“Evacuation is hard for everyone, but for wheelchair users it’s ten, a hundred, a million times harder,” 37-year-old Hanna Rudenko says. Hanna spent two weeks in besieged Sumy, all the while trying to find a way to leave the city.
“Before the full-scale war, my life was full of plans and ideas. I’m an editor at the magazine of the Skvot online school, our team and I were actively working on our content development strategy, planning new initiatives. In the evenings and weekends, I studied psychology. My life was planned half a year ahead: I knew what I was going to do in July and August,” Hanna tells us.
In January and February, people were already discussing the possibility of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, and Sumy, Hanna’s hometown, is a stone’s throw from the Russian border. Hanna was hesitant about leaving the city, since there her apartment was adapted to the life of a wheelchair user. It was hard to give up the comfortable conditions that she had been creating for herself in the past years with great effort. Finally, she decided she needed a backup plan and on the last weekend before the war, she booked tickets to France, where her sister lives. The tickets were for herself and her mother, and the flight was supposed to be on February 24.
“Half a day before leaving I had a feeling that we should run right now. But I brushed it off, since I just needed to wait until the morning. On February 24, at 9 a.m., a driver we know was to pick us up and take us to Boryspil,” Hanna recalls.
On February 24, Hanna woke up at 4:30 a.m., took a shower, sat down to have a cup of coffee and scroll through Instagram. She learned about the beginning of war from a friend’s story, he posted about explosions in Kyiv. The news had already reported that Putin started a full-scale invasion.
“I remember feeling petrified. My mother was right next to me. I kept silent during the first minute—I wanted to postpone the moment I had to tell her that the war had begun. Understanding that we were half a day late made it hard to breathe. I called the driver but he refused to go. I opened the Ukrzaliznytsia website, but the trains were canceled at that moment. We didn’t have our own car, so we spent the first day watching how everyone around us was leaving and we were forced to stay,” Hanna recollects.
She started calling all of her acquaintances in Sumy. Someone told her that they were already on the go or that they were also waiting for the right moment. Hanna decided to move to her father’s flat. It seemed like living on the second floor in the old city center was safer than on the seventh floor in a district with many blocks of flats.
“I took some things with me, went down to the building exit—and two minutes later all the elevators in the city stopped working. I spent the next two weeks at my father’s and didn’t go outside at all. I slept fully clothed to be able to leave the flat at any moment in case I get a chance. The flat was hardly adapted to my needs, so daily life wasn’t easy, and my mental state wasn’t great either, since the city was quickly surrounded,” Hanna tells us.
The Russian army was shelling Sumy but Hanna didn’t go down to the basement. It was scary to use the stairs because she could fall together with her wheelchair. Hanna’s 60-year-old parents physically couldn’t carry her to the basement and then take her back up. Thus, they also didn’t go to the shelter so as not to leave their daughter alone. The family hid in the bathroom, away from the window.
“One night they destroyed a cadet corps building not far from us. I was sleeping on the sofa, heard the explosion and thought that if it happened once, there would be no more explosions. That was nonsense, there could be as many explosions as they wanted. But for me, getting up from the sofa is a whole ritual that takes 10 minutes. I need to ask others to help me up and put me into the wheelchair. So I just wanted to believe it would not hit us,” Hanna recalls.
One day the building was left without water and electricity. It didn’t last long, only half a day. However, Hanna was scared of uncertainty because a humanitarian crisis had already hit many cities of the Sumy region.
“We didn’t know if water and electricity would return. The first day was so scary I couldn’t remember my own phone number. My hands were shaking, I was completely disoriented. No logical predictions worked anymore, so I saw every event as the beginning of something more frightening.”
For 13 long days she was trying to find a way to leave the city. She called and wrote to lots of acquaintances, charity funds, and government representatives. But nobody could help. There were no “green corridors” until March 8, so official public authorities didn’t risk taking people out. Those who got through in their own cars risked being shot. But some people managed to make it to safe territory.
“My mind was all over the place. On the one hand, everyone around me was saying it was dangerous to leave. On the other hand, I constantly heard stories about someone who got out. I thought, ‘If they do it, why don’t I?'”, Hanna tells us.
The local council and a few charity funds promised Hanna that once the “green corridors” were arranged, she would be immediately evacuated. But when the evacuation began, nobody called her.
“There were so many people who wanted to leave, everything was very chaotic. I wrote to the funds that promised to take me, but they told me they were already on the road. They offered me to get in a car and catch up with the column. But I didn’t have a car. I asked my friends again, but they had no petrol or driver. Then, in despair, I posted a request for help on Facebook,” Hanna recalls.
Her post went viral on social media, and that’s what helped Hanna and her mother evacuate. She received a message from a stranger who was about to leave Sumy with her family in her own car and had some free places. The road to the EU border took four days, with stops in Cherkasy, Khmelnytskyi and Lviv. First they came to Poland, and after that left for France, where Hanna’s sister lives.
“For a wheelchair user, surviving such a journey is a highly difficult task. You can’t just get into any car, stay overnight at a random place or cross the border on foot.”
“Even in daily life you are constantly dependent on someone, and here this need only intensifies. There is more anxiety, more needs, more fear that you won’t be able to do something. For example, if you want to use a toilet on the road, will you be able to do it if the booth at the gas station isn’t adapted to the needs of wheelchair users? There are plenty of such situations,” Hanna tells us.
Having arrived at her sister’s place, Hanna quickly returned to remote working at the magazine and to her studies. She says that a lot of people are going to need psychological help after what they’ve gone through. Hanna wants to know how to give this help to herself and others. For now, she isn’t thinking about returning to Sumy.
“My apartment there has survived, my city wasn’t occupied, Russian troops have left the region. But Sumy is located on the border with a crazy neighbor, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to feel safe there. I’m in a wheelchair, so my relatives won’t be able to evacuate quickly because they will be helping me. I don’t want to put them in danger,” Hanna explains. And she adds, “I feel like our world has been destroyed. But we will rebuild it again and make it even better. I’m sure it will happen, the only question is, how soon?”
The article has been created with support of the Women in Media NGO and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund. The author is responsible for the content. The information presented doesn’t always reflect UWF’s views.
Translated by Kateryna Balashova