“My name is Ivanka.” A young woman with long, straight hair and grey-green eyes hidden behind glasses shakes my hand. We introduce ourselves to each other, and she invites me over to her home.
Ivanka Chobanyuk doesn’t look to me like a classic war hero, pictured by my imagination because of movies. I ask myself whether I should blame the absence of a uniform and military shoes. She is wearing dark pants and an unremarkable T-shirt, and she has on no make-up. Her voice calms down. It seems she is not an attention seeker. For that reason, talking to a journalist for her might be a burden rather than a pleasure.
Ternopil, the war is still distant. Photo: Ivanna Chobaniuk / Facebook
2013. Ivanka Chobanyuk is 20 years old, the best age to party hard. She is a 5th-year student at Ternopil National Medical University, and her choice is different. The Maidan (Revolution of Dignity) has just erupted, and she starts to learn tactical medicine. In her university, both material supplies and approaches are outdated. Who would think there would be any war?
2014. Spring. Ivanka travels in between classes to Kyiv to learn from the instructors from abroad and later to teach first aid to the soldiers deployed to the front line.
At the front line. Photo: Ivanna Chobaniuk / Facebook
2014. Fall. Ivanka travels to the front line alone. The whole family tries to talk her out of it, including her grandmother, a former nurse (Ivanka grew up hearing her stories about operating rooms). Her mother is a doctor, and her father is with her younger brother. They fear for her life and health, although they know it is impossible to convince her to abandon the Ternopil-Pisky route.
“I am mentally very tough,” Ivanka explains. “Before I went to war, I knew I did not panic. In critical situations, I can act in a quite cold-minded manner. That’s why I understood that I could do something there. If you are willing to take responsibility, age doesn’t matter.”
Ivanka Chobanyuk at home during the interview. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
2021. Fall. Ivanka sits in front of me and drinks coffee. Her rented Kyiv apartment, which she shares with two other girls, is perfectly clean and tidy. It seems to me that her thoughts are also well structured; some useless things do not linger long either near her or in her heart and mind.
She tells of her decision to go to war as if it were some routine one would take to go shopping or travel to a neighbouring town. It feels like she would ask me to stop calling her a hero. She would rather state that she did what was necessary to do.
In the several hours that we spent together, she never played the patriotic card, nor did she speak about the protection of the motherland. The peace I felt in her flooded the room and confused me. How could one stay so calm when there is war, blood and death? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“You did not panic at the war, did you?” I ask. “Critical situations must have happened. People were dying.” I have to ask because I do not believe that one can stay cold-minded and endure it all. This young woman replies without giving it a thought, even for a second: “There was no panic, definitely. It is a difficult experience, but I have such a character that I contemplate everything. After each situation, each evacuation operation, I thought about whether I could do something better. I switched to reassuring others. If someone started to panic, I calmed them down. Often it was the guys who lost their fellow [soldiers]. When they see their first death, it has a profound effect on their psyche.”
Ivanka explains that it is more difficult for soldiers than for medics because they are not taught that the body can get sick and die.
“But when you are constantly dealing with diseases and working with the human body, you know what can happen. It is easier for doctors in this regard because it is more common. Although… blood, wounds and death are always hard to come to terms with.”
Ivanka Chobanyuk at home during the interview. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
“Don’t anger Ivanka because you’ll regret it”
Ivanka lost it once at war. It was at night, and her brigade was called up to treat a wounded soldier. He was lying in the garbage. With not enough light, too many soldiers were buzzing around and preventing her from doing her job. That moment, she exploded.
She remembered every curse word she heard in these months at war but had never uttered. She pointed a machine gun she was holding for her fellow medic while he was cleaning around so they would have sufficient space for the procedure.
“I had to say a few profane sentences, threaten them physically, and all the people interfering earlier evaporated. They disappeared into the darkness. Later they said, ‘Don’t anger Ivanka because you’ll regret it.’ In some situations, threats help.”
While Ivanka tells the story, her face changes. She is not a woman who controls it all any more. She has plenty of stories from the war, stashed in her memory, which she might tell her grandchildren one day. But for now, she wants to keep silent to protect her parents and grandmother from worrying while they read this piece—one of many reasons.
“Just tell me one story, please! The one you can share.” I am trying to talk her into sharing. Ivanka gives up.
“Those are the houses located right on the frontline in Pisky, here’s the field and the runway of the Donetsk airport behind them. I remember a moment. We are on our way to our positions, and right at the moment we turn, the mines start to explode. The shelling goes on in staggered rows, and because of its specific sound, I understand that this is the Grad system. And we turn the moment before it explodes next to us.”
Now she questions what miracle helped her stay alive. And it wasn’t the only time she escaped death.
Ivanka has lived in Kyiv since 2019. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
The way home
2015. Fall. Ivanka returns home and dives into studying, passes tests and completes all unfulfilled programme requirements. The administration of the university supports the veteran student in everything. Later, she immerses herself in her work, first in her hometown of Ternopil and then in Zaporizhzhia. She jokes that there, in addition to her medical practice, she was also engaged in gentle Ukrainization (that is, increasing the usage and promoting the development of the Ukrainian language). Patients who reacted negatively to Ukrainian at their first visits and complained that they did not understand a word began to speak Ukrainian little by little.
2019. Ivanka moves to the capital city. Experience at the front line gives her additional points in an interview, so she gets a job in a private clinic without any problems. And work is her lifeboat, helping her cope with the war experience.
“You are alone,” she explains. “You are surrounded by people who can neither understand you nor support you. They don’t know what you have been through and where you have been. They avoid conversations about the war or any other important topics. They are afraid to say anything that might trigger memories. The work always helped me. I dived deep into work and study, and it swallowed me up.”
Ivanka Chobanyuk's wardrobe consists not only of military uniform, but also t-shirts with military prints. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
A modest People’s Hero of Ukraine
In the closet of her rented apartment hangs a uniform borrowed for ceremonies. Ivanka left her uniform—covered with blood and sweat—to those who came to the war after her. Nowadays, on rare occasions, one can see Ivanka wearing the dress uniform.
“I wear it only for special events,” she says. “Even riding the subway in uniform is uncomfortable for me because I am in uniform, and everyone else is dressed as civilians. I am in the subway, not on the front line. Somehow I am uncomfortable.”
Military uniform in Ivanka Chobanyuk's wardrobe. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
A small trident on a blue-yellow ribbon—a valuable thing for the young woman—is hidden in the pocket of the borrowed uniform. This is the Medal of the People’s Hero of Ukraine. However, Ivanka takes this award out of her pocket while trying to belittle her contribution in a certain way.
“I am not a soldier in service any more. Strictly speaking, I have never been one. I was a volunteer. And yes, I just moved around a lot.”
Ivanka and her sisters-in-arms are preparing to speak before foreign listeners. Photo: Ivanna Chobaniuk / Facebook
The second front: Diplomacy
2019. Spring. Ivanka Chobanyuk speaks to students at San Diego State University in excellent English. She tells them about the war, about Russia, its attack on Ukraine, about the Russian military personnel, and about the Grad system. She speaks about herself, an eyewitness to these events.
“In the United States, they asked whether it was over. They said that they knew that a peace treaty had been signed. They asked whether the Russian military was present. Everyone was surprised to hear that heavy artillery shelling was carried out from the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Ivanka (left) with Maya Moskvych, another heroine of the hromadske series about the civilian life of Donbas veterans, tells foreign listeners about her experience. Photo: Ivanna Chobaniuk / Facebook
Later, together with veteran international diplomacy, Ivanka would address students, ambassadors, scholars and the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. She would visit the UN and NATO headquarters, as well as places where the interest in Ukraine had faded away. She would always remind her audiences that the hostilities were still going on.
The third front: COVID-19
2021. Fall. Ivanka gets into a car. In an hour, she will admit patients as a family doctor. She has been driving since the beginning of the pandemic when she volunteered to be deployed to a COVID-19 hospital.
The young woman worked overtime there. When she was coming back home from work, no public transportation was available, so the car came in handy.
Driving to work. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
I ask her whether the pursuit of adrenaline constantly forces her to hot spots, from one front to another. Ivanka answers carefully and calmly.
“Everyone is talking about adrenaline; everyone is looking for adrenaline. However, I have never shared such a desire. Yes, I like to go to the mountains, and I can go abroad on a long trip alone. But I did not go to war looking for adrenaline and thrills. I had a desire and a goal to gain practice and experience.”
At the entrance of a modern clinic, a middle-aged man approaches us, asking, “What are you shooting here?” We say that we are filming a piece about veterans. The man’s eyebrows go up: “To me, veterans are grandfathers with medals and an Eternal Flame.”
Ivanka smiles. She does not make a scene but explains that she’s not a grandfather and doesn’t wear any medals but is a veteran. The young woman is already used to the fact that the attitude towards veterans is ambiguous, even in the eighth year of the war. People do not know how to behave and react to those who have returned from the war, especially if they are women. And they call women ‘dear’.
“I may correct them or ask them to treat me more seriously. The fact that we look like this—that we are tiny, thin, smiling—does not mean that we go by ‘girls’ or ‘dear’,” Ivanka smiles. “In the United States, when they see a person in uniform, they say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but we do not have such a practice. There were events and campaigns that tried to encourage people to raise their hand to their heart, but it did not make it to a tradition. Well, ‘girls’ ... People around need to learn.”
At the front line, according to Ivanka, everything was different. Neither her young age nor the fact that she was a woman was considered a drawback. No one humiliated her, harassed her or mocked her, perhaps because everyone around her was a volunteer and knew why they were there. Or maybe because doctors were highly valued and respected during the hot phase of the war.
A few minutes before the start of the working day. Photo: Max Levin / hromadske
With birds on her chest and dinosaurs on her feet
Ivanka opens the door of the clinic and goes inside. In a few minutes, a doctor in funny slippers with dinosaurs and a T-shirt with birds appears from the locker room. There are a lot of children among her patients.
In a bright, cosy office, she turns on the computer and checks whether all the tools are in place. And I look at Ivanka and guess that she might not stay long in such a comfortable atmosphere. Because people who voluntarily go to the front line and to the COVID-19 hospitals are not those who like safe places.
“It is very important to constantly learn when you are a doctor. It is impossible to stop, do nothing and just sit in the office.” It sounds like Ivanka is confirming my guesses. She is currently studying cardiology and wants to move to another city.
An afterword instead of an epilogue
A few minutes before the arrival of the day’s first patient, Ivanka and I say goodbye, and we arrange another meeting. Suddenly enough, she stops answering my calls and messages; she doesn’t respond, even to her fellow soldiers. They find out that Ivanka shows up at work, but she doesn’t even talk to her family over the phone.
And I think to myself that the war does not go unnoticed. It leaves scars on the hearts of everyone, even such well-balanced and cold snow queens as Ivanka.
She said that she forgot many names, surnames and call signs, but all the faces of the fallen soldiers, friends, brothers and sisters in arms would stay with her forever. Who knows? Maybe sometimes she needs to be alone with them.
/ The project was implemented with the support of UN Women Ukraine, the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine.