Photo by Nick West
After 17 years of dedication to his Berlin patients, his band and his army wear shop, Ukrainian doctor Sergey Steuer suddenly got caught up by the politics of his home country. He embarked on a mission that would take him from the barricades on Maidan square to the front lines in Donbass.
I’ve never been actively engaged in politics, really. But then, in December 2013, I noticed that my daughters in Kiev, who were involved in animal rights, were no longer posting cute pictures of kittens on their Facebook feeds. Instead, they had started posting photos of beaten-up students from Maidan. All their friends were gradually moving from the world of pets to the world of politics. I remember the day they posted the photographs of the first two people shot dead on the square. I saw them in the morning, and by the time I got to work I realised – I can’t stay in Berlin any longer when things like these are happening. The dead faces kept spinning in my mind. In the evening, I got a plane ticket to Kiev for the following day.
You slowly start to realise that this is one total fuck-up... but you also realise that you won’t sneak out, even if the unit seems to be under the command of a former criminal.
I arrived on Maidan square on January 22, 2014. It was sunny and quiet – nothing was on fire. The day before they had brought the water cannons to disperse the crowds, so everything was covered with ice. I immediately started helping out. They had organised a medical centre on the third floor of the former trade union building. There I treated a bit of everything – pneumonia, chest colds, hypertension, heart problems. But many came because of their eyes: eyes damaged by pellets, from stun grenades. And then there were contused wounds – and the psychotic states caused by them. It was hard to even come close to some of the patients. They couldn’t hear, they couldn’t see, all they could do was swing their arms around. There were elderly people. An old man told me, “Sonny, I have been working for 50 years, and I have nothing to leave my grandson. At least I want to leave him a chance for a decent life.”
February 2014: War from Berlin
After two weeks, I went back to work in Berlin. But then, in February, came the dreadful days of the Maidan shootings. I called a friend. “Serezhenka,” she said, “there is a pile of corpses around me. We might as well be the next to be shot. All right, I am hanging up. Farewell.” I was in a state of shock. But then the following week, the first casualties started coming here. Some oligarch had organised with the German goverment that they be flown to Germany for treatment, and we got 12 of them in Berlin. I could at least be useful, and it was a little relief.
The next month came the annexation of Crimea. Then everything moved to the Donbass. It was around May when, looking at the new casualties from Ukraine, I realised – shouldn’t they have bulletproof vests or helmets? So I started meeting with people from the Ukrainian community here, but also Russians, to help improve their situation. We called ourselves “Euromaidan Wache Berlin” [now Ukraine-Hilfe Berlin e.V.]. We were busy all summer getting together cargo with medication and equipment. After a few months, we crossed that fine line between purely humanitarian aid and military aid. From Berlin we sent 2000 helmets – prices for the Kevlar helmets skyrocketed from €20 to €200!
I remember on one occasion I was loading helmets, and my very close pal, the bass player of our band, came up and said: “What are you doing here supporting the war? Think for yourself – would you send your own daughter there?”
My daughter had worked with me on Maidan, classifying the medication. Three days after I left, someone had brought a box with an explosive hidden inside a box of medication, and the guy who was there on duty got his arms torn off. And suddenly I realised: I had already sent my daughter there.
At that point I decided that I had to participate as much as my age and abilities would allow. The decision matured slowly, but my desperation and sense of discomfort accumulated to the extent that I had to go and see, not just send things.
November 2014: Poltava
We had contacts with a woman from the “Poltava battalion”. Organised by the Orthodox Church, it’s a group of volunteer civilians who help with the war effort – but don’t fight. I told them I’d like to go with them and check the state of the health service. I bought a ticket and arrived in Poltava in eastern Ukraine in November. I got on the first convoy to the front line. We left early – dirt roads are mined, and it’s dangerous to go over in the dark. We were on the road for three days. In Berlin I’d worked day and night, constantly looking for donations, experiencing nervous breakdowns. Here on this bus, ironically, I finally got some rest.
