“For every meter of land recovered from the Russians, the blood of Ukrainian soldiers is paid. We hear the joyful news that a town has been recaptured. And when we go to the place, we see that the victory cost the lives of the entire battalion—700 people died in a few hours,” says Damian Duda, the head of a team of volunteer medics on the Russia-Ukraine front. One year into the war, he shares his story.
Vogue: When did you first go to Ukraine?
Damian Duda: In 2014, I visited Mariupol. I wanted to find out what it was really like there because Russian propaganda claimed that Ukrainians were Banderites, neo-Nazis. As a historian by training, I am inquisitive. And the Russians began to play with this story, which divides Poles and Ukrainians more than unites them. At that time, Russian [shelling] fell on Mariupol, killing 30 people. I saw that there was already a war going on there—a war against our values, against our freedom. Bombs were falling on a free world like ours.
I made the decision to get involved in the conflict as a medic on the front. Since then, I have been going to Ukraine regularly. In the meantime, I also flew to Syria, where I supported the Kurds fighting the Islamists. Ten years of helping Ukraine meant ten years of sacrifice—friends who believed in Russian propaganda turned their backs on me.
And your closest friends?
They were worried about me. Years later, they know it’s a part of me, my life. I won’t stop until I say I’ve done everything I can.
At the front, do you feel like you’re taking a risk every day?
I don’t think about it all the time, but I’m aware of it. Going to the front, I know I may not come back. If I counted on having to survive at all costs in a real fight for my life, I might run out of strength. If I thought nothing would happen to me, I would risk more. You can’t lie to yourself. It’s the same with saving the lives of others—we know we can’t save everyone.
How do you treat the wounded? Do you try to keep their hopes up?
Yes. Even in the most difficult situations, we want the wounded to feel that someone is there for them. You can neither lie to anyone nor take away their hope. Let us also remember that wounds are not only in the body but also in the spirit. The latter often heal more slowly, which makes our presence all the more important.