PIOTR WOLAK: FRONTLINE SURGEON
"War is evil. No matter what the reason is. Crimes are committed by all warring parties, and the tragedy of war is the tragedy of ordinary people, and the impunity of the perpetrators of their suffering.”
MAY 5 2022
Standing in line for border-control before boarding the train, after hours in the cold
The unassuming man in front of me seems undoubtedly prepared. Waiting for hours at the Polish border with Ukraine, bundled inside a sleeping bag, with a headlamp illuminating his face - Piotr Wolak is ready for anything. Rather than remain a bystander, in the early days of the war, Piotr 39, chose to use his experience as a Vascular surgeon and Air Ambulance medic to volunteer, and is now returning on his second deployment.
His demeanor is playful and positive, not the attitude you’d expect from someone about to risk everything to save the lives of people far from home. I ask him how he feels, crossing into a country at war.
“The first time was more difficult. It was hard to see with your own eyes, the enormity of the destruction and suffering of ordinary people in this pointless war”
Piotr shows off the features of his headlamp, explaining that the red light allows you to see without waking people up.
Once aboard the train toward Kyiv, we take our seats. On his phone, Piotr shares photos of his team, the vast black Chernozem fields of the east, and selfies with his daughter back at home. It’s obvious from the beginning that Piotr is an empathetic man, but I ask what inspired him to leave his life behind and join the war.
His answer is simple, “On the first day of the war, I knew I had to help people,” he tells me.”It was very natural to me. I couldn’t stay home with people suffering so much near me. At first, I was thinking about helping at the border; but, the real needs are close to the front”
Many people have been saved with the help of volunteers like Piotr. But with lives in his hands, primarily children in the beginning; I ask Piotr how his own family is coping with him away.
“My family didn’t want me to leave, but they weren’t surprised. My daughter, who is 12 years old, was very scared. However, I convinced her that there are girls like her in Ukraine who suffer and cannot see a doctor - the doctor has to come to them." He continues, "I also hope that what I am doing will be a good example for her, that when a difficult moment comes someday, she will be able to take risks and work with courage for a noble cause.”
He shows us photos from his last deployment
A pile of documented pieces of shrapnel removed from the bodies of soldiers - photo by Piotr
The rising sun begins to filter through the windows of the train, and while conflict weighs on the minds of everyone on board, people seem positive. Each person here is returning to something, it may be their family who refused to leave, a home left behind, a humanitarian mission to assist, or maybe even a fight. Regardless, this train is carrying with it an enormous amount of hope.
Seeing the photos of his blood-stained scrubs, next to a smiling selfie of his medical team, it’s unclear how Piotr feels in such a dangerous position…“At first, I was afraid. Fortunately, my group includes paramedics who were soldiers. They taught me how to recognize dangerous situations, how to protect myself, and how to use a weapon as a last resort. Now I feel safe and have confidence in the rest of the group"
Accompanying each photo is a story, many of which are tragic. Photos of the streets of Bucha, where Russian war crimes are obvious; bullet-hole-riddled homes and civilian cars crushed by tanks. Others, abandoned pets still locked in cages after their owners escaped artillery fire. "It makes me not believe in Humanity," Piotr says as he shows me an image of all of the shrapnel he's removed from the bodies of soldiers, documented and sealed in plastic bags. Some shards are too large to even imagine inside a person. But each piece of horrible, twisted metal represents a life he’s saved.
This Polish volunteer, a man with a life outside this war who chose to come for the sole purpose of saving lives, cannot see the humanity that he so clearly possesses himself. "War is evil. No matter what the reason is. Crimes are committed by all warring parties, and the tragedy of war is the tragedy of ordinary people, and the impunity of the perpetrators of their suffering.”