Then we reached the front line. There I saw some old men. Some young boys. Some poets. In the beginning, there were absolutely weird people who had nothing to do with the army. Soldiers dressed as bums – it looked like some cheap melodrama! I saw fighters from the “National Guard” – it was at once clear they were either former cops, or former racketeers. Then we also heard prisoners in garages who coughed at night, and saw people being walked around with bags on their heads. You slowly start to realise that this is one total fuck-up, but you also realise you can’t stop it. It is a nightmare you wish you had never allowed yourself to witness. But you also know that it is already impossible to go back, and you know you won’t sneak out, even if the unit seems to be under the command of a former criminal. It is a trap. Pandora’s box was opened, mad people were set free, and for now there are more mad people on the other side than on this one. That’s it.
At that point, it wasn’t that dangerous. I nearly stepped on a trip wire next to a checkpoint, but apart from this there was nothing frightening; we unloaded the freight and went back home. But there was this feeling of getting deeper and deeper into supporting this war. And what really troubled me was: how far would I go? I started making hemostatic tourniquets and teaching people how to use them. And after a month I went there for the second time, being more aware and awake.
On my second train journey back from Poltava, I shared a compartment with a young army surgeon, a goldmine of a guy! He wouldn’t pronounce a swear word, hated arms and had no idea what to do with the gun he was entitled to carry. Thanks to a civilian doctor who’d volunteered to take his place, he could go home. I said, “Sashko, you arrange it and I will also come.” Shortly after that, he wrote to me: “I talked to the people in charge, you can come!” And so I took three weeks’ leave.
February 2015: Nizhnee
When it was time to go, my heart sank. I tried to look for an excuse not to leave Berlin again; I had a bad feeling. All the same, I packed my bags – my helmet and bulletproof jacket, as well as a small set of surgical knives and some medication. On the plane, I thought to myself: Seryozha, what the hell are you doing? Have you gone out of your mind?
I arrived in Kiev, and then travelled to Poltava. It was difficult to make it further into the “antiterrorist” operation zone, since Debaltseve was already surrounded in what came to be known as “the cauldron”. The deal was: I’d make it to Artemivsk, and from there they’d bring me to the front line.
The hospital in Artemivsk was full of casualties – lying on the ground, sitting, walking around, a mix of arms, blood, and the dead. Every day, they were bringing a hundred heavy casualties from Debaltseve. They’d tightened the assault, and Kiev was doing fuck-all. My wish to go to the “bunker” on the front line started to subside considerably. But the National Guard had already noticed my presence. After a week of torn-off arms and legs, the chief of the first sanitary unit, a lieutenant colonel, approached me: “A doctor in one of our units came out of action, will you go?” They needed a doctor for two weeks. I had my return ticket to Berlin, so I said I could only go for five days, hoping he’d say that there is no need then. But he said, “Good. I’ll find another doctor in the meantime. We will pick you up in five days.”
And so I officially became “Head of Sanitary Corps of the 50th Alternate Unit of the Ukrainian National Guard in Nizhnee”. Leaving for the front line, I wrote an official report under my real name, otherwise they wouldn’t go looking for me if I got captured. But I made sure to ‘forget’ to receive a machine gun. I thought: if there is a hot mess there, there will be enough weapons. I was given a paramedic, and a driver – the boy was about 20 and totally scared. He told me, “I’ve never been there, I don’t know the road.” Fucking hell. As for the paramedic, we had to pull him out of the cellar he was hiding in. But off we went, and arrived in Nizhnee. Hardly had we unloaded as the order came – “To the bomb shelter.” My first shelling.
In the shelter, I had the bad idea to try a joke, asking: “Good evening, any physical complaints?” Everyone was quiet. “Well, guys, there are also ordinary diseases: colds, hemorrhoids...” But as luck would have it, the shelling was especially hard; the bomb shelter was shaking like a leaf, and someone got killed up above. The commander said: “Doc, out you go.” And I got it – it’s the doctor’s job, shelling or no shelling, to get out from the shelter and pick up the casualties while everyone else stays inside. When everything came to an end, one of the officers said: “Got it, Doc? You gotta think before you open your mouth.” So much for jokes.
The war routine is very simple – it’s a mess. We slept in the old post office building, with the lights on, because in case of bombing you have 15 seconds to make it to the cellar, and if it’s dark you won’t make it. You also want to be within hearing distance of the radio operator: if you miss the command, your chances get low – ‘cause when the grenades start, they kill off everything. They’ve got superstitions: no photos before the fight, nor talks about the casualties. Soldiers sleep for four hours, then they go on their missions. As a doctor, I’m on the shelf until there’s a casualty, then I take my backpack and go, do my thing and come back to the post office. There were mostly shrapnel wounds. There was no surgeon, and I had to apply stitches myself, but most of the time I’d put on tight bandages and set IV drips. Many of the soldiers there were former police officers and we would joke about my time on Maidan. They would ask, “Did you throw stones at us back then?”
On the night of February 12, I celebrated my birthday, and the guys gave me a grenade as a present. What else could they give me? Everyone walks with a grenade just in case... if they capture you, you just blow yourself up! But I could never figure out whether to blow myself up or not. On the one hand, I’d heard about the awful things they do to prisoners like putting polyurethane foam in their rectums. On the other hand – I’ve got children, and I know that sometimes prisoners get exchanged. This decision was postponed.
Every time I went out to the wooden outhouse after a shelling, I was so scared to shit because if there were a raid there’s always that chance I wouldn’t make it back – I’d contemplate the picture of me kicking the bucket with my pants off, floating in my own shit. The fear subsides only when there are casualties and you start working. But when the work is over, you remember being a normal Berliner, sitting down with a beer next to Bassy on Schönhauser Allee, and you promise to yourself that if you ever make it back you’ll never complain about anything again.
I had a return ticket from Kiev, and I knew exactly when to leave in order to be back on time. I informed the army command in Artemivsk and began to pack my things. I’d decided to leave no matter what – if I didn’t show up to work in Berlin there would be no second time for me here. So the guys loaded me up on the KRAZ truck and gave me a lift back to the hospital in Artemovsk. I went to the lieutenant colonel who had sent me to the front line to report that the paramedic was there alone. He said: “Impossible. I sent a doctor there a week ago.” “It was me, and I just got back. So be informed – there is no doctor there.”
By the evening I had a 40-degree fever. By the next day, I couldn’t move or even administrate an intravenous injection. I lay down in the ward with the casualties, soaked and in a state of total indifference. Whether it was the flu, or psychosis – I didn’t give a fuck anymore; the sense of responsibility was gone, and so was the shame that I was leaving. Then I was transported to Poltava.
I didn’t have the time to go to the laundry or change, so I arrived in Berlin smelling like gunpowder and shit, and looking like a bum. But the German border guards didn’t seem to care. I was aching all over – my throat, my ears, my head. I’d lost so much weight that everything was loose, my spine crushed by the heavy bulletproof vest, my neck hurting from the helmet, my mind tormented by pangs of guilt. I forgot what happened next. I forgot everything when I got back to Berlin. This illness, this fever, erased my memory. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would not be back to the front line.The mess is terrible there. I’d sort of made a deal with death: I come to you voluntarily, therefore I am not afraid of you. But if I’d been drafted, I surely would have lost my mind. They don’t give you adequate chances to survive there. There is no working evacuation procedure. Not enough bomb shelters. The communication is bad. The staff is filled with incompetent generals, and of course there’s the Ukrainian corruption. They try to embellish the actual state of things. I can’t put blame on those who desert the Ukrainian army.
But over the last month or so I’ve been challenging my decision. If new troubles arose, what would I do? Every third day, I learn about more casualties, friends of friends killed – once a month, it’s someone whom I personally knew. Here in Berlin, I’ve lost almost all contact with people who’re not involved with Ukraine. I’ve stopped rehearsing with the band, I’ve stopped doing sports and I have lost about 10kg. I’ve come back to work – that’s a war of sorts, too, and a responsibility. Sick people come to me with their pain and they need help. I often think about it – people don’t realise that in every hospital, people are fighting their own war. So for me this world has never been peaceful. On the front you keep your ear to a radio not to miss the beginning of an attack; here, you put a phone next to your pillow in case there is a loading for Ukraine at night. Long-distance trucks can’t enter Berlin; that means you need to find a pickup truck, fill it up with the medicines, drugs and helmets, get it to the Autobahn and reload the cargo there.
I would not call myself a patriot. But I am involved in a struggle for a dream. We fight for something that doesn’t exist yet. I don’t want to offend anyone, but clearly Ukraine as such doesn’t exist as a state yet. We have the corrupt government, the corrupt courts, and a lot of oligarchs. And then we have a community of people united in their suffering by Facebook, fighting for a common dream. And nothing else so far.
Inteview by Roman Gruzov. Translated from Russian by Dmitry Simanovsky.