Mila Yankina’s Medical Work in the Violence of Kyiv
The day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine I spoke to my friend Mila Yankina in Kyiv. She’s a human rights defender at the organization ZMINA and I’d last seen her at her office in the city in August.
She told me she was going to stay in Kyiv as a volunteer despite the danger, and make use of her medical training.
Three long weeks later she’s still there, driving through the city every day with a colleague she met at the city’s blood bank, finding and distributing medicine to the vulnerable, giving food to the elderly. She spent her own money on medicines at first and now raises funds on her Facebook page for supplies.
We speak regularly, usually at night because she’s in the car from about 8am to 8pm, and the rest of the time she’s in a bomb shelter during the nightly 12-hour curfew. Sometimes when we’re talking she can hear the rockets exploding above her.
Mila says when curfew ends she and her colleague drive throughout the day despite the bombardments in Kyiv, sometimes over a hundred miles in 12 hours.
Earlier this month she told me they had no bulletproof jackets or helmets. The war means there’s a severe shortage of such protective clothing throughout Europe, but working with colleagues in Ireland we managed to find some. A few days ago I brought them with me to Ukraine for Mila and her colleague.
She got them Monday night, and now she and her team are a little safer, but this remains terrifying, dangerous work. She told me she’s had many near misses from bombs exploding, and says it’s a game of chance every day she goes out. But some people are desperate, and have no one else to help them — people who for a range of reasons have now been left behind. Some elderly people have outlived their children, and are out of reach of the normal networks of support, networks that have disappeared in the war.
Some are alone, sick, and vulnerable in their homes, sometimes without any money. So Mila finds who she can and brings them necessities. Sometimes she physically carries people out of their homes to get them to hospital. But despite her exhaustion she says some nights it’s hard to sleep.
She talks about the strong spirit among those still in Kyiv. “I went to buy gas and the guy at the gas station asked me what I was doing. When I explained her cleared all the food from the shelves in his shop and put them in my car.”
She laughs incredulously when I tell her of the Ukrainian flags all over Europe, of the latest local fundraisers, of the international solidarity. I tell her of the media coverage in the United States and across the world, and we talk about how the invasion of Ukraine has touched and politicized people in a way that previous wars often haven’t, and of Europe’s very different response to civilians fleeing Putin’s attacks in Ukraine compared to Putin’s attacks in Syria.
Mila’s life has taken a massive shift from last year. The Russian invasion has also upended the lives of all her colleagues. Some have taken vulnerable relatives to safety outside the country, while others have scattered from Kyiv and are regrouping elsewhere in Ukraine to help with the effort in documenting war crimes.
Like many activists in Ukraine, she is worried that Russian forces will target anyone associated with human rights work in areas they take over. She’s asked us to press the U.S. government to make it less bureaucratic for human rights defenders escaping from Ukraine. “Some have literally run from their homes into shelters, and don’t have all the documents they need for visas. Just passports should be enough,” she says.
Despite what she describes as “an apocalyptic situation,” Mila persists, day after day, in the most dangerous circumstances, to serve the sick and vulnerable of her country’s capital.