In Ukraine, we are different now

In Ukraine, we are different now
Опубликовано: Friday, 24 February 2023 07:52

War breaks, it maims, it takes what you hold most dear. But it hasn’t yet succeeded in taking our humanity — or our desire for freedom.


Yegor Firsov is a combat paramedic in Avdiikva, Ukraine. He is an activist and a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament.

AVDIIKVA — A year ago, none of us could imagine our lives as they are now.

Even those of us who trusted the warnings from Washington about Russia’s impending attack had no idea that war would last so long — or that it would change our lives so much. It was easier to imagine ourselves dying in a battle for Kyiv than in a military uniform, sitting in a trench half-full of water in the rain.

When old photos pop up on our phones now, looking at an image from just 12 months ago, we cannot believe they ever happened, that those people we see were once us too.

I serve in the Territorial Defense Brigade now, and most of us weren’t professional military before February 24. Among my comrades-in-arms there are miners, farmers, teachers, even jewelers and dog handlers.

Just one year ago, I was busy building a family house in Bucha. I was professionally active in environmental protection, went to soccer practice and was dreaming of taking my father on his first vacation abroad to Greece. I had no beard; I washed every day; I drove an environmentally friendly car . . .

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a break from the front line and go to Kyiv for a couple days. I visited my unfinished house in Bucha and saw how the city had returned to life after the occupation. The holes on the road from mortar shells had been filled, burnt-out car and equipment had been removed, even the bombed-out houses had been cleaned up.

But all I could see in my mind were scenes from 10 months ago — corpses of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, bodies stuck in a car.

A few years ago, when I first decided to build this house, my girlfriend and I chose Bucha because it’s near Kyiv but mostly surrounded by forest. It had neat, nice modern houses, smooth roads with clean curbs, parks and cozy cafes.

Bucha will be like this again soon — but not for me. Along with the city itself, Russia destroyed my dreams associated with it. And now, I’ll always see corpses on roadsides, their hands tied behind their backs.

My fellow soldiers and I like to share our pre-war photos. We’re all interested in seeing we did before we put on uniforms.

And immersing ourselves in these photos, drifting from reality into memories, it helps us keep in touch with our pre-war selves, they help us to not harden, to not lose the meaning of why we’re fighting, so that later we can return to these old versions of ourselves and learn to dream again.

Yes, we are all different now. And we perceive life differently.

War cripples not just physically but primarily psychologically. And now, no matter where we are, we wait for the “incoming,” for the shelling. We can’t walk peacefully around our cities — even those of us visiting families in Western Ukraine, a thousand kilometers away.

My friend Andriy would wake everyone up several times a night, shouting “cover, cover, cover” while cramming himself under his bed. It could take us up to half-an-hour to calm him. In the morning, Andriy remembered nothing. Only the video on his phone managed to convince him that he should go see the battalion psychologist.

Among my fellow soldiers is also Roma, who loves to talk about nightclubs he used to own in Bakhmut and Liman. Watching a video of him in a fancy suit, dancing with his wife, I can’t believe I’m looking at my platoon commander. I’ve seen him in skirmishes near Bakhmut. I’ve seen how he fights, how he commands his unit — it feels as if he’s always been in the military. But like many of us, on February 24 he touched a weapon for the first time.

Roman’s clubs have since been razed. The house he lived in with his wife and daughter has gone. It’s as if his life’s been erased — his favorite places, his businesses, his home, his town.

Still, Roma dreams of new nightclubs. He’s saving money from his salary for his post-war business. But I can see that war has greatly transformed him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if after victory, he continues in the military.

Of course, there’s another thread that ties us to our pre-war selves too — our relatives. Everyone has left someone behind — children, a spouse, parents, friends. They are the ones who wait, and who text and call whenever there’s a connection.

But listening to my comrades’ conversations with their loved ones is always hard. My comrade-in-arms Sergei’s relatives think he’s serving in a hospital in central Ukraine, but he’s been on the very edge of the front line for six months now.

Many of us, at times, are forced to deceive, to say we’re about to go on leave or rotation, or that the war will be over soon. And we hear each other say this, knowing that tomorrow we’ll once again be in action, and it feels like there’s no end in sight. Even if there is, not everyone will live to see it . . .

But the war hasn’t just changed those who fight.

Once, when I went to Kyiv on business, I was sitting on a couch reading a book — and suddenly, there were powerful blasts. “A couple of kilometers away,” I thought to myself, and continued reading. Then, it occurred to me, “This is Kyiv!” and I wasn’t on the front line.

I went to the window and saw a power plant engulfed in smoke. Thinking there may be wounded there, I grabbed my medic’s pack and rushed to the site. Only 10 minutes had passed, but about 50 of us had already gathered. People had come from neighboring houses to rescue the wounded and clear the rubble, even though more incoming rockets might follow.

Recently, a rocket hit an apartment building in Pokrovsk, and a torrent of water and gas immediately poured out. The building could have easily exploded, but a man ran out of the neighboring house, promptly climbed up the balconies to the second floor and simply shut off the gas valve.

In the early days of the war, rocket attacks like this shocked and panicked everyone. But people have long conquered their fear. Few run to take cover in basements or shelters when the air-raid sirens sound — instead most run to the scene of the explosion to help.

War breaks, it maims, it takes what you hold most dear. But it hasn’t yet succeeded in taking our humanity — or our desire for freedom. And that means we’ve become stronger.

Still, we are all different now.

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