Australian nurse discusses her humanitarian mission to Ukraine's frontlines

Helen Zahos visits damaged civilian buildings in Ukraine

Helen Zahos visits damaged civilian buildings in Ukraine – Photo courtesy of Helen Zahos

Australian emergency nurse, Helen Zahos, has just returned home after working as a humanitarian volunteer near the frontlines in Ukraine.

Helen has previously talked to Global Voices about earlier volunteer experiences: One Australian Nurse's Stirring Response to the Refugee Crisis and COVID-19 on the frontline: Insights from an Australian humanitarian nurse.

She kindly agreed to our request to share her latest undertaking in Ukraine. This is part one of a two-part interview. The second is here.

Kevin Rennie (KR): Firstly, how long was your visit? What can you tell us about the places you worked and visited in Ukraine?

Helen Zahos (HZ): My visit went for five weeks with four weeks in Ukraine and one week in Moldova. I'm unable to disclose exact locations for safety reasons. The frontline was seven kilometers away with one section about 20 or 30 km away experiencing heavy bombing.

We were able to hear bombings during the night when we were getting warnings and it sounded like a heavy thunderstorm close by. We saw a missile strike coming into the area withthe large smoke cloud rising above from where the missile had hit. One night a gas station was targeted and the explosion was loud and felt like a small earthquake.

I was in Ukraine with a doctor and a coordinator of the organisation Adventist Help to do an assessment for a field hospital to go in near the frontline. We were unable to do any medical support but we visited all the hospitals in the area. The most difficult were the army hospital and children’s hospital.

We had meetings with the deputy Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence as well as the mayor of the local region. It was a really different kind of  deployment and it was the first time I think that my consultancy and my advice were listened to. I spoke with army commanders and looked at bomb shelters. We did a needs assessment indicating there was pressing needs on the frontline such as x-ray equipment and surgical equipment.

I was able to visit Kiev but was unable to exit from there because of concentrated bombing. Going out by courier added a couple of days. It wasn't much safer but allowed me to see Irpin and Bucha which were heavily attacked at the beginning of the war, which included Russian soldiers coming in and destroying civilian housing. It gave me goosebumps to see the civilian housing destroyed and it actually was really eerie and it made you want to cry because you could just almost picture these people fleeing for their lives and you know they were innocent innocent victims in all of this.  I saw my driver’s and his brother’s homes that had been destroyed plus video footage of what actually happened on the security cameras from that night. There was intentional damage to churches and civilian housing and it really was clear that nothing was sacred and this was a very different kind of war.

KR: What was the hardest thing for you as a nurse working in a war zone?

HZ: Initially it was all very overwhelming, I think after seeing so many hospitals and people injured from bombings and being shot, it was difficult to not be able to nurse, I wanted to care for these people and comfort them. Because of the concern that foreigners were being targeted, as well as the language barrier, authorities didn’t want them assisting near the frontline. The army commander said it was more of a hindrance and a danger than help.

KR: How did this compare with your previous experience of volunteering in a war zone such as Iraq?

HZ: This is a completely different war with the largest frontline in Europe since World War II. In Iraq, I was living in a compound outside Mosul surrounded by American and Australian soldiers. Ukraine was a lot scarier. Due to the unpredictable nature of this war, you were that much more hypervigilant and on guard.

In Iraq I caught a taxi from the airport by myself to the compound. In Ukraine I waited in Moldova for the Doctor and the Coordinator to drive to the border together and be met by Ukraine Government officials. In both countries people were trying as hard as they could to live as much a normal life as they could, but Ukraine had depleted grocery shelves and the air raid sirens were frequent. I did not experience that in Iraq.

KR: What was the most memorable meeting or covert mission you did?

HZ: There was a period of two weeks when I was there by myself. I had volunteered to wait for containers to arrive and was sick with bronchitis. I met with the frontline commander and it resembled something out of a movie. The interpreter and I were given instructions, the location kept changing and we met in a secret location where there was a big German Shepherd dog, plus the commander and armed soldiers. I remember thinking anything could happen right now and no one knows where we are. I had tried to capture our location on Google Maps and send it through to my solicitor who was to activate a retrieval if I hadn’t made contact within 24 hours, so at least she knew my approximate location. There were about 12 people in the community on a list to be contacted should I be captured by insurgents, taken hostage, killed, or critically injured. The unpredictability meant a completely different approach compared to other missions, the risk was high and each step was assessed so no unnecessary risks were taken.

KR: Were there many frustrating situations? Were you ever scared for your own safety or that of others around you?

HZ: Yes, frustration goes hand in hand with humanitarian aid work, particularly in unstable or unpredictable environment so you have to go in having little to no expectations and go with the flow and expect whatever may be planned will often change, sometimes several times in one day. Frustrating because I didn’t know the language and things slow down when you are using interpreters. At times when I was on my own trying to buy groceries I would be using Google Translate which really slowed things down but got us a lot of laughs as well. I found it frustrating being a woman in some of the meetings when the coordinator or doctor were not there and I was speaking to men. It felt like I was dismissed at times because of this but ultimately, they had to listen to what was being said.

KR: What were the most rewarding moments of your time there?

HZ: Being able to follow through on a promise and making things happen, teaching and sharing my knowledge with medics on the frontline who reached out for support and guidelines. Being able to console someone that has just been told a family has been killed on the front line. Being able to support a woman whose husband is fighting on the front line and whose son is just about to turn 18 and is preparing to be sent away to fight. Cooking for and washing clothes for people in a refuge.

Interviewing journalists from CNN, BBC, and independent journalists on my phone in my role as an expert consultant for the Dart Centre for Asia Pacific, was invaluable.

KR: You have called yourself an advocate. Which Ukrainian voices are you trying to amplify and what is their message?

HZ: I think as a nurse it is difficult in these situations where you really don’t want to get dragged into the politics, there are wrongs on both sides that is what war is about. As a nurse I look at the human being in front of me, if they need help, I help them. It is important when coming into these areas on a mission to understand a bit about the history in the area, and in this situation this war really has been going on for eight years now.

What I can comment about is what I have seen with my own eyes and that is the war crimes, civilian buildings, and churches destroyed, not just by bombs, but soldiers shooting at close range and holding hammers and destroying civilian houses, something which Russia has denied. I guess it’s the voices of all Ukrainians that the war and senseless killing must end, that Ukraine needs support from around the world and that at the end of the day, there are human beings on both sides that are innocent. We have been allowed to see what is happening on the Ukraine side, but know and trust little of what is being said on the Russian side. Irrespective of whichever side you may have family or friends on, there are innocent lives that are being used as pawns in a very vicious game. From what I saw the people of Ukraine are resilient, their spirits remain high, they have faith and they are strong. The message from Ukrainian people is “We will win this war.”

KR: What are some of the stories they shared with you? 

HZ: So many stories, from personal to what happened to family or in the neighborhood. Daily reports like “My mum’s next door neighbours house in the village was bombed last night, my mum is ok but they are in shock.” “My best friend was just killed on the frontline. We went to school together.” “We have girls here that have been raped but we don’t talk about it because it is too upsetting and we protect them.” “My wife and children left, we can’t leave as men here in Ukraine but we are prepared to fight.” “Children are too scared to look outside the window. It is too bright for them as they are used to being in the dark down in a bomb shelter.” “There was no possibility they would survive as the injuries were catastrophic after the explosion.”

Helen Zahos visiting a resuscitation room in Ukraine

Helen Zahos visiting a resusitation room in Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Zahos

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