‘We have orders to kill you if you turn back’: Ukrainian karate teacher recounts harrowing experience taking off from Butha

Civilian bodies are exhumed in a mass grave in Butcha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 8. (Heidi Levine/The Washington Post)

WARSAW, Poland (Tribune News Agency) – On February 24, Helena Gladkaya looked out of the window of her home in Kyiv to see smoke rising from one of the first buildings to be bombed in the Ukrainian capital. Then the phone rang. A friend called to tell her the Russians were invading.

Ukrainian karate champion, coach and secretary of the country’s karate federation Gladkaya wasted no time. She ran to the next door where her adult son, wife and two-month-old daughter lived and told them to leave. That day, the family traveled about an hour north of Kyiv to their summer house north of Bukha. They were joined by four friends. They thought they would be safer in the countryside away from bombs. Her husband, president of the country’s karate federation, decided to stay in Kyiv.

The family’s summer house is large, near the fir forest and the Dnieper River. She said it was not an unusual home for Bucha, a popular summer resort for the capital’s elite. Gladkayas is a famous Ukrainian karate teacher, teaching famous actors and politicians as well as children of prominent Ukrainian families.

But in the winter, during the war, things were different, and on the first day they realized they had made a mistake.

Although the Russian army will not be able to fully control Bucha until March 12, when it arrived on February 24, soldiers were already stationed in the woods near Gradkaya’s home, and the Russian and Ukrainian armies were fighting fiercely.

Within two days, the family ran out of food, eating only acidic karina berries (an ornamental plant that is a symbol of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism) and fetching water from a nearby lake. They ran out of baby formula. Fortunately, they found a goat to drink milk. The electricity was on and off, they were huddled together for warmth, and the temperature never went above 20 degrees. Almost every day, when the cannons and bombs fell, they fled to the basement.

“For two weeks, we were all living in the 19th century,” she said through 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 between them and Kyiv. She decided to take the plunge, and on March 7, they packed two cars and started driving.

“We have two options,” she said. “Either die in that house or try to escape the lines where all the military action takes place.”

They passed five Russian checkpoints. The soldiers were rough, sticking their guns in the backs of Gladkaya and her team. At each checkpoint, they were asked what they were doing and where they were going. Her son, a man of fighting age, received a particularly harsh look. The soldiers told them to go back to their homes and hide in the basement. If we do, she replied, the baby will die. At every checkpoint, they were allowed to pass, which was a small “mercy,” she said.

Bodies were scattered on the road between checkpoints. part of the body. Destroyed vehicle. Fearing landmines, Gladkaya, who was driving, said her “only thought was not to look either way.”

They reached the last Russian checkpoint and were warned that from there, they entered no man’s land. Two cars of civilians just passed by. Cars can be seen on the road ahead. The soldiers said, go and see if they are still alive.

“We don’t want the kids to take risks,” Gladkaya said, and they turned, dismissed by this last risk.

The next day, March 8, they looked for a safer way. Gradkaya approached some of the Russian soldiers in charge of the area and asked if there was a safe route. As she spoke with them, a bleeding but alive Ukrainian woman was brought in for medical help. She was shot while fleeing. The Russians told her they could arrange safe passage to Belarus.

“We have two options, either risk our lives and the life of our two-month-old baby, or they can give us a corridor to Belarus so we can get Russian citizenship,” she said.

They rejected the offer, and she spoke to some other Ukrainians who told her the only way out was the route they had tried the day before. So Gladkaya went back to her son and daughter-in-law and told them they had to try again.

They refused.

“We’re here to stay. We’re going to die here, but we don’t want to be shot,” Gladkaya recalled her son saying. “They’d rather stay in the house and die peacefully.”

Not sure what to do, Gladkaya prayed, seeking a signal from God. A few hours passed and the bombing started again. The family fled to the basement, with Gladkaya holding her crying granddaughter.

A bomb hit the house. Everyone in the basement is fine, but a decision has been made.

“It’s a sign that we’re leaving that place,” she said, beginning to cry.

The next morning, March 9, they set off. They passed five more checkpoints, this time being told they were travelling one way.

“You go there and you won’t come back,” she recalls the soldiers telling her. “If you turn back, we have orders to kill you.”

After learning that the bridge was all destroyed, they got out of the car and continued on foot through the last checkpoint. Mines were scattered in their path, so they walked cautiously. The horror continues: dead bodies on the road and in the woods, left by families because there is no safe way to retrieve them.

They reached a bridge across the Irpin River, but it was destroyed. As they assessed the situation, a bomb fell into the river, sending a fountain into the air and drenching them. Their clothes began to freeze.

They crossed the river via a makeshift bridge. water to the point of their necks. They passed the baby, strapped to the car seat overhead. After a while, they ran away. Gladkaya lost her Ugg boots at some point and continued walking barefoot for more than a mile, the cold and adrenaline aching her.

Then they met some Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who hitchhiked and rescued them from the freezing cold. Ten minutes later, she met her husband on the outskirts of Kyiv.

“He was a strong, serious man. He was a cold man. He was 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 Butcha and took control of the city until March 31. During that time, Ukrainian officials and civilians claimed that the Russians massacred civilians, and the evidence supports those claims: bodies found in the basement of the summer camp, as well as men, with their hands bound and shot in the head. Mass graves and burned corpses made Buddha a household name. As of Sunday, 360 bodies had been found in the Butcha district, The New York Times reported. Gladkaya didn’t see these atrocities happen, and everyone thought they were gone before the worst happened. What she saw was bad enough.

“These are not just photos,” she said of the reports. “These are all true.”

Gladkaya now lives in Warsaw with friends. Her son, daughter-in-law and husband all stayed in Ukraine. Gladkaya reconnected with some of her karate students from Ukraine in Poland and started teaching them again, hoping the physical training would give them and her some comfort. She teamed up with two other refugees, and the three hoped to open a Ukrainian school focused on music, dance and karate.

After the war, all three hope to return home. For her part, Gladkaya said her time at Bucha emphasized the importance of something more intangible than the wealth and prestige she was accustomed to, something that bordered on clichés in general.

“What matters is human decency,” she said.


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