Olena Tolkachova is a former lawyer and a military volunteer behind a unique military caregivers group taking care of wounded and inquired veterans of Azov battalion and other military units.
On her background
I studied mathematics in Kyiv Taras Shevechenko University. Specialists with a math degree are now not in demand here, in Ukraine so I faced the dilemma of either becoming a math teacher and working for peanuts, or going into some trade business as they need people with math background. There was an option of immigrating but I didn’t want to leave the country. Friends suggested I should go into law and I got a degree in law. The thing comes easy when you have a math background. Then I opened my own law firm.
On Maydan protests
t some point I understood I couldn’t stand back and watch, I had to be there, its you civil duty. It was different with the Orange Revolution events but back then I didn’t have the feeling I had to sacrifice my business, my personal life to become fully committed to the protest movement.
At Mayday events in 2013 things felt different, after beating of the students’ rally made people take to streets to protest. I understoond that it was not a joking matter, and our future, future of our children depended a lot on how I personally would respond to it.
On war with Russia
Well, Ukrainian nationalist groups, Dmytro Korchynsky saw it coming. Historians knew we would eventually end up in war with Russia. Ordinary people who are not good enough at our history failed to see it while those who lost their grandparents to the Holodomor knew that our neighbor just wouldn’t let us alone.
Back in high school, I would flare up when people started questioning a need for the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian language. Russian-language Ukrainians will make excuses for not learning Ukrainian, but I just can’t relate to that stubbornness. I have always identified myself as a Ukrainian although my mom has Polish and Russian roots.
On leaders of Maydan protests
Maydan protests gave us ‘Pravyi’ Sector group, some unordinary personalities. There was Dmytro Yarosh, who was a good leader but didn’t have organizational skills to lead bigger groups. Some people eventually broke away starting their own subgroups. One of such groups later came to be known as Azov battalion. I don’t know why but this organization gives the impression of being better structured. Obvisoulsy, its leader Andriy [Biletsky] has some pull that sees more serious and organized people gravitating to his organization.
On military volunteers’ movement
The Crimea [annexation] experience proved we had no army and our leadership was helpless and didn’t know what to do. The interior minister [Arsen Avakov], criticisms aside, turned out to be more ‘adequate’. He took responsibility and authrozied giving arms to military volunteers’ groups that proved a decesive move in our struggle with agressors.
On how her caregivers’ group was started
It was evolving from the first day of this way. People on the frontline had virtually nothing. In place of air mobile hospitals we had just tents put up in fields. There was no coordination for volunteer doctors who were coming to the war zone.
I took care of the wounded military volunteers, coordinated charities’ help effort, ovesaw transportation, food supplies and accommodation for volunteers. It was a flurry of events- one day we were in Kyiv, the next day in Mariupol or Dnirpo. We would take care of soldiers’ funerals and next day looked for a place where we could put up another wounded volunteer.
We felt helpless when a first amputee arrived – we didn’t know what kind of prosthetics he may need and where to look for them. We frantically called up some prosthetics’ firm begging their director to help.
We also had to keep track of military records for each wounded or ill military volunteer to make sure they would later get due disability compensations and benefits.
Pretty soon we saw more injured people coming and more people joined our caregivers’ group. It was clear one person would not manage all things that were more time-consuming and stressful. You feel responsible because somebody’s life depends on how swift and coordinated your efforts and decisions are. At some point, I started delegating responsibilities and now I am primarily taking care of wounded people and helping with funerals to families of killed service men. We never lose touch with such families and try to help with money or advice.
On everyday challenges
We had a boy from National Guard who needed a surgery but the Interior Ministry hospital had no a surgeon qualifed for such specific operation, and this is where we stepped in. We reached out to army hospital in Kyiv, looked for a surgeon who would be able to perform this surgery. Lots of calls and authorizations were needed to get the boy into the army hospital for that surgery. You have to reach out, look for connections in offices.
On caregivers’ group structure
We have eight women who volunteered to join our group. They are helping us with care and assistance in Dnipro, Mariupol, Zaporizzya, and Kyivv. We used to have a lawyer helping us with benefits applications and court procedures but later we outsourced these services, which allows us to focus on caregiving duties. One girl is in constant touch with families of the killed military men. We also have a messenger group with military families.
On today’s biggest concerns
Azov battalion is stationed near Mariupol, it’s heavy industries hub where people have grave health concerns. Military men complain about teeth issues, joint pains, their chronic diseases are worsening. We have to arrange for 3-4 surgeries every month. There are mental health issues as well.
On international military caregivers’ experience
War veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq told us about their experiences. The lesson that should be learned is that you can’t ‘cure’ of war because he has a completely different post-war mindset. Veterans can work as instructors; do some paperwork in office, which allows his to remain connected to military service.
In others countries, they have advanced prosthetics industry that helps military men go back to service as it more feasible for the government to help a military professional to recover rather invest into a freshman.
On support of military caregivers from Ukrainian lawmakers
The former parliament members would help. The new MPs lack ‘quality’, Zelensky team has many incompetent people and their incompetence comes out in their inaction and questionable policies [for military caregivers].
In his press conference, Zelensky promised all veterans who were supposed to get state housing would get some soon. And now the government is revising its own earlier directives in terms of housing space making it smaller to provide such housing for all veterans eligible for such benefit.
They have also started to cut down military veterans’ benefits as their task is to bring down the number of people getting such benefits.
On politicians and public figures who support Azov caregivers’ group
We get help from Dnirpo regional government, Oksana Korchynska steps in when we face some ‘global’ issues, and, of course, Andriy Biletsky. When he was in the parliament, it was easier for us to get our problems solved with state officials. In most cases it was about securing funds for medical treatment of injured and disabled service men or help a war veteran to deal with redtape issues when applying for due benefits.
Former health minister Ulyana Suprun was a big help. The biggest problem is we have no ‘normal’ hospitals for war veterans. There is just one in Kremenchuk, and its all thanks to its head doctor who in earnest cares for war veterans and reaches out to charity funds and volunteers to provide for adequate treatment and care.
On biggest problem war veterans face on return to their civilian life
Every war veteran, on his return from the frontlines, has to know that he is entitled to have benefits and must be provided normal living conditions allowing him to live with dignity as any other Ukrainian. After all, it is a matter of money. This is the most pressing concern for veterans with PSTD. On coming back, they find it hard to cope with mouting financial issues that makes things even worse for them.
On government role in rehabilitation of Donbas war veterans
The situation is really lamentable. There are only few decent rehabilitiaton centers. Especially when it comes to treatment of head and back injuries. TBI issue is pressing. There are just two war veterans’ resorts- one in Klevan, Rivne region, and one in Pushcha-Vodytsya near Kyiv.
In Zelensky administration they have a working group and the women who sit on in would tell you how to a veterans’ ministry should be run, they are knowledgeable about it, yet they fail to tell how to make it work for veteran in real life. They make believe they know but are just failing to do so.
On the official status of Azov caregivers’ group and work with state agencies
We are still a volunteer public group. We are helping different military veterans and active service men, not only Azov battalion. And we don’t have any funding from government. Money is coming from ordinary people who care to help.
We often find ourselves in a situation when our patronage service helps state officials. I could have never imagined the National Guard medical service head would come to me asking for advice. Sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and we step in doing the most of work and them just rubberstamping it afterwards.
We have ‘Veterans Brotherhood’ group started by Azov veterans. They, together with the US charity of Ukrainian diaspora, opened a rehab center for war veterans suffering from brain injuries and musculoskeletal related disorders. The hehab is managed by Azov member under supervision from the American charity group, whose leader helps us to organize prosthetic treatment for our boys abroad when Ukrainian specialists throw up hands.
Photo by Olena Tolmachova
On how separatists got her mobile phone number
My phone number was listed on Azov social media page. And I got threats from the ‘other side’, other volunteers are getting the same threats. But it doesn’t make you scared because with workload you have got, you just don’t notice it.
On official recognition of her work
I have no awards, apart from the two small ones I got from the Orthodox Church. I was also invited to become an advisor on Veterans’ ministry public board.
On her daughter
My biggest help is Azovets youth camp that they opened in 2015 for children of Azov wounded and fallen soldiers. The need is acute for this sort of caregivng services because many of Azov men have families and their kids need care and recreation. It runs three different camps in Mariupol, Kharkiv, and in western Ukraine. And my daughter went there for several years for summer, and now, becoming a student in a medical school, she returned to it this summer as a part-time camp instructor.
On uniqueness of Azov caregivers service
It is too bad there is no such patronage service in the armed forces and National Guard units. In fact, we are doing what the state should have provided for. I would have thought we might stand in the way of the government starting the similar service, but when I attend some state agency meeting and hear them arguing about underfunding and inappropriate practices, it dawned on me there is still no-one who could do our caregiving job for boys in Donbas and now I know we just can’t let them down.