Before Putin’s invasion, Halyna Liutikova worked at a theatre in Kyiv. Now she is an army medic on the front line trying to save Ukrainian troops
December 24, 2022
The Sunday Times
I live with three girls at the stabilisation point. It’s as if we’re doctors but with machine guns. Our operating room is not sterile, there is no water in the tap and sometimes there is no light. In our operating room there is a team: shoulder to shoulder, from all corners of the country, with one task until the end. There are those that have been in medicine for three months, and those for 35 years. We’re probably only united by the fact that none of us fear blood and that we don’t sleep long or eat much. Each has their own task. Someone cuts off the clothes on the wounded soldier, someone puts a catheter in his vein. Someone notes down all the medicine we’ve given him, someone stops the blood for the person who sews up the blood vessels. Someone chases down an ambulance under artillery fire, someone boils a pot of sweet tea. These tasks are important. These tasks save lives.
All our patients are in military uniform. They smell of dirt and damp. All of them have a spoon in their pocket, so they can have a bite to eat between bombardments, five layers of thermal underwear so they can hold out for several days in a trench and their documents in a plastic bag so they don’t get wet when they have to lie in the mud. As a minimum a soldier’s kit includes: a weapon, helmet, ammunition, grenades, a powerbank, marker pen and brothers-in-arms in whom he entrusts his life. There’s also the numbness and emptiness in the eyes. He carries that on him at all times. He sleeps with it, fights with it, eats with it.
We don’t treat people in the way you might be used to. We save their lives and then drive them on to a beautiful, sterile hospital and pray that they survive. We even decorate the operating room with Christmas tree decorations because to have a little festive spirit is more important than sterility. At the entrance to the hospital is a table with presents from the medics. We decorated the table with tinsel. Those scraps of tinsel that we found in the abandoned hospital in a pile of debris and rubbish. We give out tablets for sore throats and paracetamol, antiseptic creams and sweets. The boys give us back the sweets as a sign of thanks for the help provided.
We are three girls who never thought that we would end up at the heart of war. Before February, I was a project manager at a theatre in Kyiv. My life was full of trips to Europe, premieres and cultural events. At the start of the war I would write, then something happened that changed me a lot and I stopped. Bit by bit I am learning to live with the war. I am now starting to write more and more too. War has not changed me. I’m still the same cheerful person who loves life. War has not changed the principles by which I live. War has very much changed my daily routine. War has changed my habits.
In our room and in the operating room daylight can’t get through. Who needs daylight when GRAD missiles are all around? At least the hospital is a shelter of sorts. It makes me a little
jealous when I speak to friends over video chat when there is sun where they are and everything is light. Where they are there’s Christmas music in the cafes and the Christmas tree is up at home. We will also be going home soon. At some point they will do a rotation. But when that “soon” or that ”at some point” is — we don’t know.
We smoke IQOS e-cigarettes in our room and natter about the war, pick apart the people who annoy us and share our fears and joys. We are together 24/7. We sleep with the sound of a radio on non-stop so we know how things are going for the boys and girls at the front. We feel calmer that way. We sleep with the sound of shells arriving and leaving. However, we haven’t yet learnt how to tell apart the sounds of GRAD, anti-aircraft and tanks because none of us can believe that the war is here to stay and we ought to learn such things.
We just try to save as many lives as we can and we try to find little joys in life every day. We learn from one another and change one another. Nata knows how to put a catheter in veins that you can’t see. Lena knows the regulations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Nata has a little son, who says he is proud of her. Lena’s whole family serves in the armed forces. Nata never forgets to put honey in my green tea and Lena always grabs my plate to wash it up. In the morning all three of us have our alarms set at eight, which ring out one after the other for three minutes, but we never get up on time. Yet at the right signal from the radio, we jump from our beds at any time of day or night. We collectively decide which conserves to open for breakfast and whether Natalia should drink one more Coca-Cola today or not.
I can’t say that we have become friends. That’s something more. We haven’t shared stories about our first love and I don’t know what their favourite films are. But I do know when, how, and from what a person first died in their arms. We remember everyone who dies of course, but the first especially. Because with him something dies in you too. Your naivety dies, your weakness dies, that little girl inside you — dies. After your first dead soldier all the wounds in the world don’t wound you. Only tears wound you.
The hardest thing to see is not how they die but how they cry. How they cry quietly for their brothers-in-arms, cry bitterly for positions they had to give up or towns that were captured. How they hide their tears because they are strong warriors. So we start to talk. We talk with them about everything. It would seem like the conversation is just a conversation. But it makes things just a little bit easier. That’s what we hope for — that it becomes a little easier for them. Lord, how I wish it became easier for them. How I wish I could give them a rest. Just for the holiday. Just for three days. So they could be with their family. So they could be in the warm. So they could be in their own warm bed. So they could have a Christmas tree and presents. So they could get drunk with their friends. So they could hug their mum. So they could kiss their beloved. So they wouldn’t get wounded. So they wouldn’t die.
The author is a Ukrainian playwright and army medic stationed minutes from a frontline hotspot in east Ukraine
Translated from the Ukrainian by Jack Clover