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Yegor Firsov is a combat paramedic in Avdiikva, Ukraine. He is an activist and a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament.
AVDIIKVA — It feels weird being here; a grown man with a beard, carrying a rifle.
It’s strange tending to the wounded and carrying them on stretchers down the lanes and across the fields I used to walk with my grandmother, holding her hand, where I rode my bike and went fishing with friends, so carefree.
I write this from Avdiivka, a town 10 kilometers from Donetsk. I was born and raised in Donetsk, but my grandmother lived here. I used to spend a lot of time with her, and even went to school here for several years. But these days, I’m serving as a tactical medic — and this is one of the most ferocious frontlines in Ukraine.
My grandmother’s house, where my father grew up, is now destroyed. And my parents’ house, some kilometers away in Donetsk, is no longer accessible — it hasn’t been since 2014, when Russia first occupied part of the Donbas.
That’s the appropriate word — occupied — but for a long time, the world didn’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that Ukraine had been invaded.
It wasn’t only the West that tried to dodge this terrible reality, though. So did we, Ukrainians.
In 2014, when Russia first began its war on our country nine years ago, I left Donbas for Kyiv. I now understand that I didn’t really leave, I ran away from the war. But it turns out you can’t run away from war. It’s a challenge you can’t evade and must face. It catches up with you, your family, your loved ones.
And so, my circle of fate has closed: I’m back where I started, back in my home region — now armed with a rifle and a medical backpack slung over my shoulder.
As I fight in Avdiivka, my mind is crowded with childhood memories. I often pass along a road where a large, unexploded shell sticks out — 15 years ago, this was the road I took to school when I lived with my grandmother. I used to walk along this path with my childhood sweetheart. Now, I drive the injured down it. The truck cabin always smells of blood and wounds.
I replay in my mind the town I knew so long ago — luminous days filled with childhood joy. Two parallel worlds exist in my head. And, in a way, the world of the past helps me escape the horrors I witness now. But there’s a constant mental conflict — it aches to see where I was once so happy be destroyed.
Sometimes, I try to avoid glancing in the direction of the ruins of the school where I studied as a kid. In May, it was turned into a humanitarian center where volunteers brought food for the locals. The teachers and youngsters giving out food to the elderly asked me to teach them how to apply a tourniquet and what to do in case of injury. I enjoyed teaching them and revisiting the classrooms. Shortly after, the school was wrecked by Russian barrage.
I sometimes ponder why there’s so much cruelty in the world. I used to teach history at another nearby school that’s since also been razed, despite having survived World War II.
It’s as though Russia’s trying to erase my past. I wonder if they understand that by killing the peaceful past in our minds, they’re replacing it with hatred toward them.
My dad used to phone constantly, wanting to know about my grandmother’s house, where he’d once hoped to see out his retirement. I kept the truth from him for a while and assured him everything was okay. But one day, I was in a bad mood.
“Pa, listen, the house has gone; it has been destroyed. First, the windows were shattered by blasts. Then, a shell hit the walls. Our house is no longer there. Forget it. I’m busy! I’ll call you back later.”
My father was devastated, and I immediately regretted telling him the truth.
Knowing that I’m here, my friends from Avdiivka often call with similar requests to check on their houses or pick up things from their apartments. One day, a classmate who’d left the city a month earlier called and asked to see if her beloved flowers were still blooming.
“Ira, what flowers?! People are dying here,” I answered. Then, I hung up.
That’s when I realized people are in pain, and they can’t come to terms with what they’ve lost — everything they lived with for decades of their lives, where they went to bed every night and woke up each day, year after year. Where they loved, where they suffered heartache, where they cried and laughed . . .
Incredible as it sounds, though, even now people don’t want to leave Avdiivka, although there’s been no electricity, no water and no gas for many months. And civilians are dying almost every day.
For months, I was anxious about my old class teacher, Inna Vladimirovna, who stayed here until June, enduring the shelling. I felt responsible, but she ignored all my attempts to persuade her to leave. I even wrote to my classmates, asking them to call her. But all of it was useless — until a shell flew right into her house.
She miraculously survived, but her son was wounded. Only this convinced her to flee.
Before the war, more than 20,000 people lived here. Now, there are only a few thousand. They cook on open fires and sleep in basements.
But I think everyone here has their own reasons for staying: Some are more afraid to leave than to live under bombing; some are attached to their houses; some have bedridden relatives. There are also some who are waiting to fight Russian soldiers.
Once, in the spring, when I was looking to buy some milk, I was walking around the residential sector, and I met an elderly man with a cow. He gave me 3 liters of milk and flatly refused to take any money. He explained how his wife had died in shelling in 2016; his daughter was disabled. When I told him it would be best if he left, he pointed to his barn and cow, and said, “Where am I, an old man, supposed to go?”
In addition to the tactical military doctors, one civilian doctor, Vitaly Vyacheslavovich, also continues to live and work in Avdiivka. He gets angry when he’s advised to leave. “How can I leave my city?! There are still people here,” he says.
Vyacheslavovich is my hero. Every time I see him or talk to him on the phone, he radiates energy and optimism. I don’t know how he manages to do it. His hospital has already been shelled several times.
Casualty figures may seem like just statistics in Kyiv. But here in Avdiivka, they have faces.
What great goal could justify their erasure?