When I first learnt about the breakout of war between Russia and Ukraine, I was terrified, as I had only read about such dreadful events in history books. I never imagined that something like this could ever happen in my lifetime, but history repeated itself.
What war leaves behind is loss of life, property, damage to physical and mental health, infrastructure, dreams, aspirations and have far more consequences to the environment, economy and the planet. It creates a scary atmosphere and pushes people, cities, and countries decades behind in economic distress.
There are lakhs of stories that unfold in times of war – that of families, houses, hospitals, jobs, businesses, students, war-crimes, wildlife etc. Some stories are told, and others that don’t come to light.
Adverse circumstances sometimes push people to fight the situation with limited resources. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a German aviator, airline executive and a religious leader has quoted “It is your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how your life’s story will develop.” Dieter’s words are not ordinary as he himself has been a witness to a war.
When a young child, Dieter traveled with his mother and three siblings through areas being bombed in a move to Zwickau in eastern Germany. He later said of this period, “We were refugees with an uncertain future. I played in bombed-out houses and grew up with the ever-present consequences of a lost war and the awareness that my own country had inflicted terrible pain on many nations during the horrific World War II.”
In these difficult times, I came across one such story of a cyclist in Ukraine. Egor Panchenko who has been a brave guy to show leadership and reach out with help to vulnerable groups in Kyiv. This is one of the most heart-warming stories that I have covered in my blogging career. Please read this story and spread it across widely to the internet world for people to appreciate the fact that humanity is still alive and that ordinary civilians-often ‘undermined’; but can become a symbol of courage and kindness. RIDE BIKES NOT TANKS.
Egor Pachenko lives in Kyiv, Ukraine and works as a cycling coach. His family comes from Nebrat, a small village about 80 kms west of Kyiv.
Like many other citizens, Egor felt completely devastated after the Russians bombed parts of Ukraine and lived in fear.
One day, he was approached by his friend to help his grandmother who lives alone. Egor reached out to his friend’s grandmother, about a km away from his home with food and water, and she cried when he saw him. She was locked in the apartment for 3 days without any contact with people and feared the situation. That’s when Egor felt that he needed to help more of such vulnerable groups.
First, he offered help to his neighbors and gradually with word of mouth the message spread across and Egor formed a group of volunteers who started delivering essential supplies on a bicycle – medicines, food, money, mental support and anything that the people wanted.
The mission has picked up momentum and with the support of his cycling group – ‘Volunteers of Kyiv’, Egor is providing aid to the citizens with the help of foreign donations. His action is like what the Relief Riders did in India during COVID-19 lockdown; and Egor is doing it during the war.
Sathya Sankaran, the bicycle Mayor of Bengaluru and founder of Relief Riders say’s “There cannot be a better example of courage and resilience than what Egor is doing in Ukraine in the hard times the country is going through. Relief Riders have proved that there isn’t a more resilient mode than the bicycle. The courage of Egor and his team is inspiring to all of us.”
The story of Egor Panchenko was brought to the daylight by the Polish reporters Adam Probosz from TurdeTur, and Marek Bobakowski from Wirtualna Polska/Virtual Poland.
I interacted with Egor through an email communication and below is our conversation –
How are you dealing with the risks involved in venturing out at the time of war?
Nobody knows what to expect. So, I was reading the news in Telegram channels, and we have a big local community where everybody posts what they see. After reading that info I decided to go on foot or take my bike and plan a route, the risk is out there but I want to be strong.
With people stuck at homes for weeks and no sight of public movement outside, how do people react when they meet you?
Usually, people couldn’t hold tears and were so grateful. That’s what about those who I help. Others, who defend their homes approach me with weapons and order to stay away or put my arms in the air. It was hard to meet people in the first weeks.
With damaged infrastructure, roads and no internet, how are you maintaining a steady communication with your volunteers and those in need of help?
In Kyiv, roads were fine. Bridges were closed, but when I gathered some courage, I tried to cross the longest one. I saw hundreds of kilograms of explosives and it was so hard to move forward realizing that everything can blow in any second. I have internet in Kyiv all the time. Outside of Kyiv, the cell-phone network was operating without major troubles. So, we were lucky to have no problems with communication. Outside of the city roads were completely blocked for cars. Bridges were blown. And the queue to enter the city was for 3 days.
The task of reaching out to those affected is humongous and needs finance, how can the rest of the world support you?
I have thousands of friends and acquaintances in many countries, so I posted my appeal on facebook and had a lot of feedback. I offered financial support for my close mates from the first days of war. Because I know they lost their job and have no money even to buy some food. Then my classmate who lives in Germany wrote to me and offered help. From that $100 it all started. Since then, I have completed many charity projects. Now my main goal is to support military hospitals and save lives. I have a team of four people now. Our website is www.help2ua.info
The mental pressure on the civilians is very high at the time of war, how are you able to motivate those affected?
I’m a cycling coach. If you’re doing cycling for sport, you are prepared for a lot of challenges in life. Many of those who I spoke to trusted me and listened very carefully to what I said. It was inspiring. But after the first month I went to hospital by myself. Now it was me who needed help. Doctors prescribed some medications and I recovered quickly.
I assume, with bicycle shops closed, how is your team able to maintain the bikes, address technical snags and replace bicycle parts?
Not all the shops were closed. We have a strong community here. Even some of my deliveries were bike parts for those who can’t reach the other part of the city by foot. Kyiv is very big. It’s a 25km circle in diameter. So sometimes you need 10 hours of walking to buy some rare stuff. Bikes were lifesaving!
The options available with you to continue essential supplies and medicines are limited to a bicycle, how do you manage when you receive calls from city outskirts?
In April, I decided to go far with a small team of 3 to 4 people, and it was a wise decision. We could cover a 100-130 km ride without a problem. That gave me confidence, and I guess, I am prepared to do a 200-250 km ride if it was a matter of life and death.
How long do you think you will be able to sustain with this project especially when the country has nearly run out of its resources?
Until I can ride, I will help people. There is no such question for how long? Only for how far we can go.
The humble bicycle has brought hope for the Ukrainian’s, does it have the potential to become the primary transport of the future after the war ends?
Bicycles have become very popular since COVID-19 pandemic started. I hope in the future there will be no personal automotive transport in the city. But I guess it is a far-fetched idea. Even today I was almost killed by a driver on the road. Yes, you got me right. He pushed me to the other car and wanted me to collide. It’s a real hell here now. Many people return to their usual life and their life sucks. When Ukraine will have its GDP back to normal – bicycles will become safer to ride on the streets.
Using the power of a bicycle as a symbol of peace and unity, how do you plan to revive people’s interest in cycling – as a tool for transport and logistics in the long term?
All my life is devoted to the promotion of cycling as a lifestyle activity. Still, I feel that in Ukraine cyclists are usually perceived as peaceful and friendly people. And that’s a lot. Together with my team of volunteers we raised the Kyiv Velodrome from ashes. I was a part of the team who worked on Kyiv’s Cycling Conception (the document to change government standards and the way the city is operating). My opinion – you need to invest in youth sport. If more kids will do cycling there would be more coaches, more clubs and races, more shops and sponsors, more attention to cycling as a sport to do and a means of transport to use. People just need to try once. And that experience should be good. So, they will remember it for their whole life. I know how to do it.
In the recent development, Egor Pachenko has been recognized by Leszek Sibilski, Founder of World Bicycle Day, for delivering essentials on his bicycle to the vulnerable in Kyiv during wartime.
Egor Panchenko is the latest laureate of the special award of World Bicycle Day of the United Nations. Egor will receive this award in Poland on September 10, 2022, in Jarocin-Poland during the official ceremony of the opening of the World Bicycle Day Avenue. He has been invited by the mayor of the city to be part of this event.
Read more about the World Bicycle Day Avenue here.
Dr. Leszek Sibilski, who selected Egor as a deserving candidate for this award say’s, “Currently, humanity is simultaneously intertwined in three major crises: Covid-19, climate change, and war in Ukraine with its global consequences. The bicycle is one of the most underrated human inventions; however, nowadays it appears that the bicycle is emerging as a great force multiplier with its versatility and durability. Good Samaritans, such as Egor Panchenko from Kyiv in Ukraine and Sathya Sankaran of Relief Riders from India, are demonstrating how to use bicycles to protect and advance humankind. Delivering medications, food, information, and the good word is essential for many. In such times, the true colors of our fellow citizens’ matter, those who are vulnerable are facing life and death situations; therefore, these heart-warming acts should be recognized and celebrated – they model social trust and hope for all of us. Interestingly, both acts were conducted in developing countries where resources are limited except for human goodness. In good people, we trust in these difficult geopolitical times!”
Egor Panchenko was interviewed by a Polish sports portal, and you can watch his interview here.
I had covered the story of Relief Riders India, in 2021 in this blog which you can read below.
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai