When the armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, Oleh Polupudnov’s life, like those of millions of Ukrainians, changed radically. Yet despite the fear and uncertainty, Polupudnov clearly understood his mission — he wouldn’t leave the conflict zone but would stay and help the people affected by it.
Memories not to be forgotten
Before the conflict, Polupudnov worked as a neurologist, and then later in the pharmaceutical industry. In 2014 he joined the Greek Medical Centre in Mariupol, which provided humanitarian assistance to people in the conflict-affected Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. He delivered medicine to locals living in the communities along the “contact line,” who were suffering the most from the armed conflict.
“I’ve seen many poor and hungry families with children who scraped by without stocks of medicine or food,” Polupudnov recalls. “I still remember their tear-filled eyes as if it was a nightmare. I can never forget these memories. They will be with me forever.”
A last straw of hope
Polupudnov now works as a doctor in the State Emergency Service (SES) and continues to help locals in settlements along the “contact line.” Rescue teams working in the area have additional responsibilities, as civilian medics are not allowed there, and the rescue teams with which Polupudnov works are often the last hope for the locals to receive critical medical care and help.
“The ‘contact line’ runs through the village, where at least nine elderly people live who need our constant help and support. They’ve been living in isolation for many years. They have nowhere to go,” says the doctor.
Sometimes reaching those in need can be extremely difficult under the circumstances, even for experienced rescuers. All actions must be strictly coordinated with the Ukrainian military, as there is a high risk of coming under fire. It can take up to a full day to obtain approvals and create a safety corridor for scheduled visits. Everything is done exactly according to protocol, because every minute lost could cost someone their life.
Despite these difficulties, SES medics do their job diligently no matter what. Polupudnov and other doctors from the rescue crews consult locals, diagnose patients and provide emergency medical care on the spot. It is often necessary to persuade locals — mostly the elderly — to return with them in order to be able to provide more qualified medical care in stationary settings in medical facilities.
The UN Development Programme, through its UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, has joined a host of international partners to forge systematic efforts to make the work of rescuers and medics of the SES of Ukraine safer and more efficient. For example, with financial support from the European Union and the governments of Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, UNDP procures and supplies technical equipment to rescue teams in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. In addition, UNDP conducts training, including medical ones, for rescuers and provides strategic support to the SES to enhance security in the region.
It’s okay to be afraid
Polupudnov says that the work of rescue units in the zone of armed conflict, first of all, is psychologically difficult.
“Fear is a normal reaction. With experience, it certainly decreases. However, it won’t go away completely. We work in an area where fortified military positions are directly visible, and there are certain psychological moments that I feel very deeply and can’t just turn them off.”
Every potential candidate who wants to join the ranks of rescuers and medics of the SES undergoes rigorous selection and psychological testing — so they are tested for readiness to work in extreme conditions.
“Given the experience of our team, during joint operations along the ‘contact line’, we think about how to first provide the necessary assistance to locals, and only then — about ourselves and our own safety,” admits Polupudnov.
Belief in peace
Polupudnov compares the current situation with earlier years, and tries to remain optimistic. He has no doubt the situation is getting much better now. By working together with local and international partners, life is gradually recovering and getting back to normal.
“The eyes that I see now are no longer filled with deep sadness, but rather with wisdom and unshakable faith that peace is about to come. And I believe it as well,” says Polupudnov.
The United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UN RPP) is being implemented by four United Nations agencies: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Thirteen international partners support the Programme: the European Union (EU), the European Investment Bank (EIB), the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
Illustrations: Oksana Skvorchynska / UNDP in Ukraine