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Ukraine: “I was pulled out of a 5-metre deep crater” — victim of shelling

Thousands of civilians in Ukraine have lost their lives, many sustained life-changing injuries, or have family members who have suffered similar fates. Iryna is one of the victims of the war in Ukraine. After nearly 20 surgeries, she is now learning to walk again.

©DRC Ukraine, 2024, Zhytomyr Oblast, Krystyna Pashkina

Posted on 19 Jun 2024

“I still try to walk on crutches with my arm not working properly. I know I have to go, I want to walk,” says Iryna*. She is sitting on a shabby sofa, with an old red carpet hanging behind her and crutches lying nearby. Iryna and her husband Anton* are allowed to live in this village house in Zhytomyr Oblast, in central Ukraine, free of charge, and pay only for utilities.

Given that the couple lives on Iryna's IDP and disability benefits—about 5,000 UAH per month (€115)—the opportunity to live in a house for free is invaluable.

Before the Russian Federation's offensive launched over two years ago, Iryna and Anton had a similar house in Donetsk Oblast near Bakhmut, east of Ukraine . They had 17 hectares of land, chickens, pigs, and cows. Iryna looked after the household and her paralyzed mother, while Anton worked for agricultural companies.

“Just before the war, I planted potatoes and corn. I was thinking of planting more because the war had started and we had to survive the winter. It was not only me who thought like that, people were actively planting their plots back then, spending all their money on it. But we had to flee and leave everything to someone else,” says Iryna.

As of March 31, 2024, there were over 3 million registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine. Currently, there is a spike in displacement in some oblasts due to the heightened conflict activity at the frontlines in Donetsk and Kharkiv Oblasts.

Hope to be back home

Back in 2022, when the massive shelling started near their village, the couple decided to go to Bakhmut town to seek refuge. They thought the situation would be similar to what it was 10 years ago. “We hoped the bombs would only fly around a bit and stop soon. We thought we would be able to return home.”

In Bakhmut, Iryna and Anton lived in a dormitory with other IDPs from eastern Ukraine. On June 1, 2022, they decided to get some food being distributed as humanitarian aid, but Iryna never returned.

“I found myself in a crater five meters deep. My husband was thrown away by the blast wave. He woke up, the debris and dust falling from the sky around him, and he didn't see me. He thought I had been blown to pieces. But I started screaming from underground, and he found me and started digging me out. If he hadn't heard me, I could have suffocated, buried under the soil,” shared Iryna.

The Ukrainian military pulled her out, provided first aid, and sent her to a hospital in Dnipro city. Iryna was in a coma for four days. However, more and more people continued to be brought to the hospital in Dnipro from the towns that had been under heavy shelling: Bakhmut, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, etc. There were not enough beds.

Iryna was taken to Lviv in western Ukraine by an intensive care train. “I was in a critical condition, both arms and both legs were injured, and my stomach was injured too,” she says. She was treated there for two years, trying to save her leg and arm, which were most injured.

Eventually, her treatment continued in Zhytomyr city. Iryna commutes there from the village of Horshchyk, where she now lives. Her sister-in-law, who has five children, also lives in this village. It makes it much easier to adapt when you have family nearby.

©DRC Ukraine, 2024, Zhytomyr Oblast, Krystyna Pashkina

©DRC Ukraine, 2024, Zhytomyr Oblast, Krystyna Pashkina

“If you want to live, you have to walk”

Suddenly, something crashes outside and Iryna freezes with horror on her face. It does not last long, but it is enough to see the pain she still holds inside. Despite her long therapy with psychologists, any loud sound terrifies her.

"Even though I don't remember the explosion itself, I'm still afraid. Any bang scares me," she says.

For a long time in Lviv, while her treatment was underway, she was unable to move around and was essentially isolated from society. It is only now, in the village, that Iryna is slowly establishing social contacts. Sometimes she visits her sister-in-law, sometimes she goes to the store or the local medical facility for a bandage. This mobility is possible thanks to a new electric wheelchair—Iryna simply presses the control panel and drives, even on rural roads.

“The hospital staff told me about the DRC programme. I called and said I wanted an electric wheelchair. I have a regular wheelchair, but because one arm is almost non-working, I can't turn the wheels. The electric wheelchair is much more convenient—I just sit down and go,” she says.

Today, the doctor has told Iryna to work on her leg and there is a hope that in a few months, she will be able to move around without a wheelchair.

“Just standing up makes me dizzy. I thought surgeries were painful, but rehabilitation is even worse. You have to exercise muscles and bones that have stagnated,” says Iryna.

Now she feels her heel as if it were cotton and it "falls through" every time she tries to stand on it. However, she bravely withstands all the challenges and tries to move over and over again. “If you want to live, you have to walk. You have to exercise your leg,” is how the doctor motivates Iryna to move despite the pain.

She wants to believe that she will recover. She wants to start a household again, engage in livestock farming, and have a garden. “And when I finally manage to walk on my legs, I will give away the wheelchairs to those who need them,” she adds.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has verified that conflict-related violence in these two years killed more than 10,000 civilians and injured nearly 20,000. The actual numbers are likely significantly higher.

*Names were changed for confidentiality purposes.

DRC’s Victim Assistance Programme is possible thanks to funding from the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. It is supported as well through means donated by private foundations and individuals primarily in Denmark.

European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
Ukraine Humanitarian Fund
Ukraine Humanitarian Fund

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