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Ukraine’s defenders

How Ukrainians are defying odds to defend their country

ANALYSIS | AGATHER ATUHAIRE | In July together with a group of journalists from across Africa, we visited Ukraine at the invitation of a Journalism Organization-Public Interest Journalism (PIJL). Even before I arrived in Ukraine, I had started hearing stories, that would later be confirmed over my 10-day stay in Ukraine, that suggested Ukrainians are a rare breed of people.

At Warsaw Airport in Poland, a journalist who welcomed me had shared, during our three-hour journey to the train station where I boarded a train to Kyiv, a story I found fascinating.

It was about Vanessa (not real name) had fled Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with her two sons. The older one who was 17 years old at the time did not want to leave and protested bitterly. A few months later when the teenager turned 18, he boarded a bus back to Ukraine, without even telling her.

Apparently, he had been unhappy that they had left their home, his father, his friends, and country mates in danger and run for safety. I would later realise throughout my trip that this was the story of many in Ukraine.

I passed through the Capital Kyiv and continued straight to the Southern part of the country where we visited one of the biggest agriculture companies in Europe with one of the biggest shipyards –NIBULON—located in the city of Mykolaiv.

The company’s biggest shareholder and co-founder, 74-year-old Oleksiy Opanasovych Vadaturskyi had been one of the wealthiest Ukrainians. Many had expected him to flee as fighting intensified not just because the region was at the center of the war but also because there was a high risk Russia would target him. He had financed a 2,000-strong militia with army vehicles to fight against Russia during its war to take over Crimea in 2014. Russia had also blacklisted him alongside 322 Ukrainians in 2018.

But Vadaturskyi didn’t leave. He insisted he would stay with his people, his company, and workers. Three months into the war on July 31, 2022, he and his wife were killed in their house by Russian missile strikes.

“He didn’t want to leave because of the work he had done here and the joy he derived from it. The company for him, and what it meant to him and his people, was more important and more valuable than his life,” explained his son Andriy, who had since succeeded his father as the company’s new CEO.

When we returned to Kyiv and met the First lady, Olena Zelenska. A colleague asked her why she hadn’t left the country for her safety and that of her children.

“It was a tough decision,” she said, “I had thoughts about whether I was acting irresponsibly as a mother towards my children. Because they are not guilty of what is happening. I should give them more chances for safety. But I had to be here. I knew I had to support him (her husband President Volodymyr Zelenskyy). I had to support our people. It is very difficult to communicate with parents of children who have died. It is very difficult to communicate with our soldiers who defend us and lose their limbs in this horrible war. But I had to be here with them. That is the challenging aspect of the first lady’s role in the war.”

For Olexiy Sobolev, the country’s Deputy Minister of Economy, staying was not even debatable, it was the only way to ensure his children could see a different and peaceful future.

“The only thing that will protect my family and I is the government, and I must stay and help the government in any way I can, so that it is able to protect me and my family and all Ukrainians. I don’t want my children to be dealing with the same problems in ten years to come.”

Stories of resilience, bravery, and patriotism

Ukrainians across different walks of life seemed ready to defend their country, at whatever cost, through one of the deadliest wars Europe has witnessed since World War II.

Zelenska told us the word resilience is now synonymous with Ukrainians around the world.

“For over a year now,” she said, “we have been in constant stress. We cannot relax until we see our long-awaited victory. It is amazing to see how Ukrainians carry on. How they still work hard to sustain the economy and make life at least seem normal.”

I also couldn’t help but wonder how people can be at war for months but still be so productive as I saw huge fields of cornflower on the six-hour journey to the Southern city of Odessa from Kyiv. Even in Kherson region, which had just been liberated after many months of being under Russian occupation, we were surprised farmers had huge gardens of the grain and sunflower. How had they managed to do all this amidst shelling and missiles, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Still, First Lady Zelenska seemed doubtful about how long Ukranians could persevere. “Human resilience, unfortunately, is not an unlimited resource,” she said, “This resource can be depleted. Each person has their own natural capacity for endurance.”

But she acknowledged she belongs to a real special society that is willing to do the impossible to save its people. “The volunteer movement in Ukraine is very powerful, she said. “I am truly proud of our society and its consciousness, of how quickly it unites around the problems that arise every day, all the time. When we witnessed the tragedy with the blowup of the Kakhovka dam, so many volunteers immediately rushed to save the locals, rescue domestic animals, evacuate people, deliver water and humanitarian aid.”

During our stay, we interacted with some of these people that the First Lady made reference to. Most of them are people who abandoned their professions, went into unexpected fields, endured capture and torture and still came back with the resolve to fight for their people, to feed their forces, and to save the injured.

Gennadi Druzenko 51, a constitutional law scholar, who left the academia and started a mobile hospital to take medical services to the frontlines.

Druzenko improvised a medical group to take care of wounded protesters when Russian aggression started in 2014 after the revolution of dignity. His organisation started by training ordinary Ukranians to deliver first medical aid and later the armed forces to deal with their wounded. Every month his organisation has been treating between 2500-3000 since the full-scale invasion in February last year. They have up to 70-80 people on the frontline in different locations. He also revealed that their monthly budget of about $ 100,000 is raised not from the government but from the Ukrainian people; companies and private persons, well-wishers from Canada and U.S. and a few other places.

