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War, illness, and losing home.  The story of unconditional love of one Donetsk couple

Yuliya and Bohdan on Ukrainian independence day 2016. Photo: Yulia’s fb page
Edited by: Alya Shandra

34-years old Yuliya and 28-years old Bohdan are both from Makiivka, a Donetsk suburb. In 2014 he left his home, going to defend it within the volunteer battalion Donbas. She left it because did not want to live under occupation of Russian-backed forces. During these two years, life has changed for them dramatically. He went through several hotspots, including the Ilovaisk “boiler” in which up to a thousand of Ukrainian soldiers were massacred by the Russian army, lost many friends among comrades, got wounded. She got sick as well – her kidneys stopped working as a result of too much worrying. However, there were good moments to – Yuliya and Bohdan found each other and got married. Now this unconditional love helps the couple to survive all the hardships.

Yuliya Kyrychenko at the modular house for IDPs in Dnipro. Photo: Olena Makarenko

Yuliya also started to do her favorite thing – to draw. Apart from therapy, this activity is also a chance to collect money for the expensive kidney transplantation.

I met Yuliya in their small room in a modular town located in Dnipro. This temporary town was constructed for IDPs fleeing from the war in Donbas:

– We came here 2 years ago. At first we used to live in a village in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. We live already for a year in this modular town. Until recently, it was Bohdan, me, and my mother together. At first Bohdan did not feel the congestion, as he used to be at the frontline. He felt it only when I became ill and three of us used started living together here all the time. The space is small – you feel the pressure.


Leaving Donetsk

How long do you know Bohdan? When did you decide to got married?

We know each other for 10 years already. We used to be friends, keeping in touch occasionally. Then we started to talk more because of what was going on in 2014 when he joined the volunteer battalion Donbas. That time they were called the “black men” and our authorities did not know whether to recognize them legally. We used to talk by phone. It started after the fights near Karlivka [23 of May] when guys died there and there were many wounded. It was a nightmare, that time it was scary to think that at least one person died.

Then we even met once. When he went to Ilovaisk, we talked by phone also. And then it happened that we got married.

Why did he choose the Donbas battalion?

Probably because at the beginning it was a battalion which consisted of local guys – he joined them in May 2014. I used to follow the news about them before Bohdan joined it. People admired them. Everybody was whispering to each other that the Donbas battalion will come and liberate us. The people who did not want to be in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” were waiting for somebody to help them. They could not do it by themselves, but admires those who put up guerrilla resistance.

Yuliya Kyrychenko and her drawing of a couple on the background. Photo: Olena Makarenko
Yuliya Kyrychenko and her drawing of a couple on the background. Photo: Olena Makarenko

When did you leave your home?

In August 2014. Then I had a new job at a factory, and the war was actively ongoing. Near the factory a building stood which locals called the residence of Akhmetov [Rinat Akmetov, the richest oligarch in Ukraine]. These guys who were for “DNR” seized it and made it their base. I used to pass it while walking to the bus stop. I was coming from work in a dress, tired, and they were running around with guns. But I was not scared, I was furious – how long will this last? Then it was a bit creepy to see the first Russian tanks. They were not hiding at first. But the amount of military equipment we saw at the beginning is nothing compared to what people are telling us now. I was ready to go, but it wasn’t clear where to. We had almost no money. The factory where I worked was about to close, so I decided to leave. I regret that I did not leave in April – then it was possible to find something better in Dnipro and not stay in a village. But at that time my mom’s blindness stopped me. She asked: “How can you leave me alone?”

When you left, did you expect that you will go back soon?

I was absolutely sure that in 2 weeks everything will end. It seemed like that. Our forces were doing well. But they were not allowed to achieve victory…We didn’t even take our pets. I thought if there will be no opportunity to come back in general, at least I will come for them. But we can’t. So we wait in Dnipro.

Because of Bohdan?

Yes. Its risky. In my current conditions I won’t live through the “DNR’s” basement prisons…

Read more: War crimes in occupied Donbas: every second prisoner tortured, 16% witnessed executions

The war summer of 2014

What were you discussing with Bohdan in the summer of 2014?

We were sharing thoughts and expectations about the situation. Also he wanted to take care of me. Once he invited me to their base in Kurahovo. I took 500 hryvnia [USD 20] to give him. They received the first wages in August, about UAH 1000 [USD 40]. I thought that it is such small money, I will give him some more at least for an ice cream. But he never complained. When I came and just wanted to give him the money from my bag, he gave money to me. He said that he did not have where to spend it here anyway: they are fed, they have what to wear. It was a sign of attention… After Ilovaisk, they were left without anything. The stuff which had been left on the base in Kurahovo was plundered by people and the police with the words “They do not need it anyway already.” They thought so when the column [which was leaving Ilovaisk] was shot and many Ukrainian soldiers died. At our wedding, Bohdan wore the pants in which he escaped out of Ilovaisk. We still have them.

Yuliya and Bohdan (second from the right) got married just after Ilovaisk tragedy. On his wedding Bohdan wore the same pants he was dressed in during the battle. Photo courtesy of Yuliya Kyrychenko

What did he tell you about Ilovaisk?

Nothing except how they escaped, and the amount of the killed and wounded. I think he was also protecting himself from this information. It is hard to recollect it. He called me for the first time on August 29, when it was announced that the column will leave and that our president agreed with Putin [that there will be a corridor to allow the Ukrainian soldiers to leave the encirclement]. When I heard this, I realized that it is the end. An agreement with whom? Like there was no invasion of Georgia and everything else. I could not eat and sleep. It were the scariest days of my life. No information was coming through and I was fearing for the worst. And then in 2 days he called me. He was cheerful as usual:

 – Have you buried me already? It’s too early.

 – Have you escaped?

 – We’re leaving now.

And that was it, the connection was broken. I thought that it’s a good thing that he is alive. Initially he said that he wouldl not go to captivity. But why was it taking them two days to leave, if there were only 40 km to our positions? We were scared that our guys got lost and went into Russian territory. Then a few days later he called and said that they need somebody to pick them up by car. But this would be possible only if they reached Mariupol. This lasted for about 6 days. The only thing he said when he called the second time: “I haven’t seen anything similar in any movie. People were burning alive, I saw how our guys from the column were shot… And now I know that a person burns not over a second…”

So Bohdan and his comrades decided to leave by themselves?

They were told that the battalion leader Semen Semenchenko agreed that they need only to provide their data to the Russians and they will be set free, nobody was going to give them to the “DNR” forces. And they [Bohdan and his comrade] were sitting in a cornfield and talking:

 – Do you believe it?

 – No.

They were worrying about the wounded that would be left behind. It later turned out that the wounded were set free. Some went to captivity and stayed there for a year under constant beatings. And those who were from Donetsk were just killed.

Did he propose to you when he got out from Ilovaisk?

No, he proposed when he was there. Once he called me and said “It would be good to get married.” And I said “Ok.”

Yuliya in their small room in a home for displaced. Photo: Olena Makarenko

The illness

How did you fall ill?

In the winter 2014, I started to grow thin until my weight dropped to 40 kg. But I had no time for hospitals. I was studying, then visiting my mom in the village, and bringing her food – she was alone and undergoing surgery on her eye. Later I was working and then Bohdan was in the hospital.

What happened to him?

A mine hit them. He laid wounded in a field for a long time. He told me that he heard voices of separatists. Then his comrades found him. It was near Sartana in the beginning of October 2015. He had a shell fragment wound and a contusion. And the next day after he was released from the hospital, we called an ambulance for me.

What you were told at the beginning?

The doctors did not give me any chances. They did not give even hope. They only asked: how could you not take care of yourself and let it happen? Then in the hospital somebody said: “Oh, it’s an IDP…They should go home.” I heard everything, but it was as if I was absent. Bohdan was nervous. And they were asking: “Does not he beat you? Are you sure he is not drug addicted?” It was so offensive. I do not know why did they said so. He did not know what to do, he was panicking. But we got through it. It was a miracle when in 2 months I started walking again. The doctors were so happy they couldn’t believe their success.

Yulia started to draw after becoming ill. Photo: Olena Makarenko
Yulia started to draw after becoming ill. Photo: Olena Makarenko

How much did it cost?

It was all too expensive for us. The first days it cost about UAH 1000 [USD 40] a day. Then we started to receive some antibiotics for free and did a surgery. Friends helped us a lot then. When I came out of the hospital I realized that I need to find an activity for myself. I couldn’t go to work because 3 days a week I go to hemodialysis – it is a maintaining procedure to clean blood from toxins when kidney’s don’t work. And then I returned to doing what I always loved but never had an opportunity to devote time for – painting.

What is needed for your treatment next?

I need hemodialysis until the kidney transplantation will be done. There is no alternative. The money needed is collected very slowly. Now it comes in rarely – people are tired. And it is mostly people whom we know that send money. With our currency rate we need an enormous amount. For the moment it is about UAH 2,5 million [$98,115]. I have pension payments – UAH 1200 [$47]. What can I collect from it? Even if we stop eating I would not be able to buy medicines. Taking into consideration the tempo of collecting money, it seems unlikely we will ever be finished…

But we have an idea with a charity auction. Now I have what to show. I have about 10 works. 8 out of them are from the series “The Journey on Canvas.” There are Paris, London, Tuscany, and Santorini. Traveling was something I used to like the most. At least in Ukraine, I have never been abroad. And now that I can’t do it, I travel on canvas.

Does Bohdan go to the frontline now?

No, because of his health. He is demobilized and received a disability category. After the contusion, he returned to the frontline for some time, but the headaches became stronger. He doesn’t work now, he just returned from the hospital. It is hard to return to peaceful life for him, and even more – in a foreign city, without our own permanent apartment. For him it is even harder than for me. He says: “I do not understand, so many people died, we lost so many things, but everything stayed the same – the system and the people who used to steal from the country continue to do it even faster.” He is not OK with that. We paid a big price, but now have to live the old way.

How do you manage to stay positive in these circumstances?

I forbid myself to think too much, to plunge in it. Yes, we live in a small place, yes, both of us are sick now. But I can not allow myself to become depressed. It was the same when I was in the hospital. When I saw Bohdan, I realized that if I die, he will fall down. I couldn’t allow myself to die. I could not walk and talk, but I had to.

Yuliya has a Facebook page with the info for donation, she also downloads her works there:

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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