WARSAW, Poland – On Feb. 24, Helena Gladkaya looked out the window of her home in Kyiv and saw smoke coming from one of the first buildings to be bombed in the Ukrainian capital. Then the phone rang. A friend calling to tell her the Russians were invading.
Gladkaya, a Ukrainian karate champion, instructor and the secretary of the country’s karate federation, didn’t waste time. She ran next door to where her adult son lived with his wife and their 2-month-old daughter and told them to get ready to leave. That day, the family drove about an hour north of Kyiv to their summer home north of Bucha. They were joined by four friends. They reasoned they would be safer in the countryside, away from the bombs. Her husband, the president of the country’s karate federation, decided to stay in Kyiv.
The family’s summer home was large, located near a forest of firs and the Dnipro River. It wasn’t an unusual home for Bucha, a popular summering spot for the capital’s elites, she said. The Gladkayas are well-known karate teachers in Ukraine, teaching famous actors and politicians and the children of prominent Ukrainian families.
But in the winter, during a war, things were different, and that first day they realized they’d made a mistake.
Although Russian forces wouldn’t fully control Bucha until March 12, there were already soldiers in the woods near Gladkaya’s home when they arrived on Feb. 24, and the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops was intense.
Within two days, the family had run out of food and were left eating the acidic Kalyna berry (an ornamental plant and a Ukrainian and Russian nationalistic symbol) and hauling water from a nearby lake. They ran out of formula for the baby. Luckily, they found a goat for milk. Power was intermittent, and they huddled together for warmth, the temperature never rising above 20 degrees. Nearly daily, they fled to the basement as artillery and bombs fell.
“For two weeks, we were living in the 19th century,” she said via a translator.
By the first week of March, Gladkaya said she realized they would die if they stayed in the house. But there was a war raging between them and Kyiv. She decided to risk it, and on March 7, they packed two cars and started driving.
“We had two options,” she said. “Either to die in that house or try to escape by leaving though the lines where all the military actions were happening.”
They passed through five Russian checkpoints. The soldiers were rough, and stuck their guns into the backs of Gladkaya and her group. At each checkpoint, they were asked what they were doing and where they were going. Her son, a man of fighting age, was given particularly hard stares. The soldiers told them to go back to their home and hide in the basement. If we do that, she responded, the infant will die. At each checkpoint, they were allowed to pass, a small “mercy,” she said.
Dead bodies littered the road between checkpoints. Parts of bodies. Destroyed vehicles. Fearful of land mines, Gladkaya, who was driving, said her “only thought was, don’t look to the sides.”
They reached the final Russian checkpoint and were warned that, from there on, they were in no-man’s land. Two cars of civilians had just passed. The cars were just visible ahead on the road. Go check and see if they’re alive, the soldiers said.
“We didn’t want to risk the child,” Gladkaya said, and they turned back, undone by this final risk.
The next day, March 8, they searched for a safer way. Gladkaya approached some of the Russian soldiers in charge of the area and asked whether there were any safe routes. As she talked to them, a bloodied but alive Ukrainian woman was brought in for medical help. She had been shot while fleeing. The Russians told her they could arrange safe passage to Belarus.
“We were given two options, either risk our lives and the life of our 2-month-old baby or they could give us a corridor to Belarus so we could get Russian citizenship,” she said.
They declined the offer, and she spoke to some other Ukrainians, who told her the only way out was the route they’d tried the day before. So Gladkaya returned to her son and daughter-in-law and told them they had to try again.
“We are staying here. We are going to die here, but we don’t want to be shot,” Gladkaya recalled her son saying. “They’d rather stay there in the house and die kind of peacefully.”
Uncertain what to do, Gladkaya prayed, asking God for a signal. A few hours passed, and the bombing started again. The family fled to the basement, Gladkaya holding her crying granddaughter.
A bomb hit the house. Everyone in the basement was OK, but the decision had been made.
“It was a sign for us to leave that place,” she said, starting to cry.
They left early the next morning, on March 9. They passed through the five checkpoints again, and this time were told that they were embarking on a one-way trip.
“You go there, and you do not return back,” she recalled the soldiers telling her. “If you turn back, we have an order to kill you.”
They left their car, having been told the bridges were all destroyed, and continued past the last checkpoint on foot. Land mines littered their path, so they stepped carefully. The horrors continued: Corpses on the road and in the woods, left there by family members because there was no safe way to retrieve them.
They reached a bridge crossing the Irpin River, but it was destroyed. As they assessed the situation, a bomb fell into the river, sending a geyser of water into the air and drenching them. Their clothes started to freeze.
They crossed the river over a makeshift bridge. The water up to their necks at points. They passed the infant, strapped into a car seat, overhead. Once across, they ran. Gladkaya lost her Ugg boots at some point and continued more than a mile barefoot, the cold and adrenaline numbing her to pain.
Then they met some Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who gave them a ride and got them out of the freezing cold. Ten minutes later, she met her husband on the outskirts of Kyiv.
“He’s a strong, serious man. He’s a cold man. He’s a stone man,” she said. “But when he saw me, he started crying. It was like a movie scene.”
Three days later, the Russians took full control of Bucha and held that city until March 31. During that time, Ukrainian officials and civilians allege Russians massacred civilians and evidence supports these claims: Bodies found in the basement of a summer camp, and men, hands tied, shot in the head. Mass graves and burned corpses have made Bucha a household name. As of Sunday, 360 bodies had been found in the Bucha district, according to the New York Times. Gladkaya didn’t see those atrocities happening, and by all accounts left before the worst occurred. What she did see was bad enough.
“Those are not just pictures,” she said of the reports. “Those are all true.”
Gladkaya is now in Warsaw living with friends. Her son, daughter-in-law and husband all have stayed in Ukraine. Gladkaya has reconnected with some of her karate students from Ukraine who are in Poland and has started teaching them again, hoping the physical discipline provides them, and her, some solace. She has teamed up with two other refugees, and the trio hopes to open a Ukrainian school focusing on music, dance and karate.
All three hope to return home when the war ends. For her part, Gladkaya said her time in Bucha emphasized the importance of something less tangible than the wealth and prestige she’s accustomed to, something verging on cliché in its universality.
“The thing that matters is human decency,” she said.
Eli Francovich can be reached at (509) 459-5508 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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