Ukraine’s war and the rise of a civil volunteer movement

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.

Volunteer paramedic Julia Paevska’s ambulance travels towards a Ukrainian army checkpoint on the road between Bakhmut and Luhanske, near the front line in Eastern Ukraine. Photo Alex Masi
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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.

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.

Julia Paevska helps to carry an injured volunteer soldier onto a helicopter, to transport him from Bakhmut to a hospital in Dnipropetrovsk. He was wounded when a sniper’s bullet hit the lorry he was driving in Zaitseve, close to the front line, on his way to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians. Photo Alex Masi

“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 so-called “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.”

Julia checks her radio at the Mayorsk Asap base. Photo Alex Masi.

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 2013-2014 against the corrupt regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, is considered by many volunteers to be a tipping point: citizens took matters into their own hands.

Julia leads a first aid course for soldiers at a military base in Myronivka, near the front line. Photo Alex Masi

Julia was there. When the riot police were beating and driving demonstrators out of Maidan Square in Kiev, she wanted to offer help on the spot. But a protester of a strong physique who stood guard, told her “No access for women. Only medics may enter.”

Julia says: “So I grabbed my medical backpack and stuck a red cross on a helmet. I’ve been a paramedic since then.” She treated demonstrators for bruises, eyes filled with tear gas, and in the end, also helped to carry men with bullet wounds to safety.

When Russian-backed militias – in response to the revolution – started to occupy government buildings in Eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian army intervened, the revolutionaries continued their battle at the front. Julia went there in summer 2014.

“I am obliged to defend my country. I’ve got the support of the people and I can afford it financially,” she says.

Surveys have shown that the population has more confidence in the volunteer movement than in the authorities. Julia envisions a new social system, after the example of the Cossacks of the past, with a hint of anarchy. Together they chose their leader and would kick him out if he was no longer liked. “In the army, the commander gives orders, because he likes giving orders. With us, you are a leader when we trust you. When I give an order, it is a suggestion.”

Her Cossack-style haircut is a coincidence, she says. “Originally it was punk, but I’m shaving both sides, because it’s easier to keep it in shape this way.”

Retaining trust is vital, she says. “Once I lose my reputation, I’ve lost everything.” So she photographs and shares supplied medicines through Facebook – so donors know their gifts are being put to good use.

Asked whether people still need the government, Julia says: “No.” But then she adds, “Sure, we should have a government. To coordinate medical care, to pay pensions, to represent us internationally. The influence of volunteers will change the government.”

Many Maidan activists have gone into politics, where they fight bureaucracy and corruption from within.

In the meantime, the war is all that matters to Julia. “‘When will you stop,’ people ask me every now and then. Sometimes I think I want to find out what my limit is. I haven’t reached that limit yet.”

Michiel Driebergen is a freelance correspondent from the Netherlands, based in Krakow, Poland and Kyiv, Ukraine.