Strategy of terror – How Ukrainian rescue workers risk their lives – News


They are the first on the scene after air attacks, rescuing people and putting out fires. But they are increasingly finding themselves in danger.

A bright spring morning follows a night of destruction: Russia has once again fired missiles at the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa, for the second night in a row. Once again, people have died.

And once again Maryna Averina and her people were in action. You can’t tell by looking at the young woman: she seems wide awake and focused as she greets us in front of the headquarters of the civil protection and fire service of the Odessa region. The first thing she asks is: “Do you go to the shelter when there’s an air raid? Yes? Bravo.”


Maryna Averina at the headquarters of the emergency services and fire service of the Odessa region.


Fire engines are parked in the large hall, and thick boots, coats and protective equipment are ready. Averina, the spokeswoman for the rescue services, explains the background to her question: In Odessa, the air raid alarm sounds very frequently, and unfortunately many people no longer respond to it because they want to carry on with their normal lives. This could lead to even more victims – and even more work for the rescue services.

They have been through a spring of terror. On March 2, twelve people, including five children, died in an attack. They are hardened, says Averina, “but you can’t get used to children being killed.”

Rescue workers as target?

A few days later, on March 15, the Russian armed forces carried out a particularly perfidious attack on Odessa: a so-called “double tap strike”. Around 15 minutes after the first explosion, a second rocket hit the exact same spot. 21 people died, including two rescuers, and eight helpers were injured.

This is a targeted murder of the helpers.

“15 minutes – that’s exactly the time it takes for the first rescuers to arrive on the scene, take care of the victims and for the fire brigade to start extinguishing the fire,” says Averina. “This is a targeted murder of the helpers.”

Seeing colleagues lying on the ground, not knowing whether they were alive, not being able to care for them because the paramedics were also under fire: that was simply horrific.

Psychological emergency assistance

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In Ukraine, civil protection and fire services are part of the state emergency service DSNS. The emergency services are the first to arrive on the scene in the event of air raids. Their ranks also include divers, chemists, dog handlers, psychologists, as well as mine clearers and explosives specialists.

Psychological support is particularly important: Odessa, for example, has an ambulance for emergency psychological support. The ambulance goes to the scene immediately in the event of an attack, as the victims are usually in shock. The ambulance is equipped with a bed and chairs, people can lie down, receive water, medication and psychological support. The Odessa region ambulance was provided by the Swiss aid organization called Eastern European aid “Triumph of the Heart” donated.

Psychological help is also provided to rescue workers and firefighters, who are not only exposed to physical dangers due to their difficult work, but also have to deal with terrible scenes.

The 26-year-old firefighter Oleksij is passionate about his job. But he also says: “When you’re on duty and the air raid alarm sounds again, you just want to run away. It’s pretty scary.” You know exactly what happened to your colleagues.

If we hadn’t done that then, even more people would have died.

The options for protecting the rescue workers are limited. They could theoretically decide to stay in the shelter, says Averina. “But if, for example, a high-rise building is hit, as happened at the end of December, and trapped people ask for help, then you have to go there. If we hadn’t done that then, even more people would have died.”

And once the rescue workers are on site, they are so focused on their work that they can hardly make it to a shelter in time if danger strikes again. That leaves improved equipment: bulletproof vest and helmet, in addition to the already heavy special clothing. This at least protects against splinters – but not against large explosions.

“Double tap strikes” occur again and again

Targeted strikes against rescue workers are a war crime. Russia perfected the perfidious tactic of the “double tap” in Syria and was never held accountable for it. Now the Russian armed forces are carrying out such attacks more and more frequently in Ukraine: on May 19 in the area surrounding the city of Kharkiv, in April in Zaporizhia and in Kharkiv, to name just the most recent cases – in addition to Odessa.

The goal is clear: to kill as many people as possible and to spread maximum terror. “Terrorizing the civilian population is an integral part of Russian warfare tactics,” says military observer and blogger Alexander Kovalenko.

He lives and works in Odessa. “And Russia has been using this tactic practically every day since the start of the major invasion.” The constant air raids, the attacks on infrastructure, the attacks with the particularly perfidious cluster bombs – which also took place in Odessa on April 29 – all of this falls under this strategy of terror. And its aim is to sow panic and break the population’s will to resist, says Kovalenko. A desperate population is thus supposed to demand that politicians come to an understanding with the aggressor and make concessions.

That was the calculation, which has not worked out in Ukraine so far. But the war is not over. And Odessa, the third largest city in Ukraine, is defenseless against Russian missiles. Air defenses can usually shoot down drones, but missiles can only be defended against with Western air defense systems – of which Ukraine has far too few. That is why only the capital region of Kyiv is currently protected.

The evening after our interview, another ballistic missile hit Odessa, and the fire and rescue services were called into action. The distribution center of a private postal company was hit and burned down. Fortunately, all employees survived: they managed to get to the shelter in time.

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