“We depend on volunteers,” explained Druzenko, “The medics who make up the bigger part of the team get leave from their workplaces and come here and work for a month and then return to their work places. We work on a rotational basis. We are not legalised. If anything happened to these guys who risk their lives every day, there will be no one responsible for them.”

Druzenko admited that it is a miracle that they get these medical professionals given that many had already gone to other European countries and others into the armed forces. He still harbours a dream to return to the library. “My interest is in constitutional practice but when you see people fighting for their lives every day, you can’t lecture them about constitutionalism,” he notes, “The immediate challenge we have is to successfully fight against Russia and to shape the future of Ukrainians.”

Andrii Ovcharenko, a Military Engineer who went to work at a Rehabilitation Centre to help soldiers who lose limbs walk again.

In 2014, Ovcharenko was working in the Ministry of Defence as a Military Engineer. He had a brother serving in the army. His brother’s friend, who was also serving in the army was injured. When he went to the hospital to visit him, he started helping out. “That’s when I decided to change my job and help the injured soldiers,” explained Ovcharenko. His wife told him about a prosthetics factory that needed new people and he immediately switched from the military to that factory.

The facility is a private company but government pays for soldiers. The facility then uses the funds to treat all the injured in the war, both soldiers and civilians. It makes prosthetics and rehabilitates the patient to learn to use them.

Before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the facility would receive two people per week. By the time we visited in July, the numbers had jumped to 10 people per day. From 2018 to July 2023, they had made about 4,000 prosthetics. “We are constructing a new centre because this space is no longer enough to accommodate the numbers,” he noted.

Ovcharenko added that he and his workmates had become so used to seeing people without limbs so much so that they became numb and even joke and laugh about it. “But it is different when it is children because at least soldiers understand why they are in that situation,” he explained, “Children don’t. When we are trying to help a child walk with artificial limbs and the mothers are crying, we all cry. We go back home and feel depressed. We get overwhelmed by sorrow because of what is happening to people.”

Oleh Symoroz, a young lawyer who abandoned practice and joined the forces

Symoroz, quit his budding legal practice and joined forces when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. He was 26. Nine months into the war, he was injured and lost both his legs but says he would make that decision again given a chance.

‘We have been at war for nine years,” he said, “But at the beginning of the full-scale invasion everything changed and we couldn’t leave it to the professional army alone so I had to join the army to protect this city that I was born in and to protect my people. We had to protect our homeland. We had to protect our people. Unfortunately, that comes at a price but it is what we had to do.”

He said that the narrative in the world that Ukranians are fighting because of the West couldn’t be more wrong. “It is difficult for us to watch these things happen and keep quiet and fold our hands as we get extinguished,” he said, “Now that I can’t go back into the army I will go back to my law firm and continue to fight the internal enemy. I am sure that we will win against the external enemy, and we are close to that victory.”

Tata Kepler, 37, a singer/cocktail bar owner who started volunteering in tactical medicine

Before the Feb. 24 2022, Tata was running the biggest cocktail bar in Kyiv. When we visited her place in July 2023, she was assembling supplies with her friends to send to the frontline.

“These people are my friends,” she said, “We are not paid, we live on the bare minimum. We have been working nonstop with very little sleep but I am sure we will all soon get a break when the war is over.”

She started volunteering in 2014 after the first Russian invasion and what came to be known as the Maidan protests. She started moblising funds and supplying tactical medicine (administering first aid in combat) to the protesters. After the full-scale invasion, she closed the bar completely and devoted all the time to mobilizing resources, getting supplies and packaging them to send them to the battlefields.

“Birds” is the name of our project because we are flying everywhere,” she told us, “We have been volunteering since 2014. Helping soldiers with first aid kits, packing military combat bags, getting medicine supplies for them, going to frontline with civilian medicine, etc.”

Tata and her group have not stopped at tactical medicine.

“We visit the liberated territories and provide people with medical assistance, supplying them with first aid kits, fixing damaged houses, we have also started a project of humanitarian demining,” she explained further. “Unfortunately, there are villages that are completely destroyed but together we will defeat everyone and rebuild everything. We have already fixed 65 roofs and we are doing more in Kherson region. This is our fight. We have to help people that are fighting for us.”

Kepler was in 2022 awarded the National Legend of Ukraine award by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for her efforts in the war.

The brave paramedic who offered first aid to the injured including the enemy

Yuliia Paievska commonly known as Taira is a medic who founded the volunteer ambulance corps called “Taira’s Angels”. What makes her special is that she helped even the injured Russian army.

“A wounded person without a weapon is not an enemy, she says, “He is a person who needs help. It is human to do it. It comes naturally. I look at them and think he must have a mother that loves him.” She adds, “All my life I have been helping someone, saving cats and puppies, kids and everyone in various situations. Love even the enemy. Using force of the enemy and not harming a person that wants to kill you. I believe that love can save the world.”

