From his round trips to Ukraine, Arsène Sabanieev did not bring back many memories. Everything fits in a khaki military bag, on which a name has been written in black marker, in Ukrainian. “Le Français”, translated with a smile this doctor from Lille, born in kyiv and landed in France at the age of 10. “That’s what they call me in the field. Everyone has a nickname: there is “The dentist” who practiced this profession before the war or “The Lord” who can do almost everything”, illustrates he says, displaying his war trophies on the living room table. The bag contains small embroideries representing the Ukrainian flag, gloves, military badges, or even orange and black St. George’s ribbons – symbols of support for Russia – found on enemy tanks and abandoned backpacks. “That, if you take it right in the stomach, you explode,” says the 30-year-old, taking out of his bag some heavy shrapnel picked up at the sites of various explosions. “And that can be very useful on site,” he adds, pointing to a body bag, still intact in its plastic bag.
For six months, this military folklore and war objects have been an integral part of Dr. Sabanieev’s daily life. Anesthetist-resuscitator for the group of hospitals of the Catholic Institute of Lille, he did not hesitate for a second before committing to Ukraine. “I knew they would need medical help there. I couldn’t help it.” But at the end of February, when the war had just broken out, the ambient chaos quickly curbed the ambitions of the thirty-something. “The borders were closed, no one knew exactly what was going on, where to go, whether it was possible to practice directly on the ground or not,” he recalls. During the first weeks of the conflict, Arsène then set himself the task of collecting thousands of euros worth of medical equipment from hospitals in the region and from his fellow doctors, before crossing half of Europe in an ambulance to deliver them. to Kyiv hospitals.
The risky initiative even attracted a visit from general intelligence, who asked him before his first departure a series of questions about his purchases, his career and his objectives in Ukraine. “It’s normal: so many young people with dubious psychological profiles left in a hurry at that time, without knowing what they were getting into… They didn’t bother me more than that, I’m a doctor . I had nothing to hide.” At the hospital where he works, his superiors provide him with great financial and professional support, allowing him to leave for several weeks without losing his fixed salary. His companion, too, is understanding. “She was very worried, but I left her no choice. It was like that, I couldn’t help it.” On each round trip, the anesthetist stays ten days in the Ukrainian capital, offers his help to his colleagues, then returns to France. “Even if they were already working in degraded mode, the Ukrainian establishments did not need my skills then, they could not integrate me like that into their teams. What was needed at that time was was mostly adapted equipment and armored ambulances.”
But in April, Arsène can’t take it anymore. To directly help the wounded on the front, he decided to get closer to the Hospitallers, a medical battalion of volunteers created since 2014 and the Donbass war by Ukrainian MP Yana Zinkevych. Attachment to this organization, locally linked to Ukrainian military units but not officially part of the army, allows the doctor in particular not to commit himself for the entire duration of the conflict. “I knew that going through official structures like the army or civilian medicine, it would be an administrative ordeal. There, you arrive, you don’t sign any discharge, you follow the movement and you can leave whenever you want. ” The doctor will spend two months with them from May, interspersed with a week in France. A precious freedom, which nevertheless involves certain risks. “There is no salary, no guarantee. When I arrived, they just asked me if I had any tattoos to be able to identify my body if necessary,” says Arsène, glancing at his arms. . On the back of his right wrist, a large trident, the coat of arms of Ukraine, is tattooed in black ink. And on the left, a motto is inscribed in Ukrainian: “God and Ukraine are with us”.
With the Hospitallers, whose base is located in kyiv, Arsène was quickly sent to eastern Ukraine, to “sub-bases” close to the front. He then discovers the daily life of a real military doctor. “Even if we don’t depend on her, we frequent army units, we communicate with her and we obey her in the field,” he explains. For the first few days, the anesthesiologist provided medical training to Ukrainian soldiers, imagining role-playing games or mortar attacks to analyze their reactions. “Honestly, at first it was like the Latin-Greek option in high school. They didn’t care a bit, about my advice. And then when they came back from the front after seeing their homies shredded, I can tell you that they were listening a lot more.” At the base, where he covers a military unit of 150 men, the Lille resident also provides numerous general medicine sessions. “Like everyone else, soldiers have fever, diarrhoea, stomach aches… And a lot of toothache due to stress and poor diet. My colleague, “The Dentist”, was very successful !” As the days go by, the doctor befriends certain soldiers, who teach him how to shoot or test the power of a tank, before leaving on a mission, close to the front.
There, Arsène and his colleagues are still supervised by the army. In the evening, they settle down for the night a few kilometers from the fighting, in houses abandoned by civilians. You have to caulk everything, stay away from windows, use red light, which is less visible from afar. “You sometimes hear the noise of the missiles, it stays in your head for a long time. There are even little jokers who have fun imitating them,” he says, imitating the high-pitched noise that the bombs make before leaving. explode on the ground. In this strange daily life, unexpected thoughts come to the doctor’s head. During an outdoor shower, he wonders, for example, what he would do if the bombs began to fall. “You’re there, naked, without protection, and you say to yourself: would I finish my shower? Or would I take refuge in a shelter without recovering my things? It seems silly, but you think about it.”
During the day, the medical team is divided into two parts: a utility vehicle composed of a driver, a paramedic and a gunner, in charge of picking up the wounded directly on the bumpy roads leading to the front , and an ambulance parked a few miles away to provide first aid. This is Arsene’s post. “It’s stupid to specify, but we must not believe that we are waiting like that, arms dangling. We must hide the vehicle, tell ourselves that we are always spied on by the sky.” Above their heads, the Russian drones circulate, threatening. During a nearby bombing, the ambulance, for example, had to part with two oxygen bottles on board. “I said to myself: if it explodes, we’re screwed.”
On Ukrainian roads, the anesthetist then takes on the role of emergency physician. If the soldiers are only “moderately injured”, they will be sent a quarter of an hour by car to a hastily created advanced medical post in a disused school, theater or public building. If there is an emergency and as far as possible, Arsène heals. Most of the time, it heals artillery or grenade shards. “One day, we welcomed two injured people like that, one of whom said that everything was fine except for a small injury to the thigh. Ten minutes later, he lost consciousness”. By cutting up his pants, the resuscitator realizes that his leg is filled with shrapnel, and is bleeding profusely. “His clothes had soaked up the blood, we didn’t see anything. He survived, but it was worse than we thought.” Bruises due to explosions, too, are legion. “Some have their inner ears destroyed by the explosions. Others don’t really look straight anymore after having taken 5, 6 or 7 brain contusions in such a short time.”
Sometimes, the doctor welcomes soldiers for whom he knows that his meager equipment will not change anything. “I had patients who got out of the pick-up with both limbs torn off, or with shrapnel in the neck. We have neither blood supplies nor operating theater. They are already almost gone. … You know it’s over, we don’t even take them.” Whatever. We must continue. “In the adrenaline, you do your job. You don’t ask yourself any questions.” However, Arsène is far from having forgotten certain images of the war. He remembers his hands shaking uncontrollably after hearing the first bombings, or some fallen colleagues, like this “super nice paramedic” from Donbass, with whom he had become friends. “While I had to bring him some things between two rotations, I learned that he was dead, hit by artillery fire. We wanted to recover his body, but we only found flesh and mud.”
Between two scenes of horror, everyday life sometimes reasserts itself. Despite a bad connection and a more than uncertain schedule, Arsène, for example, had to manage the worries of his real estate purchase in the north of France. “I was in the Donbass, on a bumpy road, and I was trying to scan my passport for a power of attorney at the notary… It was completely schizophrenic to deal with that at that time.” But this connection with France and his regular hooks in the country allow him to cling to another reality, to find his partner, his two cats and his ferret, or even to make a handful of replacements in the hospital. Recently, the doctor also claims to have been contacted by the French Embassy to collect evidence of chemical and biological attacks or war crimes. “They gave me a huge swab kit, which I use on the pitch. I don’t know if it’s going to help anything yet, but I’m doing what I can.”
In the comfort of his Lille apartment, which he had to join in July to move in and return to work, Arsène admits however that he “feels guilty quickly”. “I think of the colleagues left there, those who cannot afford to return.” Sometimes the weeks seem very bland and the worries of everyday life, insignificant. “Coming back from an experience like that, nothing can really touch you anymore, nothing really bothers you anymore,” he concludes, arranging the memories scattered on the table. The “French” bag will find its place in the cellar, until the next trip. Arsène already knows it: as soon as necessary, he will leave.