I’m from a small town called Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine. Avdiivka has been a front line for eight years, but its name has not yet made it to the front pages of world newspapers. Thank goodness for that.
When Russian-backed separatists started waging war in eastern Ukraine, in 2014, I headed west. I thought I could run away from war. I built a home, a family and a career in Kyiv, the capital. I became a politician. Two years ago I bought a house in Bucha, a suburb about 20 miles outside the city.
But war was not finished with me.
When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, I joined the territorial defense units for Kyiv — mostly civilians volunteers with some combat training. We thought the capital would be the main target. A lot of people fled for the suburbs, like Bucha, where they thought the enemy would have no reason to go.
Kyiv was subjected to shelling and airstrikes, but the Russians never really made it farther than the outskirts of the city before retreating and insisting that in a new phase of the war, they’d focus on capturing the east.
But the Russians did make it to Bucha. On April 1, I returned there with the Ukrainian forces. The town had been subjected to a brutal monthlong occupation. We saw so many bodies. I remember walking down the street and someone’s dog was barking, gates were creaking in the wind. I felt almost as if I could go and greet people in their backyards with a “How are you?” But when I went into the yards I saw only the bodies of the dead.
I knew then that the war still wasn’t finished with me, and within days I volunteered to go back east to the front line. I wanted to keep fighting against those who’d brought that horror.
Getting to the eastern front line in Ukraine is not easy because there are more volunteer fighters than can be used, but I knew there was a shortage of medical personnel, so I signed up for medic training. By the beginning of May I was on my way back to Avdiivka.
I was ready for the lack of electricity, water and poor cellphone service on the front line. What I did not expect is how much stronger the sense of life would become in the constant presence of death.
My job here is to fetch the wounded, give them some first aid and take them to the hospital. And, since there is nobody else to do it, we also collect the dead.
You might think that people are tougher in places where death is commonplace, but I’ve found that people are more sensitive and more open. When shells are exploding everywhere and you are lying in cover with strangers, you really feel like having frank conversations. You share intimate secrets, personal experiences and sacred memories. People want to fill death-ravaged space with as much life as possible.
Here everyone shares everything with one another and helps one another. Even the military, the police and the officials. If they see that you have no food, they will feed you. If your clothes are torn or dirty, they will offer their own. If there are no cigarettes, they will give you half of theirs. In peacetime I have never seen people have such care for one another.
Once I was looking for somewhere to buy milk and I met a man who was about 70 years old. He gave me a jar with about half a gallon of milk and refused to take any money. We got to talking and it turned out that in 2016 his wife was killed and his daughter was left severely injured by shelling. The house they lived in was destroyed.
When I asked him why he didn’t leave, he pointed to a barn with some chickens and a cow inside. “And besides, where can I go?” he said.
About 30,000 people used to live in Avdiivka. When the war began in 2014, most of the doctors, police and other officials left the city — as I did. Now there are maybe 5,000 or 6,000 people left. If you ask people why they don’t leave, they usually say that they have no money or that they have nowhere to go.
I think some of them are also just used to the shelling.
My partner Danil, who drives our ambulance, never left either — but he did evacuate his family. He told me he worried that if he’d left, there would be no one to help the injured.
I feel calm when I’m with Danil. He radiates serenity even as bullets whistle around us.
We have limited options for the medical care we can administer in the ambulance. We do our best in the first 10 minutes, and then it usually takes about an hour to get to the hospital. On the whole journey we talk with the wounded, distract them from pain and bad thoughts. We say whatever comes to mind. We hold their hand. A stranger for a moment becomes the dearest person to us.
We also carry the dead away from the battlefield and put them in the morgue. There are a lot of corpses and the refrigerators do not work because of power outages. There is a terrible smell. Once Danil and I were bringing corpses to the morgue and shelling started. We could not decide which was worse: in the street under the shelling or in the morgue with the smell.
I used to like to go to bed late and get up late. Now my favorite time of day is dawn. At 4 a.m. I come out of the shelter to smoke and hear the birds singing, see the light of the rising sun, feel the May warmth. For a moment it seems as if there is no war and all these horrors were just a bad dream, as if I could go for a walk and the streets of my hometown would look like they used to.
Then someone from the other side wakes up and the explosions and shelling begin again. Russia starts another day of “liberating” my peaceful childhood town from childhood, from peace and from me.
After a while we get a call: There are wounded who urgently need first aid and transport to the hospital. And we go.
Yegor Firsov is a medic in the Ukrainian military. He was a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from 2014 to 2016, from the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform.
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