Zaporizhzhia - With her wheelchair perched on her lap, Ukrainian world champion powerlifter Raisa Toporkova escaped with friends from the occupied city of Enerhodar where Russian forces were shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power facility. They had lost their homes, but not their sense of humour. “If the Russians came after us, at least we have our sticks to defend ourselves,” joked Yevhenii Razikov, who has cerebral palsy and shared the perilous journey to safety.

Crammed into a car with several others with special needs, Toporkova spent 12 hours negotiating a series of checkpoints to flee the city in southern Ukraine. “It would be impossible to get out of the car if something happened,” Toporkova, who was fifth at last year year’s Tokyo Paralympics, told AFP in the regional capital Zaporizhzhia. “My wheelchair was on me and two of the others need a stick to walk.”