Taira says she is just a medic and not a doctor but has a good understanding of anatomy and first aid. “I am trained as a coach and graphic designer. Before I went into first aid work I was doing that and raising my daughter. I later became a military medic but not by education. I received just basic level, narrow knowledge but we needed to save people. As a trainer and sports person, I know medicine well. I started by helping those beaten by police during protests. People were shot and wounded and they needed help, I decided to offer it without hesitation. When the war started it was natural for me to help people. I was first a volunteer for five years and then I signed a contract with Ukraine. In 2020 I resigned but stayed as a

When Russia attacked Ukraine I was in Mariupol and we started receiving the wounded. Half a million people were wounded in March and around 100,000 are estimated to have been killed.

Taira was, shortly after the war commenced, captured by the Russian Army. She was in captivity for three months and released over a year ago in June 2022 but still has a hard time talking about it.

“It is horrifying and worse than anything we can imagine. To avoid more suffering to those still in captivity I won’t tell you some things. I was captured in mid March and released in Mid June. Three months of no medicine, no communication, kept in horrible conditions, subjected to physical and psychological torture. The conditions are terrible. They put tens in a very small cell. We were 20 women in a small cell. In all the three months I got water once to wash myself, terrible food, I lost 16 kgs in three months. You can’t sit, you can only stand and lie down because if you sit during the day you will be beaten if you stand during the night. Not a single time were we given a toothbrush. Women suffer, no hygiene products. We use a piece of clothing for sanitary towels.

When asked if even after that experience and the cruel treatment she was subjected to she would still help injured Russian soldiers she said, “I haven’t encountered them yet since I was freed but I have no doubt that I will keep helping them. I would love to change the world to make it more humane. There is enough suffering in the world and if I can make even one child happy I would gladly do it. But I can’t understand how someone who has the power to make an entire nation happy refuses to do it. They can’t even reconsider their attitude.

A journalist who joined the army

Eugene Shibalov is a 41-year-old born in Eastern Ukraine who worked in the Ukrainian media for 15 years

When Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied Crimea in 2014, he quit journalism and became a humanitarian activist. When Russia invaded Ukraine again in Feb 2022, he quit activism and joined the army.

“I didn’t like the army, he said, “I thought the army is just for inept people who think the only way to resolve their differences in the 20th century is by fighting.”

“But on February 24th, he continued, “I made a decision to join the Ukrainian army. I realised it was time to fight to defend ourselves and our people. I realised dialogue doesn’t always work. Dialogue can’t work with someone who attacks a people because he doesn’t want them to exist. The only way was combat. It was about the existence of our nation and our people.

In Kyiv we joined about 12,000 people who joined the army voluntarily after the invasion. We thought we stood no chance against the Russian army but we knew even if we didn’t fight we would die anyway. The war was about our very existence. Surprisingly the Russian arm wasn’t that strong and ours wasn’t as weak as we thought. We kicked them out of Kyiv in April and we felt like soldiers because we had registered our first win as civilian soldiers.”

Eugene was later captured by the Russian Army and was returned to Ukraine after seven months in a prisoners of war exchange but that did not kill his resolve. He describes the conditions they were kept in the Russian prison as horrible characterised by torture to coerce them to join their side or to confess that they committed war crimes, poor feeding and poor health

“They tortured me forcing me to say that I was connected to western intelligence services because I worked with an international NGO. They said sign this paper and your suffering will end but I knew they would have sentenced me for being a spy.”

He talks about the day he was freed on New Year eve euphorically.

“It was the best New Year eve of my life. I didn’t even believe it was true because they will never tell you where you’re going. They just put you in the car so you can’t even know you’re being sent back home. You never know if they’re taking you in another prison or to kill you.

“When I got out and saw the sign of Ukraine I got an emotional attack. it took some time to believe it was true. It was the best New Year for my family and I.”

Not even that torture and the inhuman conditions shook Eugene’s resolve. Six months later he was back in the army to continue fighting for his people and country.

“It took me six months to reapply,” he says. “The government first sends a team to assess your health. I spent two months in a mental clinic to try and manage my PSTD. But I still took anti depressant pills up to last week (July 2023). I was tortured to the extent that I needed surgery. I thought of staying home but I thought if I go home someone will have to replace me and that someone won’t have the training and I know from experience that an ill-trained soldier is the biggest danger to himself and to the entire army. So I thought for a short while and decided no, I have to go back. I want my son to be an IT specialist. I don’t want him to be forced by circumstances to be a soldier like I was. I will stay in the army until I feel that my country is safe. My people are safe. We need to design our security mechanism as a long-term program.

“We know that the price will be high but we are sure we will be victorious. We have a strong confidence that our victory is inevitable. Because this is about justice. If God exists, we will win. We will protect our right to exist.”

Eugene says all this would never have been possible without the resolve of all the Ukrainian people who supported their army and the Western powers which helped them with modern weapons.

“The people in Kyiv did their best to feed their army. The old ladies came with soup and served us and asked us to stay strong and not leave them to be occupied by the Russians. We all want not only to survive. We want to survive as Ukrainians.”

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