Help­ing hands

In East­ern Ukraine a mas­sive vol­un­teer move­ment is do­ing the work that the govern­ment leaves un­done – a real be­havioural rev­o­lu­tion within the post-Soviet world

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Words by Michiel Drieber­gen . Pho­to­graphs by Alex Masi

Across the bridge, at a mil­i­tary check­point, Tayra gets out of the am­bu­lance. She walks be­tween con­crete pyra­mi­dal anti-tank ob­sta­cles to the side of the road. She points to the gran­u­lar soil. “Here he was; he died in my arms.” Any blood­stains have since been oblit­er­ated by the im­prints of Cater­pil­lar tracks, but a blan­ket lies in a heap un­der the trees a few me­tres away.

Tayra, dressed in a khaki uni­form, head shaven but with a blonde lock of hair on top, is a para­medic who trans­ports wounded sol­diers to safety. Three years ago she gave up a thriv­ing busi­ness teach­ing aikido in Kiev. Now, Julia Paevska, as she is known by her real name, stays in an aban­doned house close to the front in East­ern Ukraine. She is con­sid­ered an icon of a vol­un­teer move­ment which is tak­ing ac­tion where the govern­ment fails to do so.

Sol­diers call this no­to­ri­ous place Zamok, or the Cas­tle. It is a partly-con­structed restau­rant or house in the half-de­serted village of Luhanske, with a round bat­tle­mented tower. If a soldier gets wounded in the fight­ing rag­ing a few kilo­me­tres away, he is brought here by com­rades or mil­i­tary medics and then en­trusted to Julia, who cares for him as an am­bu­lance trans­ports them to the near­est hos­pi­tal. “ASAP”, short for “As Soon As Pos­si­ble”, is writ­ten on the ve­hi­cle.

Vol­un­teers, con­tin­ued from 1

The am­bu­lance ser­vice has 10 ve­hi­cles, sta­tioned at four points along the front. Med­i­cal ma­te­ri­als and equip­ment such as sy­ringes, ban­dages, and uni­forms are col­lected by civil­ians. The driv­ers and paramedics work vol­un­tar­ily and the am­bu­lances are supplied for free or pur­chased through crowd­fund­ing.

It was too late to save 23-year-old Sergey yes­ter­day. The soldier from West­ern Ukraine, an army vol­un­teer, did not stand a chance. A shell ex­ploded in his trench around noon. Julia shows a pic­ture of Sergey’s pale, blood­ied face, wrapped in the blan­ket. At about 4pm, Julia hur­ried back to her base a few kilo­me­tres down the road.

Each night as dark­ness falls, the ar­tillery fire starts. Julia sleeps in her uni­form, her shoes within reach next to her bed so that she can leave quickly. In re­cent months, the area has been the scene of heavy fight­ing. Luhanske is close to De­balt­seve, a city the pro-Rus­sian mili­tias seized from the Ukrainian army af­ter a se­ries of bloody con­flicts more than two years ago. At the end of last year, the army man­aged to re­cap­ture a part of this ter­ri­tory but at a high price: a dozen sol­diers lost their lives and dozens more were wounded.

“I worked seven days and nights in a row,” says Julia. “I some­times loaded three or four sol­diers into the am­bu­lance at the same time. I had a quick smoke at the hos­pi­tal and then I was off once again.”

The roar of ar­tillery makes the win­dow­panes rat­tle at night. Dur­ing the day it is usu­ally quiet on the front. Dur­ing this time, Julia teaches first aid to the sol­diers – an essen­tial skill on the front line. Ac­cord­ing to an­cient mar­tial law you don’t find any doc­tors at the front: they are too valu­able to lose, so a wounded soldier de­pends pri­mar­ily on his com­rades.

“Med­i­cal care im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the in­flic­tion of the wound in­creases the sur­vival rate by 90 per cent,” Julia tells a group of 25 ser­vice­men and women gath­ered around her in a cir­cle at the bar­racks. It is a pri­or­ity to stop the bleed­ing within this so­called “golden hour”.

Julia asks the sol­diers to ap­ply tourni­quets to one an­other. “Agree with each other in ad­vance on the pocket you put the tourni­quet in. You must use the wounded per­son’s tourni­quet, not your own.”

An­other soldier named Sergiy, also 23 years old, who took part in this training, was hit in the back by a piece of shrap­nel in De­cem­ber. Mil­i­tary medics brought him to the Cas­tle, where Julia was wait­ing.

“The first thing I no­ticed was her hair,” says Sergiy. “She smiled at me, I still re­mem­ber it well. She took photos of my wounds and ban­daged them.”

On the way to the hos­pi­tal, Julia didn’t stop talking to him in or­der to keep him awake. “She joked. ‘What were you do­ing in that trench, you fool,’ she said. And ‘Couldn’t they have dis­in­fected that wound of yours a bit bet­ter?’”

“Dis­trac­tion is im­por­tant,” says Julia. “Wounded sol­diers are over­wrought. Their eyes are wild. They in­vari­ably be­gin to talk about their com­bat sit­u­a­tion. They need to get that off their chest. Some sol­diers would rather die. ‘Not in my car you won’t,’ I’d shout at them.”

Sergiy says: “Julia kept my brain ac­tive and made sure that I was think­ing pos­i­tively.” Paramedics in the conflict in Ukraine are usu­ally not qual­i­fied doc­tors or nurses, and Julia isn’t ei­ther. They take up their po­si­tions as a con­se­quence of life ex­pe­ri­ences and prac­ti­cal skills.

Julia took a se­ries of med­i­cal classes and also has a thor­ough com­mand of fight­ing tech­niques due to her work as an aikido in­struc­tor, the Ja­panese mar­tial art dis­ci­pline. Tayra is a Ja­panese nom de guerre.

When she started with Asap, a vol­un­teer-run, med­i­cal NGO, two years ago, Julia al­ready had front line ex­pe­ri­ence – she used to be a mem­ber of the na­tion­al­ist para­mil­i­tary group Right Sec­tor where she learnt re­cov­ery pro­ce­dures on the front line and para­medic skills.

Julia also works closely with qual­i­fied medics in the Ukrainian army who lack bat­tle­field ex­pe­ri­ence. “Ev­ery­thing is dif­fer­ent in a war,” says Natalya Sichkar, a young nurse with dyed blonde hair who worked in a hos­pi­tal in­ten­sive care unit un­til six months ago. She is now sta­tioned at a mil­i­tary base near Luhanske.

“To stop the bleed­ing or to con­trol pain when you are in an am­bu­lance which is un­der fire, is some­thing new for me,” says Natalya.

Julia taught her a bet­ter way to quickly in­sert a nee­dle into a vein. “You’ve got peo­ple who call them­selves culi­nary ex­perts and then there are peo­ple who are good at cook­ing,” says Julia. Be­cause govern­ment bud­gets are far from suf­fi­cient and bu­reau­cracy is en­demic in the state in­sti­tu­tions, the army de­pends on vol­un­teers.

“Ev­ery­thing we use on the bat­tle­field comes from them,” says Natalya. She opens up a ruck­sack filled with sy­ringes, ban­dages and pills, supplied by Asap.

Mil­i­tary medics trans­port wounded sol­diers in a Tabletka: a small, droll-look­ing mil­i­tary am­bu­lance that dates back to the Soviet era but which lacks med­i­cal equip­ment and has a sim­ple board for a stretcher. Julia’s team have a large Amer­i­can Dodge at their dis­posal, named “Rean­i­mo­bil”.

“This car has saved the lives of 60 peo­ple in a pe­riod of six months,” says Julia, with pride.

Driv­ers, fundrais­ers and hos­pi­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tives know where to find Julia. When she re­quests medicines, they are sent to her the next day. In her home­town of Kiev, peo­ple rec­og­nize her in the street. “The other day, an old woman, a baboesjka, walked up to me. ‘Here’s 20 hryvni, buy some­thing for our boys.’ I hes­i­tated. ‘Take it,’ she ex­claimed, of­fended.”

Julia’s rep­u­ta­tion stretches across the Ukrainian di­as­pora. “I was of­fered a car from Czechia [Czech Re­pub­lic]. ‘I only have use for a four-wheel drive,’ I said. They fixed me up with one.” → Ac­tive cit­i­zens who take over the tasks of a mal­func­tion­ing govern­ment are a new phe­nom­e­non. In the Soviet era, Ukraini­ans were looked af­ter from the cra­dle to the grave by the state.

“For decades, those in power de­ter­mined how peo­ple’s en­ergy was to be har­nessed, and that was to sac­ri­fice one­self for the state,” says Julia. “I hated this way of deal­ing with cre­ativ­ity. I’ve been a dis­si­dent since day care. I hated Stalin, just as I hate gar­lic.”

The Maidan Rev­o­lu­tion, the pop­u­lar up­ris­ing dur­ing the winter of 2013-

Photo Alex Masi

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