The work of rescuers is invaluable. They are often the first on the scene of cataclysms and disasters, unafraid of the risks and the gruelling work necessary to preserve the most precious thing — life. Their role became especially pronounced during the war with the Russian Federation, which uses unconventional methods, indiscriminately targeting residential buildings, schools, hospitals, humanitarian aid warehouses, and civilian infrastructure. In addition to fires resulting from enemy offensives, rescuers confront the aftermath of extensive minefields. Yet, the usual non-war related rescue missions remain, demanding their constant attention. Being a rescuer entails having the physical and emotional resilience to address countless challenges, recognising that one’s life is frequently on the line.
Вighlighting the efforts of the rescuers is pivotal. Not only does it illuminate the significance of their work, but it also chronicles crucial events that shape society. Amidst a full-scale war, media coverage of rescuers’ endeavours further exposes the true nature of the Russian Federation.
Pavlo Petrov, a staff photographer of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, has been documenting the efforts of rescue units since 2017 and has captured almost every blaze in Kyiv over the past three years. Through his photographs, Ukraine and the world can witness the bravery of Ukrainian rescuers and the ramifications of Russian wartime transgressions. We discussed with Pavlo his journey and inspirations within the field.
— I’m from the city of Starobilsk, which fell under occupation in the early days of the full-scale war. I brought my mother to Kyiv, but my grandmother chose to remain behind due to her leg issues.
Growing up in Starobilsk, I trained extensively in boxing and kickboxing. I knew someone who worked at a fire station. It was his pride and joy; it had an undeniable charm. After completing Year 11, I was drawn to join. I headed to Kharkiv, excelled in all the assessments, and subsequently spent five years at the National University of Civil Defence of Ukraine. During my university years, I cultivated a passion for photography. In 2017, after graduation, I was posted back to Starobilsk. Initially, I managed civil protection and oversaw operations and events like life safety week. Feeling a disconnect with the role, I contemplated leaving. However, the head of the press service for the Luhansk region remarked, “Your photos are exceptional! Would you consider joining our press team?” I accepted.
Soon, I grasped that there was another, more engaging way to operate. I began accompanying the response team in the press office, merging my newfound photographic skills with the role. Such ventures were customary, but I continually sought to elevate my contributions.
Pyrotechnics and conflict weren’t unfamiliar to me. After all, the East, my homeland, had been embroiled since 2014 — replete with checkpoints and minefields. In Svatove, our warehouses suffered explosions in 2015, leading to utter chaos. Debris, including “Hurricanes” and “Tornadoes”, rained everywhere, necessitating comprehensive mine clearance.
Following a three-year stint in the East, I moved to the Kyiv City Department of the State Emergency Service. I was briefed on the unique demands of the capital: the pace was unrelenting, requiring swift actions. I adapted swiftly.
I covered my first major fire incident while on a break. I was nearby and had my camera. A restaurant’s rooftop was ablaze near a church. Consequently, I quickly became acquainted with the entire response unit. There were initial hesitations regarding where I positioned myself during incidents, but recognising the quality of my work, they granted me more freedom. Thus, for three years, I operated in this manner, navigating myriad situations and fires, sometimes outside my scheduled hours.
When inside information arrives, you act immediately, even if it means getting up in the dead of night to take a taxi. Over the past three years, I’ve attended almost all the major fires in Kyiv.
On 23 February 2022, as the state of emergency was announced, I was on duty while others had gone home for the night. We weren’t accustomed to staying overnight at work, given our mobile nature. Needing a place to rest, I headed to a friend’s apartment and slept in his office. As I recall, I donned warm woollen socks and tried to get comfortable on an awkward sofa, my legs dangling over the edge. Sleep was elusive, with the palpable tension in the air – everyone sensed imminent events. By 4 a.m., my news chats were inundated with messages. Yet, that morning, my routine remained unchanged. When the intensity ramped up at work, I felt a strange calm. I had been anticipating this, and now it was merely a matter of addressing it head-on.
The first day of the full-scale invasion was extremely long. It seemed to me that it dragged on for about a week.
We recently buried Ruslan Koshovyi, the leader of the Hostomel Station situated near Antonov Airport, where Russian forces landed on day one. His rescue brigade had been dispatched to tackle a fire, only to come under helicopter gunfire. This news reached us rapidly. However, details of their fate became sparse due to communication breakdowns. They were captured; half were retained at the Station, the others detained in a bunker.
On 24 February 2022, the 101 hotline (Ukrainian toll-free emergency line) was swamped with calls. Footage from that day shows four female operators continuously fielding calls, barely taking breaks.
These operators were unsung heroes, handling the deluge of information and managing widespread panic.
By evening, our team members were released from Antonov Airport. Roughly 20 men returned, their silence speaking volumes of the horrors they had endured.
From then on, I was stationed at the head office, remaining there for three months to ensure rapid responses to emergencies, especially during the late hours. I was present at every incident site in Kyiv until the end of April 2022.
Subsequently, I was summoned by the State Emergency Service overseeing all of Ukraine. It wasn’t a request; it was an absolute necessity. I started journeying across the country, documenting everything. People had realised the importance of relaying information, especially about those battling fires and landmines.
Our service, boasting over 70,000 members, encompasses various experts – divers, climbers, and dog trainers, to name a few. Given our high trust ratings, it was crucial to me, personally, to depict what I witnessed – the heroes in our midst.
Post the full-scale invasion, everything changed. Now, we have armoured vests atop our already weighty firefighting gear.
In interviews with my colleagues, many shared how the events had reshaped their worldviews and relationships. I, too, felt transformed. I used to be a different person, I could just leave, just go somewhere. Now I’m pretty much the same, but now there’s a nagging thought of “what if…”
The so-called “double tap” incidents are particularly heinous. In early March 2023, our colleague Yevhenia Dudka, the press service head of the State Emergency Service in Dnipro, tragically passed away. While extinguishing a warehouse fire, the area was hit again by artillery. Yevhenia sustained grave injuries, and after spending over 11 months in a German hospital, her condition deteriorated. She was transported back and, regrettably, died at home. This underscores the perilous nature of press service work under such conditions.
To date, nearly 80 of our rescuers have lost their lives, with around 300, by my estimation, injured. Despite our protection under the Geneva Convention and our non-combatant status with no weapons, we are being targeted by Russian forces. And they know what they are doing.
Take, for instance, Zhylianska Street in Kyiv. Last year, as the occupiers intensified their assault on energy facilities, the situation grew dire. The administration building was the first target. Our rescuers reached the scene only to experience another strike within an hour. An Iranian-made Shahed drone struck a residential building a mere 15 metres from my position. I’m immensely grateful that no one was injured in that incident, but similar episodes have been all too common.
Our people are used to working like this. To give everything to save others. And we can’t help but do it. The character of people as a whole has changed, certainly in our service.
One moment that deeply pains me was our time in Bakhmut in winter when we attempted to evacuate children from a house set ablaze after a nocturnal strike. Initially, locals managed to douse the flames using their own water reserves. They subsequently requested additional water and food supplies. The following day, as we delivered the necessities, the number of children present struck me. This was right before New Year’s Eve. The haunting gaze of those children peering through the windows remains etched in my memory. Their parents’ refusal to evacuate them before the enforced evacuations was heart-wrenching. Such circumstances underscore the starkly altered realities that people now endure.
A pyrotechnician friend, presently involved in demining operations in the Kherson region, once remarked about the newfound appreciation for life itself. Just the sheer act of living. He emphasised the need to highlight the courage and challenging working conditions our rescuers face daily.
Our operational mode has adapted. We’re always equipped with a substantial backpack, a laptop, cameras, three lenses, a tourniquet, and gloves. I’m perpetually on standby, ready to respond to any emergency in Kyiv or elsewhere. For instance, on one occasion, I was en route to Kherson during intense shelling. During my overnight train journey, I learned of bombardments in Uman by the occupiers. Subsequently, I diverted to Mykolaiv before spending two days in Uman.
I firmly believe the effectiveness of any service rests on its proactive members, those who tirelessly champion their cause and remain unwavering in the face of adversity. In my view, that tenacity is our path to victory.
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