Story #104: Activists from Bucha save injured people's spirit

August 11, 2023
The Group of Active Rehabilitation provides assistance to people with spinal cord injuries during the war, in and after Russian occupation.

The war is cruel to everyone, but is especially harsh on most vulnerable Ukrainians. These are exactly the people which the NGO Group of Active Rehabilitation (GAR) cares for, providing assistance to people with spinal cord injuries.

As residents of Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, Vitalii Pcholkin and his wife Ulyana, who work as GAR's CEOs, predicted that their wards would be short of necessary equipment if Russia carried out an escalation of its aggression. However, they had no chance to prevent that as Russia unexpectedly took over Bucha during the start of the full-scale invasion.

"Fortunately, we already had a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system by that time, and while I had a mobile connection, until February 27-28, I managed to set up a group call. We also launched a support hotline and posted an ad so people could start contacting us", Vitalii recalls.

Their specific purpose was preparing injured people for independent life using a wheelchair and adapting them to everyday living.

Even when Bucha was under Russian occupation, GAR continued its operations. In many ways, their organization had to adapt to wartime conditions, including by doing things they haven't done before. For example, GAR had never been involved in humanitarian support before. 

But with their knowledge of how things worked in their facilities and understanding what Ukraine was facing, they began to search for special supplies for people with disabilities as well.

"There was total unavailability of vital supplies for urinary incontinence, i.e., catheters, urocondoms, etc. Understand that there are some people who cannot urinate at all without these catheters."

According to Vitalii, the biggest stockpile of these necessary items in the country was located between Bucha and Irpin, and both cities were caught in the crossfire. Thus, the warehouse and all the goods in it were completely destroyed.

Until summer 2022, it was impossible to purchase special devices in Ukraine, for example -- the wheelchairs. Back then, the organization relied on friends and peer organizations abroad. Ukrainians who had spare supplies at home also served as a source of help.

"While we were under Russian occupation, our colleagues in Lviv found a warehouse which could receive aid. But only after fleeing could we begin systematically reworking our targeted support and sending it out," says Vitalii.

As is well known, Bucha is one of the scariest chapters of this war. Luckily, the couple was among those who made it out of occupation, and soon they were helping others flee.

"Very naturally, we launched an evacuation initiative when  we saw that many people with spinal cord injury needed to get out of the occupied territories. Many people arrived without wheelchairs at all, or the latter were damaged, and more soldiers and civilians with various injuries began to arrive."

It seemed like each day of the war unveiled new problems, causing new unpredictable situations. And yet one more thing the organization needed to account for was the mental condition of those who fled.

"At that time, we brought in a psychologist who was highly helpful to us during the evacuation stage, as people in very difficult psychological states came for our assistance."

It is the psychological aspect particularly that differs one case from another in the eyes of instructors, who work with injured people. This was always clear, but working with traumatized soldiers has brought this difference into sharp focus.

"Many ex-soldiers who sustained a spinal cord injury cannot believe that they will live like this for the rest of their lives and that their injuries cannot be cured. The war remains ongoing, and they think that trying harder will allow them to walk and perform combat missions again", adds Vitalii.

But as GAR has always been about keeping people's spirit, they found a way to involve people with military experience, so that they could feel as useful as they once did.

Now, the organization is preparing veterans with disabilities to work as instructors and share the experiences of their new lives with others, so that everybody knows happy living is possible and independently achievable.

Yelyzaveta Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld