I have seen things since I became a frontline medic. I learned enough from working with a voluntary organization — the Hospitallers — before the all-out invasion to know about helping the injured, and to know more about myself; that I can think clearly and react quickly in stressful situations.  

But what I’ve faced since February 24 2022 has been very different from my previous combat experience. The war became so dynamic, so emotionally saturating and so frightening. It was so overwhelming that it drove me to a state of apathy. I felt like we had been attacked by a huge army and that were alone. It felt like a foretaste of the apocalypse.  

From the beginning, it was a landscape of terrible sights. I lay with others in a trench near the river at Irpin [one of the early battles in 2022] and saw a  man pulling a wheelbarrow, lined with pillows, and with his elderly disabled mother lying inside as shells came down. I can’t describe the horror of sights like that, and there have been too many. The horror of seeing elderly ill people or kids with their pets at the frontlines, it’s psychologically harder to work with them than with the military.  

In the summer of 2022, my Fifth crew was reorganized (we were named the Fifth because ours was the fifth ambulance to arrive in the Kyiv region). These were the people who have since that time supported me, pulled me out of my depression, and made me believe that if we trained we could survive. 

In the beginning, we worked in the Kyiv region when it was partly occupied. Afterward, we moved to Donetsk Oblast — first with the marines, and later with airborne troops. Now we are near Bakhmut, evacuating wounded soldiers from the front line; we don’t wait for them to be brought to us, we go and get them.  

Recently we arrived too early at the evacuation point, which was so exposed that it couldn’t even be reached with armored vehicles. Then came the artillery, then a gun battle began. We had no way to contact the positions nearby,  so no one knew we were there, and there was no understanding of what was happening. 

Miraculously we were not hurt. We heard the commander of our combat group was dead. There was a wounded soldier too, we helped him. War is disgusting and very complicated. 

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Just 15 minutes after this nightmare we drove to a nearby town, where we decided to pick up some groceries. And it felt as if an online game had ended for us. But we aren’t game characters, we are flesh and blood. 

People were buying food in the supermarket, and we joined them – eggs, zucchini, dried apricots, and water. We stood near the cash register, our shoes covered with mud, as the cashier scanned products: beep, beep, beep. There was a parallel reality, but the sense of horror was still with us.  

We were thrown into this matrix, and our job was to save lives there, to survive or die. Then, suddenly, we’re buying and getting. Why would anyone go back there again? Why would anyone go through the same horror when there is a different world nearby?  

We do not know when this war will end. It is difficult to live like this, without a deadline. I have no resources left, and no words left to describe my work poetically. There are wounded, and we are helping them. 

Most wounds result from shrapnel: penetrating, multiple. There are fewer bullets. Depending on the location, there can sometimes be chemical poisoning. 

Sometimes I freeze for a moment, shocked by the number of injuries, and the fact the person in front of me is still breathing. We had a man with a multiple fractures of the jaw, part of his facial bone missing, a wound in his chest, and a collapsed lung. All his limbs were injured, except for his right arm. His body was completely covered in blood. The only thing not damaged was his stomach. And he survived. He was holding on, he was conscious, and we stabilized him. 

We are the first line of rescue and are now a very specialized professional crew providing high-quality evacuation. We converted our vehicle and can now transport people with spinal injuries, providing a model for others at the frontline.  

We staunch bleeding, connect people to monitoring systems, and inject solutions to stabilize their vital indicators. Blood or plasma can also be transfused if there is a long evacuation. Ours is currently 30 minutes, and so far all the wounded we have evacuated near Bakhmut have survived. 

Because I’m in a volunteer unit, we have greater freedom and a heavy responsibility. We’re not a part of the huge Armed Forces machine and need to provide for ourselves and organize our own logistics. Perhaps it would be easier to follow orders, but I have no ambitions in tactical medicine, except for one: to be as useful as possible. We cover the first-line medical evacuation needs of some units. If we weren’t there, wounded soldiers would need to be taken out by comrades, who knows how. 

Courtesy: Iryna Tsybuh

Before the full-scale invasion, I traveled and worked a lot. I was a part of the national public broadcaster, Suspilne, I worked on educational projects and visited the Donetsk and Lugansk regions regularly. I also volunteered as much as I could and first went to war when I was 17. I’m now 25. 

I have tried to combine civilian life and frontline rotations, but it destroyed me. My colleagues at home were offered work instead of me, as I was considered “unreliable” because of my commitment to the Hospitallers. I live on minimal money, and what I have is thanks to my continued work with Suspilne.

When you don’t know whether you will survive, it’s easier not to accept the deaths of those you loved, otherwise, you risk floating away from reality. At first, I was waiting to be taken to them. I comforted myself with the thought that I would also die: ‘Don’t worry, just a little bit more, and you’ll be there too.’ 

But I am still alive. And I have traveled from a state where I was waiting for my suffering to end to a state where I am grateful to be alive. I can spend more time with my parents, I have incredible people around me. If a new day comes, it must be lived. 

Iryna Tsybuh was interviewed by Lera Burlakova. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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