In peacetime, Inna Vishnevskaya was a loving wife and mother of four, a talented artist, and an art teacher. Flowers, the sea, and pictures of a happy life flowed from her brush. Today, she wears a military uniform, a helmet, and a bulletproof vest.
Since 24 February, Inna – or ‘Zefirka’ (Marshmallow) as she is known by her family and friends – has been a volunteer in the defence unit of the Bilohorodka village territorial community (TC).
She works as a paramedic in the medical department, providing pre-medical care, delivering food and medicine, helping vulnerable people and organising evacuations to safety.
On her “business trips” as she calls them, she travels to places that have recently been hell: Borodyanka, Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Vorzel and other settlements near Kyiv.
“I go to the areas that belong to our TC of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Here, for example, I went to Borodyanka for four days. I came back home for Easter, to go there again tomorrow, to save people.”
In particularly severe cases, she contacts an ambulance and makes a call, arranging doctors and hospitalisations.
“I have a staff car, as well as a driver who also acts as my security guard,” explains Inna. “He is responsible for ensuring that I am fully equipped, in "armour", with his combat kit - to help me in extreme cases. He is also a paramedic, his name is Serhii Sharunov, nickname ‘Pilyulkin’ (the diminutive word for a pill).
Zefirka and Pilyulkin have made more than 100 trips together as part of the mobile assistance service since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. The job is stressful, but Inna’s serene demeanour doesn’t give it away.
“I take the war so calmly that some people are frightened by my peace,” Inna admits. “I don't know where it comes from. Colleagues joke that I am an adrenaline addict. This is basically an abnormal reaction, but I feel calmer than ever. There is no panic.”
Indeed, in the photos that she posts on her Facebook page, Inna looks surprisingly quiet and gentle. Were it not for the apocalyptic landscapes with traces of bombings and piles of burnt military equipment – one would think that this is a fragment from an extreme photo shoot. In fact, these are horrific realities that testify to Russia's war crimes.
“The war has already drained me!” continues Inna. “I no longer have the strength, I want to win this war to the end. I don’t want to work only in the Kyiv region – I was already near Kyiv on the "frontline". Now I dream of going east but I was not taken (by the Ukrainian military) although I asked five times. My homeland is there, my mother; my godparents and relatives. It is my land.”
Inna says that there are so many people who want to get to the frontline in the Donetsk region that people are willing to pay money to get there and defend their homeland.
In addition to Inna, there is another woman in the unit who volunteers as a nurse. She is 65, but is combative, strong, and resilient. “She keeps telling me, ‘Innuska, just take me with you!’
The war came to Inna Vishnevskaya's life twice. Until 2014, she lived with her family in Donetsk. A shell hit her house near Donetsk airport.
“There is nothing left of the house. I went from the war with the children to Kropyvnytskyi, [a city in central Ukraine. Then it was still called Kirovohrad – ed.] I had to save the children, they were still young. Now they are adults and have their own families, and I can dedicate myself to Ukraine 24/7. I have no desire to do anything, except my ‘business trips’, until our land is free.”
Inna says that her relatives understand her decisions.
“We do not discuss this issue. ‘Mom decided - mom did.’ But I did not consult with anyone. When I manage to get away on short leaves, my family tries to feed and pamper me. For Easter, we fried kebabs. My daughter-in-law massaged my face and prepared an aromatic bath. The children threw my things in the car and took them to the wash.”
A week before the war, Inna and her husband moved into a small room, which they bought on credit in Bilohorodka. Before that, they lived in Kropyvnytskyi for eight years and changed flats several times.
“All this time we dreamed of our own home,” says Inna. “And when the opportunity finally arose, the war came. My husband and I lived in our new apartment for only a week. And now we are many people living in 18 square metres with a toilet, a bathroom and a kitchen: two sons with their wives, a daughter, three dogs, two evacuated chinchillas, two cats and a rat. In total, seven adults and eight animals.”
Spitz was presented to her during the evacuation from Bucha. Inna says that when she saw the dog, she knew that she would not give it to anyone. She took it home and named it like her, Marshmallow, because they share the same “cute fluffiness”. The chinchillas and rats were rescued from Hostomel, a commune near Kyiv. The flat has turned into a real Noah's ark.
