Ukraine is entering the fourth year of war against the self-proclaimed Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Over 10 thousand people, civilian and military, have lost their lives while nearly two million have been forced to flee their homes.
The conflict began in 2014 after pro-Russian separatists took over government and security infrastructure in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatist forces quickly took over many towns and cities in an armed insurrection that capitalised on the chaos in Kyiv that followed the pro-democracy Maidan revolution.
In response, the Ukrainian government sent the regular army, alongside National Guard and volunteer forces, to reclaim the occupied area. Over three years later, the conflict has become a stalemate, with a contact line that sees daily fighting, but has seen little physically change in the last 18 months.
At the outset of the conflict, Ukraine’s medical service, which was already severely lacking, could not cope with the scale of casualties.
“The best feeling is seeing someone who has been injured return here alive and well – to see them walk through my door again is incredible,” says 58-year-old Evdokiya Popovych, a front-line medic known as ‘Stepanivna’.
Civilian medics like Stepanivna rushed east to support their colleagues and provide vital pre-hospital care for the wounded.
Before arriving on the front line, the grandmother had worked for many years as a nurse closer to her Western-Ukrainian hometown of Nadvirna, near the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. She took early retirement and moved 1200km from the relative comfort of Western Ukraine, right into the heart of the battle between Ukrainian and separatist forces; moving to the town of Pisky on the edge of Donetsk city.
Her small ambulance is now a familiar sight in the area, as Stepanivna – a famously wild driver – collects wounded soldiers directly from battle and treats them in her makeshift field hospital in an abandoned home in the town.
It is in Pisky where we meet her – she sits relaxed, sipping her coffee, below an embroidered Lord’s Prayer that hangs, slightly askew, on the wall.
Known as the ‘Mother of Pisky’, Stepanivna is a famous face among soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces. She told UNILAD:
I suppose they call me that because I’m the only woman of my age in the area!
But, in truth, to many of the men, I am a mother figure while they are here fighting. I try and mix everything together – for me, all the soldiers are my children – sometimes the younger ones need a mother as much as they need an injection.
When she isn’t darting around the notoriously dangerous front line positions she calls home, Stepanivna says she tries to provide vital psychological support for the men stationed nearby. Three years of war have taken their toll on the men still fighting, many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism and drug abuse is rife.
There is zero help from the government – the people help us, the diaspora helps us but there is nothing from the state. Our boys are suffering after years of war, a lot of them have psychological problems: many are stressed, depressed and traumatised.
We’ve had help from everywhere except the government – America, Canada, Italy, Spain – we even had an Estonian man, with no connection to Ukraine, deliver breathing apparatus after seeing an interview about what we were doing here.
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Stepanivna has become used to the horrors of war, but says she still sees severe injuries, the shock of which make her struggle to breathe. She explained how she deals, mentally, with what she sees: “I have written everything down, I have my journals, but I never want to return to them.
Our conversation with Stepanivna is occasionally interrupted, as soldiers belonging to various formations pass through her house – some are visiting those recovering from minor injuries, while others stop to say hello as they go elsewhere.
During her time on the front, Stepanivna says she’s noticed changes in her own character. She explained: “I have become fairer, much stronger and have adapted well to this life. I have become a better judge of character and I have become inspired to help raise my grandchildren in a positive way.”
While the military does have its own medics, Stepanivna is unique in that she is both a volunteer, and based on the very edges of Ukrainian-controlled territory. She told UNILAD: “I call myself a ‘partisan-medic’ because at the start I was acting alone, and not attached to any formation – I decided at the time that I would be better off operating alone, without interference.”
Stepanivna is now attached to the famous 93rd Mechanised Brigade, whose Red Army incarnation fought during the battles of Kursk, Budapest and Prague during the Second World War. Now, they are equally famous for their defence of Donetsk airport.
Stepanivna says she has a large, supportive family – she has three of her own children and three foster children who are now adults. She says her time on the front has had a positive effect on her family, helping her to raise her grandchildren in the new European Ukraine.
Her son Oleksiy lives in Chicago while her two daughters, Oksana and Mariana remain in Ukraine. She continued:
My two eldest grandchildren, Evgenia and Oleksandr, are students and their trying to become like their grandmother. My youngest grand-daughter, Anna-Anastasia, who is nursery still, tells all her friends that her grandmother’s car is the best – because it’s from the war!
Stepanivna is a famous figure among soldiers and volunteers alike – a strong yet easy-going woman. She is also an important figure in re-building bridges with the local population, many of whom have sympathies that lie with the separatist side of the conflict.
There are several people who used to call us nationalists and ‘punishers’ from West Ukraine and blame us for bringing the war here. After a while, they have seen what we do, how we care for them as well as the soldiers and now many of them are my friends.
Natalya Prilutskaya, a volunteer from Kyiv and long-time friend of Stepanivna, described her as an ‘Iron Woman’.
Natalya told UNILAD: “She’s one of the strongest women I know, I’m always so pleased when I get to see her. She’s very welcoming, the soldiers love her and she helps rebuild their strength both physically and mentally.
Finally, on the war itself, Stepanivna feels that the future will be hard for the Donbas and Ukraine. She added:
There was an opportunity to finish this was, right as it was beginning. There was so much fighting potential in the volunteer battalions.
Now it’s hard to sit and watch as the fighting continues but nothing changes.