From fighting at the front to a Dublin hospital: ‘You don’t think of it as killing, it’s war’

Two Ukrainian fighters, one a volunteer living in Dublin, on how the war has affected them

Sitting in an office next to the Guinness brewery in Dublin, two Ukrainian men, both suffering the effects of war in different ways, have left the conflict and share their experiences of fighting Russian invaders.

Before the war, Valentyn Zelenetskyi (47) was a builder and ran his local rowing club in the town of Smila in central Ukraine. In a matter of weeks, he had been trained and dispatched to fight in Avdiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region that he calls a “hotspot” in this war.

Today, he is in Dublin, one of five “war-wounded” Ukrainian soldiers who were flown to Ireland for treatment two weeks ago through the EU’s military medevac operation. He has been receiving treatment from doctors specialising in neuro-ophthalmology at Beaumont Hospital.

“Thanks to the Irish doctors, they saved my eyesight,” Zelenetskyi tells The Irish Times through an interpreter at the Ukrainian Crisis Centre in Ireland.

“If I stayed in Ukraine, I would have lost my eyesight. The good doctors and good equipment in Irish hospitals ... I am very thankful that they saved my eyesight. I have an opportunity to go back to the front lines after my rehabilitation.”

From the time Zelenetskyi started fighting in May until he was wounded, the Russians bombarded the Ukrainian positions in Avdiivka from dawn until dusk, forcing him to seek refuge in underground tunnels. At night, Russian special forces would attempt to advance and retake the Ukrainian positions. He felt nothing about killing “the orcs” as he calls the Russian soldiers.

“The first time you see them in the night vision, you just see killers in front of you. I felt no remorse. They were only targets. There was no emotional enemy there. It is like you are killing a serial killer,” says Zelenetskyi, whose rank is master sergeant.

As he saw it, he had no choice; it was a black-and-white decision. He had to defend himself and his country against the Russians as they attempted to advance into Ukraine from the east because of the harm they were intent on bringing to Ukraine and its people.

“It is the war. It is a different state of mind. You don’t think of it as killing, like every time you kill someone, saying ’I killed a man; I killed a man’. It is war,” he says.

“It is not like some enemy. It is people on the ground. If he has the chance, he will kill you, he will kill your family. It is like if a burglar were to enter your house — you have to stop him.”

During two days of intense Russian shelling, the blasts started to take a toll on Zelenetskyi. At the end of the day he began to lose consciousness and his eyesight began to deteriorate.

He was diagnosed with acoustic barotrauma from the impact of the prolonged shelling.

Sitting next to Zelenetskyi is Dundrum-based Roman Protsenko (43), who took leave from his job at a Dublin kitchen-fitting company and furniture maker to return to his native Ukraine to volunteer to fight. He left Ireland, his home for the past 20 years, three days after the war started on February 24th. After a long journey and just four tactical military lessons, he was sent out to serve.

Stationed in a village named Baryshivka, east of Kyiv, his job was in surveillance, charged with monitoring the Russian positions and hunting down suspected Russian infiltrators.

“The night was the most dangerous time,” says Protsenko, who served as a sergeant.

An Irish passport holder, he had to return home to Dublin as he was only permitted to stay in Ukraine for three months because he travelled on his Irish papers, not his Ukrainian ones. After that, he says, he would be illegal and would have no protection from injury or insurance because he was a volunteer and had no contract with the Ukrainian military.

He has found his return to his normal life in Dublin difficult. He is jumpy. On one of his first days back at work, he had to carry out a job near Dublin Airport. He ducked when a plane flew overhead. He says, during his time in Ukraine, a plane flying overhead meant trouble.

“It is not easy,” he says.

When he rounds a corner now, he takes a few steps more and takes a wider berth; it is instinctive from his time in Ukraine where potential danger lay around every corner.

He gets angry recalling how someone he knew recently in Dublin remarked on how many pints he drank the previous Friday. The trivial nature of the conversation bothered him when there was a war going on in his homeland. This is what plays on his mind.

“People still don’t understand. They are drinking and smiling,” he says. Some offer support but most people here are oblivious to the war in Ukraine, he says. “It is too far away.”

Asked how he is sleeping, he says: “Sometimes not good dreams.” He mentions the bombing. He also mentions how one of his friends killed in fighting was buried on Tuesday in Ukraine.

“I sat with him together on the trips. We sang together. We sat shoulder to shoulder. It is not easy,” he says.

Protsenko does not think he will return to fight in Ukraine. He feels he is ill-prepared for war but thinks he could teach others from the experience he had during his three months in Ukraine.

“I would like to teach people, to give them my experience. It will probably save somebody’s life,” he says.

Zelenetskyi also wants to educate people about what is going on in Ukraine.

He is keen to report how the Russians are using lethal phosphorous bombs and cluster bombs in their bombardment of Ukrainian positions in the Donbas region, now the main theatre of war in the country. He shows images of a Russian phosphorous bomb exploding on his phone.

“It burns everything,” he says.

He says he is not afraid to return to the front and the fighting. He says he wants to serve alongside his “brothers in arms” — volunteer soldiers who, like him, are fighting to defend their country and four months ago were engineers, accountants, labourers, farmers and mechanics.

“There is no place there for fear,” he says.

He is keen to return to Ukraine soon, but has to remain in Dublin for another month. He must go back to Beaumont Hospital for another check-up and to have new glasses prescribed.

Before he heads back, he plans to pick up a pair of sound-cancelling headphones to reduce the impact of the sounds waves from Russian explosions that almost robbed him of his eyesight.

“I may not be able to fight on the front line but I might be able to serve as a paramedic,” he says.

“Somebody saved me so I might be able to save someone else.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent