‘Hopefully we’ll be there in time’: From soldiers to doctors, French volunteers head to Ukraine
With France evacuating its citizens from Ukraine, France 24 spoke with some French nationals who are turning in the direction of the opposition. A former soldier and an intensive care doctor reveal why they intend to enter a war zone as a nurse and a logistician explain how they are organizing the shipment of medical supplies to Ukraine later this week.
“I really don’t know what awaits me. I have never seen a real war before.” Aurélien (not his real name) is a former French army soldier and hospital porter who feels he could be useful to the Ukrainian resistance. He plans to leave his home in northern France, with at least one French volunteer, and drive to Ukraine via Poland this week.
“I want to go there for obvious reasons. For freedom and peace. What is happening now in 2022 goes against all progress. Kyiv must stand up, and they need us. We hope that we will arrive in time to support the resistance.”
He learned how to use a firearm when he was a soldier, but “my years in the hospital’s emergency services department will come in handy,” he said. As a hospital porter, Aurélien honed his first aid skills and was responsible for transporting patients and medical equipment safely within the hospital. “However, I think we should be prepared for anything.”
The 30-year-old will leave France without any military equipment and no contacts on the ground in Ukraine.
“First, we want to meet the Ukrainian resistance, and I think the rest will follow.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Sunday the creation of an “international corps” of foreign military volunteers. The Ukrainian government is working to create a similar structure for medical volunteers. “Why not?” Aurélien responds, when asked if he plans to join. “I sent an email to the Ukrainian embassy in Paris to tell them that I would like to volunteer.”
But Aurélien may find himself excluded at the border because he does not have a passport. He hopes his French ID will suffice.
Dr. Arsen Sabaniev, a French-Ukrainian doctor working in the intensive care unit in Lille, has created a Facebook group for potential medical volunteers. He says people in the Aurelian position must present themselves physically, with their ID cards and proof of military training, at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris to get special permission to cross the border. “It is impossible to get to the embassy, they are exhausted. The only option is to go in person.
Dr. Sabaniev’s Facebook group, Volontaires français Soignants en Ukraine (French Medical Volunteers in Ukraine) is growing rapidly.
“I told those who wanted to go that they would have no insurance, that they would only go in their personal capacity, [French] The embassy will not be behind them. If someone was injured, they would be alone. It’s a big risk.”
Dr. Sabaniev was born in Kyiv but moved with his mother to France when he was 10 years old. He plans to travel to Ukraine this weekend and is already in contact with the Ministry of Defense.
“I have been a Ukrainian patriot since I was 15. Becoming a doctor was my way of helping my country. But I could never have known that we would find ourselves in this situation.”
A friend loaned him a truck, and he’s in the process of filling it with medical equipment and supplies he’ll need once he arrives.
He is worried and says his French wife does not want him to leave. “But she understands,” he says.
“It’s battlefield medicine, and I’m not trained in that. But I’ve done some emergency services work, and I know first aid. I can use a firearm, but I’m going in there as a doctor. I’m helping by saving lives.”
‘You can’t go alone, with your eyes closed,’ Valerie, an intensive care nurse with experience in humanitarian work abroad, changed her mind about traveling to Ukraine when she realized she would have to go without any insurance or support from official French institutions or government agencies.
“[French Foreign Minister] Jean-Yves Le Drian is trying to get all the French out of Ukraine. I have spoken to the humanitarian associations I have worked with in the past – none will go to Ukraine. There’s a reason for that: it’s a war zone and it’s very dangerous. The tragedies will be added to the Ukrainian tragedies that are already taking place. ”
Valerie is still eager to help, and instead collects medical donations from the hospital pharmacy where she works. Planning to contact an association with experience in transporting medical supplies to Ukraine.
I wanted to go on a drug convoy. I think I can be useful. But having at least some structures is crucial. You can’t go alone with your eyes closed.”
“I am not a soldier … but in my heart, I want to go” Benoit created an association, supporting the French and Ukrainian army, during the violence in the Donbas region in 2014. In recent weeks, he has revitalized the group. He collects donations from individuals in Europe and the United States to purchase medical supplies online that he sends to soldiers in Ukraine.
“We have a truck leaving on Thursday or Friday of this week, with medical supplies (pressure bandages, silox, tourniquet…) inside. The driver is Ukrainian. Next week a truck with protective equipment for soldiers will leave. I do not trade in weapons, there will be no lethal weapons ” .
Benoit used to run a company that imported French wine, and champagne in particular, into Ukraine. He was in the Donbass region with his Ukrainian wife when the conflict began in 2014, but has since returned to his homeland in France.
“I have [soldier] Friends in Mariupol. The Russians are besieging the city. They tell me, ‘take care of my children’, ‘if they don’t come back.
And in recent days, a friend of his in the Ukrainian army was killed during the Russian bombing of Kharkiv.
“I’m more useful here in France,” he says. I’m not a soldier, my friends over there know how to fight. I know how to do the logistics. But in my heart, I want to go.”
“It’s eating me up inside,” Benoit says. “But I have a wife, I’m a father. I have responsibilities.”