They call her Mama

By Oksana Grytsenko and Anastasia Vlasova

NOVOAIDAR, Ukraine – Oksana Shakhray has seen more blood and bodies during Russia's war in the eastern Donbas than anyone should. The medic is not worried about herself, however, but the National Guard soldiers that she treats. The mutual devotion is so strong that they call her "Mama."

She takes a soldier by the hand and quietly speaks to him. Within a few minutes, the young man walks away looking less nervous and more confident as he prepares for night watch duty in the cold winter.

“This boy changed so much after he went home and found out his wife had left him," Shakhray said. "If you only knew how often family members cause our guys depression.”

Her nickname comes from a common saying, “Odesa mama,” attributed to her home city. But after spending more than 10 months in the war zone, the name seems to fit her better than the Black Sea port city.

“Hey, is that how you speak to Mama?!” she often says to soldiers who disobey or ignore her advice.

But more often than not, the men -- many of whom are in their 20s -- behave like obedient children, eager to fulfill her orders.

“I actually could be their mother,” said Shakhray, 48.

If you only knew how often family members cause our guys depression.

One of the reasons why Shakhray joined the military was that she feared her own 27-year-old son might be drafted and forced to fight. But he wasn't.

She also felt guilty on behalf of her generation for failing to protect the young people killed during the EuroMaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, 2014.

So Shakhray, a former auditor, swapped her elegant dresses for military camouflage and started treating the physical and psychological wounds of National Guard soldiers.

Now, even the soldiers too old to be her son call her Mama.

Life-saving courses

In a warm military tent that serves as sauna and lounge, soldiers take their seats on benches while holding tourniquets for stopping bleeding. They are preparing for Mama’s first-aid training.

There are piles of chopped wood to one side, and wool socks hanging up on strings. Two mongrel dogs and one fluffy cat are warming up next to the iron military heater.

At first, Mama treats the skin irritation of a big white dog. Then she takes out bandages and tourniquets, demonstrates how to apply them and orders the soldiers to take turns bandaging one another.

“Tell me why you need to apply a tourniquet high up on your limbs?” Mama asks with the strict tone of a school teacher. “Because you are men with big muscles, plus you have winter clothes on, so the tourniquets won’t work otherwise.”

This is the second class of combat medicine in this group, to be followed by an exam in a few days. The laughs and jokes heard inside the tent are accompanied by the sounds of shelling, striking near this checkpoint by the village of Bakhmutivka, some 500 miles from Kyiv.

This map shows the location of Bakhmutivka and Novoaidar, bordering the Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine, and the separation line as of January 2016.

Mama teaches her first-aid training at her own initiative. She believes if these skills save at least a few people it will be like “saving the universe,” she says. She conducts a tour with her training courses at various army positions all over the embattled Luhansk Oblast.

But she says there is one fortification point in particular that she has never been able to forget after holding her first training session there last summer.

“I came and saw some five tired men, who looked at me as if to say, ‘Why are you here, woman? We're tired, we don’t need this.’ But finally I found a way to talk to them and we started practicing. There was one young guy who was just smiling. He didn’t practice bandaging. He said: ‘I’d better go to the observation point. Bye, Mama.’”

In about a week, a mine hit that observation point, killing the young soldier on the spot. The rest of the group survived. When the medics reached them, all of the soldiers were wearing the tourniquets, even those who didn’t need them – just as they were taught.

“I was so depressed after that,” Mama said. “I was in grief for that boy, someone’s son.”

Psychological wounds

Mama started learning first aid during the EuroMaidan Revolution in Kyiv in February 2014. After dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with riot police, knowledge on how to give first aid was in demand.

Mama had no idea that in a year she would see blood and death on a much higher scale than in the times of EuroMaidan. In February of this year, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers found themselves surrounded by Russian forces in the city of Debaltseve in Donetsk Oblast. Those who got out did so through heavy fighting and major losses.

The team of paramedics spend hours on the bumpy roads of Luhansk Oblast, checking on the soldiers of National Guard serving there.

Once, passing through the village of Bakhmutivka, the medics bumped into an old lady standing motionless across the street and watching at them with the eyes full of hate. “What a glance,” Mama said about that woman. Then she added: “But who knows, maybe she lost some of her family members. Maybe she had reasons to look like that.”

As a civilian volunteer, Mama joined medics who were helping wounded soldiers in the city of Artemivsk, located on the road to Debaltseve. She had an ambulance called Little Begemot (hippo) to evacuate the wounded.

The hospital in Artemivsk was packed with groaning soldiers, Mama recalled. There was a wall in the hospital totally covered with the names of those who were missing or were trapped in the city. By that moment, Debaltseve had already been captured by Russian troops and their separatist proxies.

