АвторAuthor: Olena Romanenko | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk
1 September 2022
Ulyana Pcholkina is the inclusivity coordinator at the media company, a public figure who has been managing the “Active Rehabilitation Group” organization for many years and helping people recover from spinal fractures. Ulyana has a disability and has been using a wheelchair for more than 17 years. She told the “Monologues of the War” how she and her husband managed to evacuate and take their neighbors with them.
My husband and I were living in the small town of Bucha near Kyiv. My husband also suffered a spinal injury. Like me, he moves around in a wheelchair. We have recently bought an apartment in a new building, designed it perfectly, so that a person with a disability could live comfortably without outside help.
Right before the war, I did a live stream on my Instagram with a psychologist and psychotherapist about how to cope with the psychological pressure of the pessimistic news, how to pack an emergency bag, and how to overcome a panic attack. After that broadcast, a lot of people wrote to me and said that they had packed an emergency bag according to the recommendations we gave. They packed it, but I didn’t. Because my mind refused to believe that war would happen.
On the morning of February 24, a friend from Lutsk called me and told me to leave urgently because the war had started. I hung up and heard an explosion from a missile that hit the Hostomel airport. It was 3 km from our house. It was no longer quiet here. We began to pack the emergency bag, in which we put documents, some groceries and food for the cat. And then we stopped, considered things and decided not to go anywhere.
We both use wheelchairs and in order for us to leave, we need to understand where we would go to the toilet, wash ourselves, sleep, etc. When you walk on your feet, everything is much easier, you can quickly go down the stairs to the bomb shelter, spend the night in the subway, or on the street. But when you are in a wheelchair, you have no chance to escape in this way. Do you see what I mean? So we decided to stay in our comfortable house. We believed that our guys would quickly kick the enemy’s butt and that everything would end soon.
After eight years of the war in Ukraine, everyone who had anything to do with volunteering, helping the army, working with veterans, had no doubts that russian aggression would gain momentum and that the conflict would intensify. Observing the political situation, this could be clearly seen, knowing the history of Ukraine and the fact that Muscovy has been trying to destroy the Ukrainian people for 300 years. We knew all this. The only thing is that we were expecting the war, not the genocide of the Ukrainian people. They are not fighting the military on the battlefield, they are simply destroying houses, peaceful cities and Ukrainians themselves. This is not a war, but a genocide, and we must call a spade a spade. Our apartment in Bucha was on the first floor, there was a ramp and no need to use the elevator, so when the electricity went out, we could still go out.
Since February 25 it was already impossible to leave Bucha, because all the bridges around were destroyed by the russian military. Many were killed. On February 27, a column of russian vehicles entered Bucha, everyone saw it. They were driving along the Warsaw highway, right next to us. Tanks were simply shooting at residential buildings, cars, people on the streets. There were fires everywhere. They hit our house too, there was a fire on the 4th floor, but it was put out when this column was shelled. At one point, we lost water, electricity, gas and mobile communication.
On the first day of the war, a family with two children from the 5th floor moved in with us. They would go up to the roof to find some internet reception, get the news and send messages to our relatives that we are under occupation in our own house.
A friend who lives in a private house on the outskirts of Bucha texted me: save us, russian soldiers are breaking into our houses, killing animals, shooting at my family. She survived. Our neighbors helped us a lot, bringing bread and water. There is not a single bomb shelter in Ukraine where a person in a wheelchair can go down to. If we had been alone, if we’d lived in a private house, we wouldn’t have made it.
This is how we lived until March 9, until we were informed about an evacuation. We decided to go by two cars: I was driving my car, with 5 neighbors, and my husband was in a minibus with the others. We decided that it would be best to separate two people with disabilities in different cars so that we wouldn’t be inspected for too long and get permission to leave. And indeed, the russian military let us go.
When leaving our yard, we saw an armored personnel carrier that was just shooting at everyone around indiscriminately. Our car was stopped by rashists with machine guns, we begged them to let us go. It took no more than 5 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. When we drove out, we saw a terrible picture: cars with bullet holes, fires, dead people, children, severed limbs and a lot of blood.
We went to the city council, as a green corridor was supposed to start from there. All the time of our journey, the shelling went on. We could already tell where they were shooting from and from which weapon.
We stood in a huge queue of cars when my friends called and told me that the russian military was not allowing evacuation buses to Bucha. The corridor was disrupted. We were told to go in a completely different direction, so our whole column went together. On the way, we constantly encountered roadblocks, they checked our documents, inspected cars, video recorders. There were shelled ambulances there, destroyed houses, and bomb holes on the road. People were shot while standing in line for water. This is genocide!
We got to Kyiv around 6 pm, there was nowhere to spend the night there, and the curfew started at 8 pm. Spending the night in a car is not an option for a person in a wheelchair. We decided to go further, to the West of Ukraine. We had to drive through a minefield. It was scary. At the beginning of the curfew, we arrived in Fastov, where we had accommodation for the night. There we finally washed up and were able to rest.
Then we came to Lviv and immediately got involved in the work of our humanitarian hub. Our colleague in Lviv accepted humanitarian packages from Germany, Poland and Czechia, we distributed them among those in need of help in Ukraine. All our friends in wheelchairs from abroad joined us. My public organization of active rehabilitation is well-known and respected. We help people with disabilities leave Ukraine’s hotspots.
What is interesting is that most people do not want to leave Ukraine and do everything to avoid leaving. They are ready to move to worse conditions, to the west of the country, but remain in their homeland.
It is already August 2022. My husband and I will continue to live in the dormitory of the Catholic University in Lviv and work for the good of the country. We are looking for an apartment, but unfortunately there are very big problems with accessibility for people in wheelchairs. I had dozens of offers to evacuate my husband and me abroad, but we made a firm decision to stay and help our country as much as we can. Now we are dealing with targeted distribution of humanitarian aid to the ones in need. We match volunteers with those who need support (food, clothing, medicine).
I have returned to our apartment in Bucha twice since the beginning of the war. It was obvious that strangers lived there. Everything was scattered, all the alcohol from the bar was drunk, things were turned upside down. Our city is half in ruins, we cannot go back there now, because it is dangerous. We worked in Kyiv, and the roads in this direction are now blocked, so any logistics would be very difficult for us.
Before the war, I dreamed of living in Spain. There is a wonderful climate, full accessibility for a person in a wheelchair and a beautiful sea. Now, if I were offered a house there, I wouldn’t go, because the war made us understand where our home is, who we are and where we are really needed.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Olena Romanenko | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk