BRK paramedics in Ukraine: women, children, mothers, grandmothers just staring into space

AZ interview with Christian Strohschein: The 44-year-old is an emergency paramedic at the Bavarian Red Cross in the Aschaffenburg district association.

AZ: Mr. Strohschein, you just returned a week ago from a humanitarian mission in the war zone Ukraine. What exactly did you do there?
CHRISTIAN STROHSCHEIN: Shortly after the start of the conflict, the Bavarian Red Cross asked the individual district associations and standby teams in BRK who could provide an ambulance crew with a delivery time of 24 hours. We then reported our ambulances to Lower Franconia and in fact everyone thought that, as is so often the case, it was a prior request. Then one Friday night at half past seven in the evening came the call: It starts on Monday. The task of the management staff in Munich was that we should be stationed in Romania or Moldova and from there take refugees or wounded into the custody of the rescue services, transfer them to larger clinics or bring them to airports where they will be distributed. to Europe.

Paramedics from the Bavarian Red Cross in Ukraine

Something else happened.
Two days later we were in Linz, Austria. By then, it was already said that it was primarily going to Moldova to be operationally active from there. At this time, we were also transferred to the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC – the institution that monitors compliance with international humanitarian law in conflict areas. I have been doing foreign aid for over 20 years, a lot in Eastern Europe, but it was something new even for an old hand like me.

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Then what happened?
We were a binational force with colleagues from Israel and Germany, and our first task was to bring patients from southern Ukraine – specifically from Odessa and from Mykolaiv – overland to the Moldovan capital Chisinau to transport them there by plane to evacuate. But it soon became clear that we were going to Ukraine for help from the rescue service. So we moved our mission to Odessa, and from there we supported our colleagues from the Ukrainian Red Cross in Mykolaiv, which is then very close to the contact line. And finally, the ICRC asked if we would move further east – to the Donbass. The ICRC still had an office there, in the town of Sloviansk. And then we went on a two-day trip with two teams.

“Sirens, rockets, explosions: you learn to handle them”

How did it feel to get closer and closer to the war?
You learn to deal with it. With the fact that the siren warns of air attacks several times daily. So you can hear explosions a few kilometers away. And at some point, you also have an ear for whether it is rockets being fired from the site or coming towards you, that is, whether it is “outgoing” or “incoming fire”.

Based on the first call from Munich, did you expect to end up in such a hotly contested part of Ukraine?
It was, of course, dealt with in advance, sometimes with very practical questions: If something happens to you in a conflict area, life insurance does not pay off. Of course, it was also a problem with my wife, who is herself an emergency doctor. We built four years ago and part of the house went through life insurance. It was not foreseeable in advance that it would end up so far in the Donbass, actually in the immediate vicinity of the contact line. But the gaps in the rescue services that we found there were huge. In addition, we each had the opportunity to say no at any time.

Life-threatening risks of BRK deployment in Ukraine

You said “yes. Why?
It was a very conscious decision. We worked in Kramatorsk, Bakhmut, Slovyanks, Lusichansk and Severodonetsk. We were in a hospital in Severodonetsk, 500 meters from the contact line. If you took a wrong turn there, you are standing on a corner where it is better not to stand. What helped us tremendously was knowing that with the ICRC we have such a large security apparatus behind us. Of course, there are risks, life-threatening risks. But to see how the Red Cross accepts and respects both parties to such a conflict is impressive.

How does a mission like this work?
The movements we made in these areas close to the line of contact are reported to both the Ukrainian and Russian side. Let’s say we indicate that we will carry out medical evacuations, and then it is mirrored through the ICRC to both Ministries of Defense. From there it goes to the respective company manager on the spot, and he then says: Okay, we take into account that the Red Cross is active between kl. 9 and 12, for example. Therefore, humanitarian corridors are kept open and no shelling is carried out. But we also saw that both sides said: No, please do not come to these cities tomorrow. And then there is no discussion.

“We as the Red Cross take care of everyone”

Does that mean nothing works without permission?
If you get a so-called red light, you must obey it. This is also the reason why evacuations from disputed areas cannot take place every day. Or maybe only at certain times. Or that evacuations must be canceled. We also experienced this: We were ten kilometers from the place when we got the call that one side had given a red light. Then turn 180 degrees and drive back.

The ICRC was accused of not positioning itself clearly enough vis-à-vis Russia. What do you think?
We as the Red Cross take care of all the people affected and injured by this conflict. It does not matter if they are in uniform or not, it does not matter what kind of flag is on that uniform or if they are civilians. Only this neutrality is the key to success for us. Once you start taking sides on one political side, the other side will not talk to you. And it is also far from us as Red Cross members to judge it. Personally, one may have an opinion, but as Red Crosses, we need impartiality.

Is there a moment you particularly remember?
When we moved to the Donbass, we were near the town of Dnipro, at a military checkpoint that we were to pass. A convoy of fourteen buses carrying refugees from Mariupol approached us. My colleague and I sat in the ambulance, looked into this bus and saw faces of children, women, mothers, grandmothers, and they were all staring out into the room. And then they saw us in the ambulance, with the Red Cross flag, and realized that we were going there now, in the hot zone where they just came from. And then they waved to us. There was an elderly lady who crossed herself and gave us a single look and gesture to tell us: What you are doing is right. On the other hand, of course, there are also a lot of bad scenes, countless wounded. And death is a part of it. He does this in our daily work in emergency preparedness, but in a completely different dimension. One must not forget that the situation on the ground is also a humanitarian emergency.

“Imagine 400,000 people without water”

How bad was the supply situation?
In Mykolaiv, when we were there, there had been no water supply for two to three weeks. Imagine a city with 400,000 inhabitants without water. The aid organizations sometimes delivered 30 or 40 tons a day, two large trucks filled. But of course that is not enough. The need is great. The interaction between the organizations working on the ground is all the more important.

You’ve been back for a little over a week. After such a mission, how do you deal with the mental stress that what you have seen triggers?
We were cared for professionally by psychologists throughout the operation and were in contact with the psychosocial emergency services of the Bavarian Red Cross, which still exist. And we also sat together as a team in the evening and talked about how to feel. Of course, it also happens that you shed a few tears, and it is important that you allow these feelings. It just helps me a lot to talk about it. And to create an understanding of why we did it.

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