“The guys who stayed there started calling out at night and saying: ‘I am sitting here, and there are dead bodies all around. Take me out of here,’” Mama said.

Relatives of the missing soldiers started calling or coming to the hospital and asking about them. Survivors found it hard to forget how they had to pack the remains of their comrades into small boxes. Within two days of work there, Mama wasn’t able to sleep.

The guys who stayed there started calling out at night and saying: “I am sitting here, there are dead bodies all around. Take me out from here.

She saw firsthand that the war leaves wounds in people’s minds just as severe as those left on their bodies. “Post-traumatic stress disorder lasts usually for about six years. But if a soldier drinks alcohol it may remain for his entire life,” Mama said.

She believes psychological help should be included in combat medicine. “But if a psychologist comes to soldiers with some pictures, they would just laugh at him,” she said.

“It should be a person they trust.”

Strange war and simple heroes

After the Debaltseve retreat, Ukrainian troops stayed mostly in the same positions. The second Minsk peace deal seems to have stalled. There are sporadic skirmishes and constant concerns about possible attacks.

In the tents and the dugouts near the frontlines, soldiers struggle with the cold and depression. Many of them don’t understand why they are still there, far from their homes and families.

“This war dims brains. It’s unclear whether there is a war or an anti-terrorist operation, whether there is fighting or not. It’s hard for the guys to endure this,” she said. "It’s psychologically hard to endure this situation of ‘almost war.’”

A view to a dinner table at Oksana's room.
Oksana looks at the mirror as she's en route to check the medical supplies and soldier's health in Luhansk area military sector.
A view to a hospital in Novoaidar where Oksana and her comrades paramedics are based in Luhansk area.
Oksana walks back to her medical car after visiting a military redoubt in Luhansk area.

Several times per week now, an ambulance from the Pennsylvania Health Department -- a present from volunteers to the National Guard -- drives a group of medics to checkpoints. Mama sits in the backseat and constantly talks on the phone. Soldiers call her for various reasons. Even those who have finished their service keep calling her to get her advice.

“When we talk I add the words: ‘Keep it up, guys,’” “You need these skills for yourselves,’” “’You are heroes,’” Mama said. She tries to give them some confidence, explain that even when only chopping wood or digging trenches, they are still heroes.

This war dims brains. It’s unclear whether there is a war or an anti-terrorist operation, whether there is fighting or not. It’s hard for the guys to endure this . It’s psychologically hard to endure this situation of ‘almost war.’

She knows that heroes don’t often receive medals.

She tells of a case when a military truck carrying 20 soldiers collided with another truck loaded with coal. The military driver turned his cabin in such a way that it would receive the brunt of the impact but spare the passengers. The driver lost his leg in the crash.

“I think this man was a real hero. He saved 20 lives,” Mama said.

Women at war

Mama walks along a muddy street of the small city of Novoaidar where her unit is based. About a third of people seen in the city center are wearing military camouflage, and Mama greets and hugs the soldiers she knows.

Ukrainian folk and patriotic songs are heard from a loudspeaker at city hall. A group of civilians stand in line waiting for a bus nearby. Some of them seem uncomfortable about the music.

Mama said sometimes when she walks the streets in Novoaidar, she can sense some local woman looking at her hatefully. But she doesn’t blame them: Some have lost their loved ones in this war, others have loved ones fighting on the separatists’ side.

Oksana and her comrade from her medical unit, Alla, talk in their a military base in Kyiv.
Oksana speaks on the phone with a soldier in her room in a hospital in Novoaidar, Luhansk area.
Oksana with other volunteer paramedics waits for Ukrainian soldiers as they go out from Debaltseve pocket where they spent almost two weeks under siege of Russian troops. Artemivsk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.
Oksana speaks on the phone with a soldier in a military base in Kyiv.

Mama lives at the children’s department of a local hospital, sharing a room with a medical doctor who is her colleague and friend. This room also serves as a kitchen, a dining room and a storage center for medication.

At the end of each day, the two women often listen to music and talk about their families. Mama likes to show pictures of her younger son and her dog on her cellphone.

“I have to be strong here, support and advise our guys,” Mama said. “But if you knew how much I sometimes want to be a weak girl. Just to lean on someone’s shoulder and rest.”

To continue her first aid training Mama is asking volunteers for a mannequin hand to practice intravenous injections and a mannequin head to practice the placing of a breathing tube. “It could be old, used in any condition just to train our guys,” she said. “It’s really important, it saves a lot of lives.”

The Kyiv Post is ready to accept mannequins at its office address and deliver them to Mama.

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Anastasia Vlasova:

"Thanks to donations we have an opportunity to get protection and special equipment to stay on the war line as long as we can. It's quite important to be there and be able to see the real situation on the war line and bring it to the world."