Ukraine Medics Defy Missiles and Mud to Bring Aid to Civilians on Front Lines
By Brian Dooley
Three times a week a team of medics leaves Kharkiv City in Ukraine to make the dangerous trip east to the communities in and around Kupiansk to provide medical aid to the few civilians still left close to the front line of war.
The medical team is from initiative, set up in Kharkiv within days of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022 to provide humanitarian and medical aid to those in need. The organization also has another team that regularly visits communities to provide legal and psychological aid.
On Friday I joined a team of five on their two-hour drive by ambulance to Kupiansk so I could witness and write about their work as Human Rights Defenders to protect the rights of others at high risk to themselves.
The team included ambulance driver Nataliia Halunenko. Before Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she was a professional violinist, working in India and elsewhere. “The situation is very unstable in and near Kupiansk,” she said. “Because the bombing and artillery attacks continue all day. It’s pretty random, anything here can be hit at any time.”
Russian forces still threaten to take back the city they occupied in February 2022 but lost to the Ukrainian military seven months later. For much of 2023, Russia’s military edged closer to Kupiansk and surrounding villages. Despite several intense assaults, it has yet to mount a successful attack, but senior Ukrainian military officials that Russian troops are now regrouping for another major attack.
The streets are largely deserted. Ukraine’s authorities ordered mandatory evacuation for families with children. “But some people just can’t leave,” says Halunenko. “There are old people or infirm people staying in their homes, often with a family member to look after them. Some are just more afraid of leaving than staying.”
In Kupiansk we visited some people living in high-rise apartment buildings, where medics Dmytro and Konstantin changed people’s dressings and promised to be back in a couple of days.
Some locals in and around Kupiansk have serious medical conditions, including heart problems, that the team can’t address except to mitigate their symptoms. In extreme cases, the medics evacuate people to Kharkiv. The team aims to visit a dozen or more people a day, but sometimes certain districts are just too dangerous to reach.
Early afternoon on Friday, the walkie-talkie in our ambulance crackled to warn us that the small bridge we were heading for was being shelled; it was destroyed shortly before we reached it. It was a near miss, and instead we took another bridge that’s only been half blown away. The team is used to such dangers.
The team blasted Ukrainian rap through the ambulance speakers as we drove at high speed in flak jackets through the communities of Kivsharivka and Kurylivka, just outside the city of Kupiansk. There has been almost constant shelling, with white plumes of smoke rising on either side of the road as missiles exploded. It was a rough ride for a while, and we hung onto what we could inside the ambulance for balance as the wheels skidded and slipped in the mud.
Other vehicles — nearly all Ukrainian military – often career through these villages to get past the dangerous stretches of road. Days like Friday are stressful for the team, some of whom have been doing this for six months.
Leaving Kupiansk, the return to Kharkiv was relatively relaxed and jokey, though the city itself is no safe haven, as it is still . It takes a special kind of resilience to work as a Human Rights Defender in these dangerous conditions for so long.
“We have to come because all the local clinics have had to close down, and people rely on us for medical help,” says Halunenko. “But winter is coming, and that just makes everything harder.”