Ukraine

'We are fighting for our land, for our homes': Ukrainian medic reflects on life in war zone

Maxsim Paramonov has gone from student doctor to soldier to medical volunteer in Ukraine.

The evening of 23 February was just like any other for Maksim Paramonov and his girlfriend. He got his things ready for work the next day and went to bed.

Maksim was woken up at 5:13 in the morning to the sound of explosions and a single thought in his mind: "It has begun".

Maksim is from Kharkiv, a city in the east of Ukraine that has witnessed brutal destruction by the Russian forces since the full-scale invasion on 24 February.

Before the war, the 22-year-old was in his fourth year of a medical degree studying to become a doctor and working at an ambulance service in the Kharkiv general hospital.

Maksim describes the first strikes as unexpected and excruciatingly loud, setting off car alarms blaring throughout the city.

Despite having experienced the brutalities of war firsthand, the student has retained his sense of humour, joking that it was a very effective wake-up call.

Medical student
Maksim Paramonov is in the fourth year of his medical degree (Picture: Maksim Paramonov).

His next steps were to evacuate his friend with his grandmother to the outskirts of the Kharkiv.

Panic ensued as people rushed to leave the city with traffic jams and queues outside petrol stations and shops lasting for many hours.

The next day the medical student returned to the hospital where he worked to deliver food and treat some of the first victims of war.

He explains that some of the medical personnel started living at the hospital. Many people have also started using it as a shelter.

The first evening of Maksim's shift at the hospital involved treating civilians who were donating blood when the centre for blood donations was hit by missiles.

Six people were injured, two of them in a critical condition.

Then, according to Maksim, the hospital started to receive wounded soldiers with traumatic limb amputations.

Most of the people that Maksim treated that day were civilians.

Maksim training to be a doctor
Maksim training to become a doctor (Picture: Maksim Paramonov).

When asked whether the hospital would treat Russian soldiers as well, the future doctor said: "If there are wounded Russian soldiers, they would be received by us or another hospital.

"They would also receive help."

After the second day of the war, Maksim became very ill and had to spend the following four days at home in bed, experiencing daily shelling.

"You lie there thinking, hoping that you won't get hit. You can't predict it," he said.

"We had lights, electricity and heating; all of the utilities were supplied to the apartment. We had food.

"When there was no shelling, it seemed like ordinary everyday life.

"When the strikes started, it became frightening. You can't predict if a missile will hit your house or not. Like a lottery but with your life at stake."

Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-largest city, close to the border with Russia. It has withstood heavy artillery and constant airstrikes and in the first few days of the invasion, the city repelled a Russian armoured column.

According to Maksim, most of the military action took place in the form of artillery strikes.

"Russian soldiers entered my city once and they were kicked out in three hours," he said.

The Russian soldiers, he says, are not motivated because, as an invading force, their incentive to fight is not as strong as the Ukrainians.

"We are fighting for our land, for our homes."

The young medic's house has been damaged, the windows smashed from a shockwave created by a strike.

He describes Russia's warfare tactics as "cowardly", adding: "When you strike targets around 40 km away without thinking of the consequences, for them, it is just a target.

"For us, it is destroyed houses, destroyed lives."

Maksim in the territorial defence force. (Picture: Maksim Paramonov)
Maksim in the territorial defence force (Picture: Maksim Paramonov).

After the first week of the war, Maksim, with his grandmother and girlfriend, fled to the outskirts of Kharkiv to escape the constant shelling.

Once they arrived and started to unpack, planes started roaring above them and they heard the now too-familiar sound of explosions.

They realised that the outskirts were not safe either and made the decision to evacuate to Zaporizhia to join Maksim's girlfriend's parents.

After having to go past many checkpoints, they arrived in Zaporizhia, a city in the southeast of Ukraine that has received thousands of refugees and remains relatively safe.

Once settled in, Maksim joined the territorial defence and picked up a rifle. Luckily, he says, he has not needed to use it, as he had not experienced any previous "conflict situations".

The territorial defence of Ukraine consists of volunteer units who help the authorities and the military, maintaining public order and "weeding out saboteurs".

Maksim volunteering in he ambulance services
Maksim volunteering with the ambulance service (Picture: Maksim Paramonov).

Maksim spent three days with the territorial defence force, patrolling the streets and guarding checkpoints.

The civilians were very supportive of what Maksim and his volunteer unit were doing.

"We would stop people to check their documents. The people would be thanking us, giving us bread, Snickers chocolate bars, saying 'thank you for protecting us'."

Maksim felt that the support from the ordinary people that he signed up to defend was motivating.

However, his time in the territorial defence force did not last long. Once his superiors found out that he was studying to become a doctor they suggested that he would be more useful volunteering with the emergency services.

"I realise that my skills and knowledge would be better served working with the emergency services, treating the wounded civilians and military rather than guarding checkpoints," he said.

Maksim has since been volunteering with the local ambulance service in Zaporizhia.

The railway station has been bombed and the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, located in Zaporizhia, was attacked but compared to other cities, like Kharkiv and Mariupol, the situation in Zaporizhia has remained relatively stable, with the outskirts receiving most of the strikes.

On Maksim's first day on the job volunteering with the ambulance service, he was called out to attend a strike in a village 10km outside of the city, where 15 people were injured and three people died.

"You can't relax, you're constantly in a state of heightened anxiety," he said.

"You go to sleep, and you don't know if you are going to wake up in the morning.

"No-one expected this. We lived our lives, had plans and now the future is unclear.

"It is scary, but I believe that we will win," he added.