Strangers call her and ask her to take her pets out of apartments whose owners have left or died. In some cases, the animals had been given to elderly women who no longer had the strength to take care of them. Rescued cats and dogs are taken to a shelter.
Everyone is hanging onto a warm word or any sign of attention
Paramedics travel to the most abandoned places, sometimes taking a postman with them, a representative of the village council, or a local paramedic. They made trips to such places as soon as Irpin was liberated.
But there were also arrivals in Bilohorodka, where Inna lives and conducts social services. She provided neighbours with medicines and food and involved all her acquaintances and family members in the preparation of social rations and meals.
“My girls fed the neighbours, spent the night with an elderly grandmother so that she would not be left alone. The family also helped: to feed here, warm up there, or to calm down somewhere else. Many of the elderly are completely lost,” Inna says.
Among her wards are people with bedsores and patients who cannot walk or talk on their own. Many cannot be hospitalised because the hospitals are overcrowded. Seeing their rescuers, people come out to meet them, cry and rejoice. There is a hunger for a warm word or any sign of attention.
“Pilyulkin is the 'bad cop', and I'm the good one,” she laughs. “Old men and children, of course, huddle up to me. And as soon as someone suspicious appears on the horizon, then the responsibility lies with Serhii.”
Driving to different locations across Ukraine can be dangerous, especially where fierce battles recently took place. The retreating Russian occupiers left their trenches and minefields behind. They have to move very carefully. Inna's partner, driver and paramedic Sergii Sharunov carefully inspects the road and adheres to all possible safety measures.
Inna admits that she doesn't like to wear a bulletproof vest. It is very heavy for her and weighs 32 kilos – or half of Marshmallow’s body weight. “I had two combat trips when I had to be fully equipped. My boys said: ‘Either you go in gear or you don't go at all.’
Unfortunately, painting, a favourite hobby that once saved Inna after being forced to move to Kropyvnytskyi, had to be put on hold. She plans to sell her paintings and donate the proceeds to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But people are not interested in art now, so the paintings are waiting for their buyers. However, sometimes she still paints with Bilohorodka children in the basement during the bombing.
“To distract them a little, I organise classes. During the air raids, we made collages and painted”, she says, showing a touching note, with words of gratitude from one of her wards.
But Marshmallow does not sour. She bravely, without sentiment, accepts the challenges thrown at her. She says that she used to like to lie in bed but now she wakes up at dawn to leave on time and not get stuck in traffic. Although their car with Pilyulkin is considered a special vehicle, they still have to join the lines of other vehicles on the road – a queue of emergency services, electricians, doctors, and gasmen, en route to rebuild destroyed cities and villages.
Asked when she returns home, Inna says: “I practically don't come back and pretty much live at the headquarters. I have lived in a bomb shelter for the last two months, because there were about 50 of my wards there.”
Peace with purpose
In days full of anxiety and sadness, Inna still finds reasons for joy. She admits: “I am glad that we are winning globally. I see the result of my work, people are recovering and gradually coming back to life. They expect help from us and receive it with gratitude. I see that I am needed.”
Marshmallow admits that while she may be unafraid of shelling in a peaceful life she might lose herself. It’s in her nature to be needed. Therefore, she dreams of continuing to serve people so that her family feels protected.
“To have a corner of happiness for myself seems selfish. I want to benefit the country, the people, to be in demand around the clock and without days off. If I can't find it in Ukraine, I will look for a place on the planet where I can help” she says. Inna stresses the importance of working together as a team.
Today, despite the fact that the enemy was driven out of the Kyiv region, defence against terrorism remains critical, she says. Finances are tight, the security situation is sensitive. Defenders need mats, sleeping bags, clothes and underwear, T-shirts, light shoes, medicines, and bandages.
“Our guys are going east, defending Luhansk and Mariupol. We are preparing for a business trip to the temporarily occupied territories and we need to bring soldiers necessary items….Change of clothes are needed, as well as sugar, blood pressure and heart rate monitors, or household cardiographs to make a cardiogram on the go” .
She says that she is always happy to get sponsors and benefactors. Everyone helps with a measure of strength and ability, but there can be only one result: victory.
Read this article in Ukrainian here.