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Foto: Sara Kerklaan

Ukrainian commander on Room for Discussion: “Doctors don’t understand my desire to return to the frontlines”

Jip Koene,
17 april 2024 - 10:15

Wounded, good-humored, and unbroken, that’s how Oleksandr Yabchanka comes across Tuesday during the interview at Room for Discussion about his role in defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion. “Brotherhood, mutual respect, and conviction are the strength of our battalion.”

A bodycam shows a Russian attack on Ukrainian territory. A Ukrainian commander gives orders to a group of soldiers. The clip is a year old and shows commander Oleksandr Yabchanka, a guest at Room for Discussion, where some 50 students gather to hear his story.

“We demanded a dignified country in which democracy, freedom, and justice come first”

The video is also a snapshot of one of the bloodiest battles since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Battle of Bakhmut. The fighting forces in the picture are defending an important position in Donetsk province and are rendered almost unintelligible by the sound of bullets and the impact of shells. The subtitles still provide some insight into what is happening on screen.
Via a zoom link from the military rehabilitation hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, Yabchanka can be seen in army uniform at Room for Discussion on the Roeterseiland. About eight months ago, he was wounded for the third time and was forced to retreat from the front lines.
Yabchanka has had an eventful life. He started out as a doctor, but after the disputed 2004 presidential election, marked by widespread corruption, voter intimidation, and election fraud, he became an activist. “We took to the streets en masse. The entire Independence Square in Kiev was packed. We demanded a dignified country in which democracy, freedom, and justice come first and not one intertwined with Russian interference through corrupt political leaders.”

“With the Russian invasion, I knew that our country would be destroyed if we did nothing. I had to go to the front”

Yabchanka later stayed true to that ideology, even during his involvement as a medical adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Health. “I stood at the cradle of healthcare reform in Ukraine, which still lacked any kind of structure. Unfortunately, political shifts and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought those developments to a halt.”
Yabchanka never imagined that a decade later he would be on the front lines fighting for his country’s freedom. “I had no choice. With the Russian invasion, I knew our country would be destroyed if we did nothing. I had to go to the front.”
Together with friends, Yabchanka volunteered to fight in the war. “Our voluntary choice had nothing to do with the mobilization of the army by the government, but was based on the pure necessity to protect our country and our future. I am convinced that our belief in that necessity combined with brotherhood and respect made us unbreakable and led to great successes, such as the battle of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.”

Since enlisting in the army, his medical background has proved crucial, Yabchanka stresses.  “As a doctor, I can help myself and friends with injuries. That has happened a lot. So now, as a commander, I think it’s very important that everyone in the group has some medical knowledge. Sometimes you get hit when you are alone, so you have to be able to help yourself.”

“My comrades on the front lines need my optimism and Ukrainian citizens are waiting for their liberation. I must and will return”

Even after his current rehabilitation, Yabchanka wants to go back. “The doctors have a hard time understanding that I want to return to the front lines. But I can run three kilometers again by now,” he laughs. “Besides, my comrades on the front line need my optimism and there are Ukrainian civilians waiting for their liberation. I must and will return.”