Ukrainian climbers Ihor (13) and Demid Pichka (11) were in Kyiv ahead of a climbing competition when Russia began its invasion on 24 February. The brothers were moved to safety in Prague, while their surgeon father has stayed behind. It's the third time that the boys have been displaced due to war in their country.
In the early hours of 24 February, as Russian tanks rolled across the border and missiles bombarded Kyiv, Ihor and Demid Pichka - aged 11 and 13 - woke to the sounds of explosions, artillery and military aircraft flying over their home. So began the second conflict of the boys' young lives — and the upheaval associated with war, once again.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we play catch-up with war and it always catches us up," Ihor said.
In 2014, the Pichka family were forced to flee their home city of Donetsk in east Ukraine as the Donbas War broke out and separatists seized the region. Then aged just 5 and 3, the boys witnessed shelling and soldiers bearing weapons at checkpoints as they left friends and the life they knew behind.
Living in Mariupol and then central Ukraine, away from the continuing violence in Donetsk, the brothers gained a home, new friends and a favourite sport: climbing. They had coaches and opportunities to take part in international competitions, where they met other climbers from around the world.
"Now we have lost all of this again," Ihor said. "Talking about the war in Ukraine is very painful for us, because it is the second war of our lives."
Earlier this year, the brothers had been looking forward to competing in a climbing competition in Kyiv on 25 February. Their father Vitaliy had hoped to buy a house and move his family to the capital, where he has regular work as a consultant vascular surgeon.
Then the bombing began, once again. Russian occupiers shelled and laid siege to cities across Ukraine — targeting and surrounding Mariupol in particular, the stategic port city where the family had lived for a year.
The climbing competition was cancelled. Hopes of a new home in Kyiv were soon dashed. "The war has ruined our family's plans for life and the future," Ihor said.
Fearing for his sons' safety, Vitaliy evacuated Ihor and Demid west to the Carpathian mountains, close to the border with Poland, while he returned to work in a Kyiv hospital to treat the wounded. As the war progressed, the boys were evacuated to Czechia, where they could stay with their Aunt Tanya and her friend, Dima, who lives in Prague.
"Dad is staying in Ukraine, where he is helping people who were injured in military conflict," Ihor said. "He is in Kyiv so we worry about him when we are watching the news from Ukraine. We hope that there will be an opportunity to live together again."
"Every day we make video calls to talk to our daddy," Demid said. "He always encourages us and says that everything will be fine and he will come to us as soon as possible. Our cat Kleopatra helps us to fight stress — she always accompanies us in our travels."
Ihor started climbing at Donetsk National Technical University, where the Ukrainian speed climber and former world-record holder Danyil Boldyrev began his career. Ihor soon demonstrated great potential, winning local and regional competitions.
In 2014, Vitaliy founded a vascular surgery centre in Mariupol, bringing the family with him. Ihor kept up his climbing, training at a local sports club in the coastal city.
When the front line of the Donbas War began to edge closer to their Mariupol home in 2015, the family moved to Kremenchuk, a quiet city in central Ukraine, where they lived together with the boys' grandma and aunt Tanya. Vitaliy was offered work in a Kyiv hospital in 2020 and travelled back and forth to the capital from Kremenchuk.
Ihor began to take part in national competitions and achieved good results in his age group. In 2016, Demid - a sporty child with judo, football and dancing talents - started to show an interest in climbing, too.
The brothers took part in international competitions in Romania, Italy, Czechia, Serbia, Lithuania, Latvia and Austria, where they earned podium places. "Dad and aunt Tanya helped us to achieve success," Ihor said. "They always took us to trainings, competitions and sports camps."
Thanks to their travels, the boys are familiar with Prague - their new home city - having spent some time climbing there previously. "We like Czechia, its cities and climbing walls," Ihor said. "We often came to Prague for training, because in Ukraine there aren't any good walls."
A Czech group, LANO (Association of Independent Climbing Experts), have supported the pair since the outbreak of the current Russian invasion, giving them access to climbing training and organising schooling.
In early March, barely three weeks after the invasion began, Ihor and Demid competed in a Czech Bouldering Cup, where they placed 6th and 7th in their respective age groups. LANO provided them with coaching from David Urbášek, a former Czech Climbing Team national coach.
The brothers' passion for climbing and the support they are receiving takes their minds off the continuing devastation back home, albeit momentarily.
"The care of the people around us, the help of LANO and training on the wall – all of this helps to distract us from thoughts of war," Ihor said.
Tomáš Binter, President of LANO, described how the organisation felt compelled to act. "Helping others and defending against injustice and coercion from those in positions of power are part of the basic philosophy of our organisation," he said. "That is why, on the day when Russia invaded Ukraine, we offered targeted assistance to young climbers. We are most able to help in what we know, so of course we are happy to help the Pichka brothers with their climbing training and competitions."
"I don't think what we are doing is a big help," David Urbášek, Vice President of LANO, said. "But if everyone helped at least a little, if everyone felt responsible for the world they lived in and acted accordingly, the world would look completely different."
With the fate of Ukraine and their own lives in limbo, the boys and their family are focusing on what they can do to ensure a better future. "We just want things to return to normal," their aunt, Tanya, said.
The brothers will attend a Czech school from September, arranged with the help of LANO. "Future education is as important for us as climbing," Ihor said. "We would like to be in a safe place, go to school, practise and achieve results in sport and travel, too."
Ihor plans to study at a European university. The brothers are learning English and German, and will also learn Czech as they settle in to their new surroundings.
"We feel comfortable in Czechia and we are grateful to Dima, LANO and to Tomáš Binter and everybody else who helps us," he said. "If we have the opportunity, we would like to get an education and connect our future life, sports and work with Czechia and find a home here."
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