Students

Hector is fighting in Ukraine

‘My life is not that valuable’

Two years ago, Hector dreamt of obtaining his bachelor’s degree at the UG and perhaps finding a job in international relations. Now, he’s in eastern Ukraine, about to depart for the front. ‘If by being here, I can save some kids’ mothers, I need to do that.’
24 January om 11:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 31 January 2024
om 11:11 uur.
January 24 at 11:27 AM.
Last modified on January 31, 2024
at 11:11 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

24 January om 11:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 31 January 2024
om 11:11 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

January 24 at 11:27 AM.
Last modified on January 31, 2024
at 11:11 AM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

It was just before Christmas, around 2 a.m. Hector had recently arrived with his military unit near Kramatorsk in Ukraine when the bombing started. Russian precision missiles struck only a few kilometres from the safe house where he and his teammates were stationed. ‘Because, of course, you have to bomb civilian targets at Christmas.’

The noise was everywhere, the 22-year-old Finnish student says. ‘The ground shook, the building trembled, and the windows curved inward because of the pressure waves.’

at ‘home’ in Groningen with his friend Nick (see box).

It went on for about an hour and was enormously scary, but the other soldiers were unfazed. ‘It’s so common to them. Some of them have been fighting since the war began.’

That’s when his new reality really hit home. ‘During the day, you hype yourself up, telling yourself you’ve trained for this. You know what to do, you know how to move, how to shoot. But at night you’ve got time to think. It can get really scary then. If that bomb hits near you, that’s it.’ 

Reservist

Only two years ago, Hector was living a normal life, studying international relations at the UG and dreaming of a job with an NGO, or maybe peacekeeping. But then Russia invaded Ukraine and everything changed. 

‘I’m a Finnish reservist’, he explains. ‘I’m trained as a combat medic. And this war is so big, the morality of it is so overwhelmingly important. Immediately, I felt that I had to be there.’

He didn’t enlist right away, though. In those first few weeks the situation was extremely chaotic and nobody knew if Ukraine wouldn’t be steamrolled in days. ‘And I’m not the kind of person to do something without any information.’

This war is so big, I immediately felt that I had to be there

But the things he did do – organising a big protest at Grote Markt with his friends and taking part in charity – didn’t seem enough. ‘I couldn’t get rid of the thought that I should be there.’

And so last summer, he decided to follow his conscience and enlist with the Ukrainian army. Through contacts with an NGO that supports Finnish soldiers who are fighting in Ukraine, he managed to fast-track the process. Now he is part of an all-Ukrainian unit recuperating and training behind the frontlines, less than a 40-minute drive away. Maybe another week or so, and then they’ll be sent to the front.

Lack of equipment

In the meantime, he is trying to prepare as well as possible and train as much as he can. That’s a problem, though. While his military training proved sufficient for him to be able to keep up with the seasoned fighters of his unit, the team is not nearly as well equipped as it needs to be. During the summer offensive, not only lives got lost, but the group’s valuable equipment too. 

‘We only have one set of night vision goggles left for a group of ten’, he explains. ‘They’re expensive, but very important. Sitting in the dark, guarding something and not being able to see, is terrifying.’

Sitting in the dark, guarding something and not being able to see, is terrifying

There’s only two pick-up trucks for transportation, but on one of them, the door on the passenger’s side is stuck. ‘Imagine, you’re driving into an ambush, they shoot at you and the fucking doors won’t open so you can’t get out.’

Even hiking boots are an issue. The soldiers don’t have any winter boots and the ones they do have are often the wrong size. And that means they’re in danger of blistering or tripping. ‘It may sound small, but when things get heavy, these things make all the difference.’

Then there’s the lack of medical supplies, like tourniquets to quickly treat arterial bleeding. Hector’s teammates have tourniquets that have been with them since the war began, and they’re full of dried mud and dust. ‘I wouldn’t trust them.’

Not enough instructors

A second problem is that Hector would have liked much more training than he’s actually getting. In the Finnish army, things are done to a point. You get drill after drill after drill, until you get it 100 percent correct. From what I’ve seen from Ukrainians, they do it until it kinda works.’

At the moment, his officers are away on holiday. Given the circumstances this may sound crazy, but getting away from things is vital. ‘These guys are in the trenches three or four days a week, for months on end, with continuous shelling. Your brain recoils when you experience that. And all of these guys have kids and wives, so it’s really important for them to rest and see their family.’

There’s also a huge lack of instructors. And so, while he has been practising stuff like ‘handling your assault rifle’, ‘wetlands training’ or ‘urban combat’ – which was done in houses that actually were battle sites one and a half years ago – he is still waiting for a medical instructor. ‘I haven’t practised certain procedures in two years. So now I’m reading American manuals, but books and YouTube only get you so far. And if I would have to perform them right now, I wouldn’t get it right. That’s just a fact.’

Reality

Still, none of these things have deterred him from the goal he has set for himself. Of course, he has asked himself questions like: is this too big for me? Am I going to die, or get wounded? Will I get captured or tortured? 

Because he knows that is the reality of it. When he visited a military hospital in Kharkiv, he saw a soldier whose left hand and leg weren’t working. He had been a Russian prisoner for a month and had been tortured with jumper cables. ‘That’s really disturbing.’  

But he never felt he wanted to get out of it. ‘I feel that’s what the soldier’s mentality should be like. You accept the reality and make do with it.’

These guys were teachers, vets, writers, and now they’re in the trenches 

At the same time, his experiences have changed his own mentality. He values the help he is getting from his old friends in Groningen and the way they’re trying to get donations. But life is precious. Time is precious. And he’s not in the mood to waste it with nonsense. ‘Like there’s some people from Groningen I hardly know that will send me these pat-on-the-back messages, that are more about them feeling good about themselves, than that they are about me. I really don’t care about that. ’

When he puts time or energy in something – like a conversation – he wants it to be meaningful. ‘If the reason that we’re having a conversation is something very superficial, then I don’t care. I would rather talk about something that holds merit, because life is a very fleeting thing here.’

He sees it in the people around him, laughing and smiling at one time, and then suddenly remembering. ‘And you suddenly see them go quiet and stare into the distance. These guys had homes, had families. They were kindergarten teachers, vets, writers. And now they’re in the trenches trying to protect their families from the Russians, just because some dictator suddenly decided to invade another country.’

That is something so unjust, so immoral, that Hector wants to do his part in stopping it. 

Duty

Why him, though? Why put his life on the line in a country that isn’t even his own? A student that – according to some around him – has so much to lose?

He’s quiet for a moment. Then: ‘I don’t think my life is that valuable. My parents will miss me, but… there was this woman I saw in Kharkiv. She is around 30, a mother, and every holiday she gets, she goes back to her children and she never knows if it’s the last time they’ll kiss her. So if by being here, I can save some kids’ mothers, I need to do that.’

The oath he swore as a combat medic trumps everything else for him. ‘It’s my duty to patch these guys up. That is the most important thing to me right now.’

Staying alive is secondary. ‘I fear death and I would like to live. But if it’s for the sake of my teammates or stopping others from dying, then I’m willing to risk it.’

ADDENDUM

There was a commotion in the comments section shortly after this article was published about the emblem that one of soldiers in Hector’s group wears on his chest (see the group photo). Some people believe it is the ‘black sun’, a Nazi symbol. To be clear, Russian president Putin justifies the war against Ukraine partly because of the Nazi regime he believes is based in Kyiv.

However, enquiries reveal that this is not the ‘black sun’ emblem. The patch worn by the soldier is a ‘skull maiden’ or ‘skull reaper’. The figure on the patch is carrying a green rose, symbolising death and life after death. Such patches are commonly sold by street vendors to soldiers, who then use them to add a personal touch to their uniforms.

Hector with his brothers in arms in Ukraine.

Collection for Hector

Five friends from Groningen have started a fundraising campaign to provide Hector and his team with better equipment.

Nick Schoonbeek, a student of international relations and one of the organisers, wasn’t really surprised when Hector told him about his decision. ‘I had seen it coming from the start. Every time we talked about the war in Ukraine, he got that distant look in his eyes. He really sees it as his moral duty.’

Hector is ‘an introverted guy,’ he says, ‘but very disciplined, and he knows what he wants.’ Asking for help isn’t really his thing, so Nick decided to do it for him. ‘I told him: don’t bother protesting, we’re going to set this up for you.’

Night vision goggles and pick-ups

Hector’s team mainly needs night vision goggles, pick-up trucks, medical equipment, and clothing, says Nick. ‘It can also be a pick-up that isn’t running right now. We can make sure it goes to Ukraine and gets repaired there.’ Furthermore, camouflage uniforms, first aid kits, and drones are also important.

All donations go to the non-profit organisation Your Finnish Friends, which forwards the donated money to the soldiers in Ukraine.

You can donate via a Tikkie to Nick, who then transfers the money to Your Finnish Friends, or via Paypal. Directly donating to Your Finnish Friends is also an option. If you mention ‘Hector’ in the transfer, that money will be reserved for Hector’s team.

https://linktr.ee/hectorukraine

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