Toraz – Home of the Forgotten

Chapter 3

It was a long 2.5 hours to Toraz, a trip filled with anticipation, hope (that things weren’t as bad as described), and lots of prayer, that God would give me the discernment and wisdom to do and say what He would want. When we arrived our vehicle was surrounded by what appeared to be teens and adults, who I could immediately see had some mental and physical challenges.  The staff quickly came out and ‘shooed’ them away, shuttling us to the director Alexander’s office where we were kindly greeted, and handed off to Larissa, the assistant director, who would take us on the tour of the enormous facility.  She was ‘open’ to receiving aid, and shared that most of the ‘residents’ would not ‘understand how to use the items we would offer, toothbrushes/paste, soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion; and some of the people don’t or won’t wear clothing’; and it was best to leave with he and the other staff.  I kept  all this in mind, as we went from room to room, visiting hundreds of children and adults.  The smell was overwhelming to say the very least.  It was something equivalent to an open latrine.  Bedridden children and adults, I noticed were, thin, frail, many in trace like states, motionless,  lying in their own ‘waste’, interestingly the staff didn’t seem phased or disturbed by any of this.  ‘Patients’ were drooling, and many lay naked in beds with thread barren sheets stained with …well, not sure what… just stained.  Some were thrilled to see us, wanting a touch, a caress, but others were terrified of us, as though they had never seen others then the staff.  The staff stood in the back of the rooms watching us, most mortified that we were hugging the people. There were index cards taped to each bed with birthdates, and the date they arrived to the facility.  At each bed, I was doing quick math in my head trying to figure out their age, since so many looked very young, but all were older then 4, though not even close as I would calculate with the birthdates.  Calculations would be that a person was 19 or 22, and they looked to be 6 or 7 or maybe 10. We entered a room, where all were lying in beds.  I could see some of the people, but others were just a heap of blankets.  Carefully I walked down each aisle touching each person, saying a kind word, a blessing, a prayer.  When I came to the heap of blankets, staff discouraged me from looking, but I refused, and carefully lifted the blanket, out from the dark abyss peered 2 eyes…very empty eyes, scared eyes, eyes that were confused, completely alone.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bed, a very urine saturated bed, caressing the head of a child, though the card would say they were 17…their eyes studying me, they were very calm, clammy…I could smell death. This is what these 2 rooms smelled like, death. I never knew that smell before, though I had been with my father-in-law when he passed away, he was in a sterile hospital; this place was far from sterile, or even clean. I tried really hard not to cry, this boy had kind eyes, but I could see, he was dying, probably from malnutrition, though the staff all insisted he had palsy, and would die. I desperately tried in vain to explain that one doesn’t die from Cerebral Palsy, it is not curable, but people live long, productive lives with this diagnosis. They didn’t believe me. I had never seen anything like this in my life, inside I was weeping, but on the outside, I had to smile, try and show little concern, as if I showed on my face how this is criminal care for these people, I may be escorted to the door.  I could not even begin to fathom the amount of help this place would need, but my question would be, ‘what are they doing with the funds that they do receive….and how is this place called a hospital?’  Care was minimal, harsh, and inhuman to say the very least.  I saw little interaction with staff and patient, but what I see see was extremely harsh to the helpless patient.  There was even a room where children were naked, tied to beds.  All I could think about was the children I had already seen at other facilities that would end up here, and for those presently living in this house of horrors.  They told me I was the ‘first American’ to ever cross the threshold of the facility and they were thrilled I had arrived.  That scared me, if they were proud of the care that they gave these folks, it was just heartbreaking to say the very least.   

After getting through the 2 rooms of people bedridden, we slowly moved from room to room greeting children, young adults, and adults.  Many were in just underwear and flimsy t-shirts; most wanted to touch me, and I tried my best to touch them all, placing a blessing on them, just a touch, but never a tear.  I wanted to cry, but overwhelmed, and knowing that I could not show my true reaction to what I was seeing, I tried my best to be positive.  Some rooms had very cognicent people, they spoke to me clearly, I asked, ‘why do you live here’, (as I could not see anything ‘wrong’ with them), and some of the replies were, ‘I have heart issues, I have asthma, I’m a dwarf, I have palsy…’   It was unfathomable to me that these people would be warehoused for things like this, but then really NO ONE deserved to live like this, and those less able were entirely neglected.  This truly was the epitiome of survival of the fittest.   My mind raced back to the little girl, Alla, with no feet or fingers, and all I could think, is that she would have no way to defend herself from the older boys here.  Her mind was fine, it was her body that had challenges.   I had to find this child a home, she could not come here.  NO ONE should come here, I must find homes for as many children in those orphan facilities that aren’t 4…but how, how Lord, please help me.

As we ended our tour, we headed for the yard where there were groups of naked, or barely clothed women on the back varanda just sitting in the sun.  I greeted them, some tried to cover themselves, realizing that they shouldn’t be naked, but having nothing to cover themselves.  Slowly we moved to the side yard where there were 25 or so children probably 7-15 yrs. old.  They all just sat there in the grass in their t-shirts and naked from the waist down.  I asked ‘why’, and Larissa replied that ‘this gives them the opportunity go to the bathroom and they don’t waste diapers’.  I didn’t have a reply for that, just seeing the indignity on their faces was enough of a shock.  The staff almost seemed proud that they had come up with this solution for not needing to use diapers, or even the most basic solution, teaching them to use the restroom properly,  rather then just leaving them in the yard to use the toilet.    

We were invited back to the Director’s office where he was thrilled to have an American in his office.  I was speechless to give comment on ‘this facility’.  He literally wanted me to ‘stroke’ his ego and say how great it was; but I could not and would not do that.  I was polite, but questioned him in such a way that wasn’t offensive, but more like an inquisitive American that just didn’t ‘know’ the ways of Ukraine, and how children are cared for; when it was all but the opposite, my questions were such that it seemed he was in control, but really he was not; I was gleaning information that later would be helpful to help the people there. He called the facility a hospital, but no one was ‘getting better’, and leaving the facility….they proudly showed me a menu, yet basically all occupants were starving…he was proud of their medical supplies, yet I could clearly see medically neglected children and adults, and questioned him as such.  He was put off by my questioning, but I persisted.  We also discussed his ‘needs’ for the facility, and I asked if we could send clothing for the patients.  He agreed, and we began shipping aid to the facility, as the first US based charity to ship humanitarian aid to the facility.  We set up feeding programs that food would be delivered to the facility for the most underfed, bed bound patients.  We unfortunately had to go in that direction, as we found out later that staff took the other food, whereas the cereal that was fed to the bed-ridden was not something most would eat.  It was all very sad, but it was a bit of help.  The drive back to Dzerzhinsk was a quiet one.  I was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted.  We all needed to slowly digest what we had experienced, seen, smelled; it was all quite overwhelming.  The years ahead brought MANY more visits to that place, the website is full of photos and videos. 

Update on Toraz –  Fast-forward to 2019 – The vision continues to haunt me, even after so many years, and over 40 visits to that place.  Seeing what no person should ever experience, knowing that it continues today, pushes me to strive for even more justice for the voiceless in Ukraine.  This visit to this house of horrors was additional confirmation that I was to work in Ukraine, to be the voice for the orphan, the poor, the invalid, the neglected and the invisible; an advocate for their God-given rights as humans.  Seeing first hand the injustices to children at this facility, and after years of trying to help them from mere thousands of lbs. of clothing, diapers, vitamins, shoes, blankets, personal hygiene products, refrigerators, to bringing physical therapists from the U.S. to train staff to work with their patients; all falling on deaf ears, I reported as such in our charity newsletter, to be contacted by the London Times to do an undercover investigative story on the facility; I agreed to take a team to the facility to expose to the worked the inhumanities and virtual genocide that was occurring.  Risking my life to expose the conditions and lack of care, the story ran on the front page of the Times, Feb. 6, 2011 and millions in the UK and around the world were shocked by what they read and saw.   The facility was never closed, and as far as I know conditions didn’t change much.  2015 –  Approximately 10 children Toraz bound never made it, as we were able to find families to adopt them prior to their 4 yrs. old transfer, others had different outcomes: many of the children I met there have their wings now, and are out of pain; and some who were able to run away vanished  when the territory was invaded, others perished when the shelling began.  The facility sits in Russian occupied territory, though it continues to be on Ukrainian soil. We can not go to Toraz to check on any of our friends, all we can do is pray for their safety.

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