help people adapt to the post-conflict society after the end of the war on the territory of Ukraine.

I entered the first specialty at KROC University in Kyiv, where you can study remotely, right after the exam results were announced, - says Olena. - But there was a question with the second one - it was offered to be mastered, albeit in absentia, but offline, by the Stus Donetsk National University, which was evacuated to Vinnytsia. This nuance did not suit me: who knows where I will be in the next year and a half? But almost before the end of the campaign, it turned out that distance learning is also possible there. In order not to choose, I decided to study at both. And she has never regretted it. I don't know how I will write two diplomas at once, but so far I like it all very much.

At the end of July, Olena returned to Crimea, where her mother was waiting for documents to leave for Georgia in her own car. The woman admits: she had to compromise, because the car has Russian license plates (otherwise it is impossible to drive in Crimea), so my mother's foreign passport was also made Russian. We traveled with three cats and a dog, and without a car it would be difficult and very expensive:

But she has all Ukrainian documents. We joke that these 3.5 thousand rubles for the "document" are the departure fee. They showed it only to the Russian border guards, now you can safely throw it away. In Georgia, of course, we are citizens of Ukraine. We do not plan to return to the occupation, our cozy house with a garden and a flower garden remains empty for now.

The journey to Georgia was also not easy. The car broke down at night in the mountains. But many good people happened on the way of the family: they helped bring the car to the village, found a guest house for living with animals, sent the broken part to Tbilisi, delivered it back by minibus, put it on the car.

It was difficult, but these are difficulties of a completely different tone! At this time, I started my first training sessions. And I had to start working on two new jobs - I was hired for an internship at the Human Rights Educational House and as a manager for increasing participation in "Wikimedia Ukraine" - I will work to have more of our contributors and posts in Ukrainian on Wikipedia, - says Olena.

Housing in Batumi was initially searched for in groups on social networks and on special sites. But now Olena knows: the best options can be found only with live communication on the spot. The animals, which the family clearly decided to evacuate as well, traveled well: the cats, Olena recalls, did not even meow during the entire journey. And the dog Lira is generally a born traveler - as soon as he sees an open car door, he immediately sits down, often even behind the wheel.

We checked with different realtors for a long time, looking for housing with a dog and cats, because pets are not very popular in Georgia, unfortunately. But when we arrived and rented temporary daily housing, we saw many non-locals with dogs on the streets, - says Olena. - So, somewhere they live here, then we will find them! They immediately told the owners that we have two cats. And the third one seemed to come out secretly. You can imagine, he still considers himself a contraband - he sits under the closet all day and comes out only at night. We are already persuading him - the owner of the small three-room apartment where we live is not against our furry friends. But he still doesn't believe it - it's probably stressing him out.

Olena says that there are many Ukrainians in Georgia now. You can see many flags, Ukrainians also live on their floor in the building.

I will definitely be in Georgia for half a year, then I can return, because I still really want to live in Ukraine. But mother - no, she will stay here until Crimea is liberated. Because she does not want to go with me to an unoccupied country, because she is afraid of war, - says the activist about her plans.

The author is Elizaveta Goncharova