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3 military medics in Ukraine describe how the war has changed them


Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is warning that more civilian deaths are likely to be uncovered in the suburbs around Kyiv. In the days since Russian forces moved out, Ukrainians say the bodies of hundreds of civilians have been found. Zelenskyy is scheduled to address the United Nations Security Council today and asked for the U.N. to investigate possible war crimes. He'll also ask for more help from millions of Ukrainians who still live under the Russian siege, such as in the port city of Mariupol, where the International Red Cross is struggling to reach civilians. Few know the pain of that experience better than military medics. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been talking with some of them and brings us this report from Kyiv.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: We meet Margaret Rivchachenko at one of the few open cafes in Kyiv. She's got an hour break, and coffee is a must.

MARGARET RIVCHACHENKO: I'm feeling tired - really tired.

NADWORNY: Before the war, Margaret was a journalist and a press secretary. When the invasion started, she saw her friends - many of them professionals, other journalists - flee, but she felt compelled to stay.

RIVCHACHENKO: If I go abroad, I wouldn't forgive myself for this.

NADWORNY: For leaving?

RIVCHACHENKO: For leaving the Ukraine. Yeah.

NADWORNY: About a month before the war, she'd taken a first aid course just in case. Once the war started, she signed up to be a medic.

RIVCHACHENKO: I think that medics is more necessary than economic journalist or press secretary of deputy.

NADWORNY: She's gotten more training now. The biggest part of her job is to make sure her soldiers have the right medical gear. She trains them to use a tourniquet - a strap that stops intense bleeding - correctly, and to be able to do basic first aid, especially when they're in a high-stress situation. She's lonely, far from her family in Kharkiv, and she has her doubts about her decision.

RIVCHACHENKO: And my thoughts was like, what are you doing (laughter)? Why? Maybe I will die.

NADWORNY: She remembers a moment about a week or so after the war started.

RIVCHACHENKO: I saw in the mirror myself, but it's not me, and I realized that everything has changed. My body is changed. My thought is changed.

NADWORNY: You said your thoughts have changed. What do you mean?

RIVCHACHENKO: I was a pacifist before the 24 of February, but now - (laughter) I'm not a pacifist now.

NADWORNY: It doesn't take a long time for war to change you in big and small ways. Margaret carries a gun now. She says she doesn't want to use it, but if she needs to, she will. And even though she's worried these changes in her are permanent, she's also afflicted with thoughts she's not doing enough - those same thoughts she had weeks ago, when she signed up for the territorial defense.

RIVCHACHENKO: I wanted to do more, and now I want to do more than I'm doing now.

NADWORNY: Iryna Cherhava - a 26-year-old with a sly smile and long, red hair - feels that, too.

IRYNA CHERHAVA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I feel a lot of tension," she says, "because I want to be on the front lines." She's a paramedic and an ambulance driver. But right now, it's her job to train new medics like Margaret.

CHERHAVA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: I ask her about the Russian troops' withdrawal from Kyiv. Ukrainian officials announced they've taken back the entire region around the capital. She says she just doesn't trust the Russians. This doesn't mean that war is over.

CHERHAVA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I'm still sleeping in my uniform," she says.

CHERHAVA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "With a missile attack, you never know where the front lines are," she says. "You can't let your guard down, so you're just alert all the time."

IVANKA CHOBANYUK: You're always thinking about danger.

NADWORNY: Ivanka Chobanyuk is on those front lines - the front lines Iryna yearns for. She's a combat doctor, and she speaks with a calm that's contagious - that's despite the stuff she's actually talking to me about.

CHOBANIUK: This is a very stressful situation. We have a lot of adrenaline, and we are working in our maximum limits.

NADWORNY: In 2014, she did this same job - treating a lot of gunshot wounds, burns, head injuries. She's seen plenty of those these past several weeks, too. But this war - it's different, she says. The missile attacks are new.

CHOBANIUK: Russia (ph) trauma - it's more heavier, more difficult trauma.

NADWORNY: She says she's never seen so much compression syndrome - when a body is literally crushed by something heavy, like a building.

CHOBANIUK: There is a lot of people who's under construction, so you should first take all of pieces of building and to then just hope to find a live person.

NADWORNY: I ask her how she deals with her emotions, seeing so much pain and trauma.

CHOBANIUK: Actually, I know that I am very control-freak person.

NADWORNY: Part of that control is practical. It makes her better at her job. But she also says control is what keeps her sane, focused. The only time she lets her emotions get to her is in her first minute on a new scene.

CHOBANIUK: I have a fear before every mission. I'm thinking about it and what could happen.

NADWORNY: What could happen to her, to her team, to the people she's treating. Every time, no matter how many times she does this, her legs shake.

CHOBANIUK: So when you are nervous, leg shakes are normal. It's a usual thing (laughter).

NADWORNY: But those nerves are short-lived. She centers.

CHOBANIUK: After this minute, I'm just - yes. Everything could happen, but I'm here, and that's what I'm doing.

NADWORNY: So she takes a deep breath, her legs stop shaking, and in she goes to do her job.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kyiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.

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