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On Thursday Pete died

Remembering Pete Reed, a paramedic from the United States, who died while attempting to reach civilians in need of help under heavy Russian artillery fire in Bakhmut.

February 9, 2023 - Imke Hansen - Stories and ideas

Pete Reed. Photo: Global Outreach Doctors on facebook.com

On Thursday, Pete Reed died. That day, Ukraine lost an outstanding medical responder with an impressive track record of warzone and disaster deployments for a 33-year-old. International civil society lost an activist who united rare qualities: fearlessness, unconditional commitment to aiding the most vulnerable, a sense of humor, and kindness.

I understood he died from a plain signal message “Did you hear about Pete?” I froze. What other can that mean in a war context? The words felt like a sword cutting a tear into my world. That was on Saturday.

Our evacuation coordinator did not know much about the incident, only that they got under fire on a road in Bakhmut with three ambulances. Apart from Pete, there were two Norwegian volunteers, and local responders, one of them and the Norwegians are in a Dnipro hospital. I read his messages twice, read an obituary in the Guardian, re-read the messages, and entered a state as if floating in the dark universe, disconnected from everything and everyone. Why did he drive to Bakhmut on Thursday?

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bakhmut was a pleasant city in the Donetsk region with over 70.000 inhabitants. Shelling of Bakhmut began in May 2022; however, after August 1, when Russian forces advanced from the direction of Popasna, it became the Eastern frontline hotspot.

Mercenaries from the Wagner Group paramilitary organisation have primarily led the assault, supported by regular Russian troops and units from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” – the part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions Russia occupied already in 2014. With the “Battle of Bakhmut,” the city joined the ranks of the entirely destroyed cities of Donbas, flanked by Severodonetsk and Mariupol.

Bakhmut has become a signifier of horror and loss in the past months. The unceasing artillery fire provided a bleak soundtrack that chilled to the bones and was audible far beyond the city. I experienced it during a monitoring visit to the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar in December.

Accordingly, it became more and more dangerous to evacuate from Bakhmut. Many organisations´ security policies prohibited entering such a hazardous area. Even those volunteers very committed to saving people regardless of their background or opinion at some point wondered how much to risk to evacuate people who refused to go when it was still possible. According to the local police, as of February 2, around 5,900 civilians remained in Bakhmut, including over 200 children.

The journalist Francis Farrell aptly describes the phenomenon: “Starved of any information on the outside world, and with no savings or connections to help them if they evacuate, the remaining residents of Bakhmut are frozen in inaction as the fighting draws closer. Whether out of apathy, hopelessness, or dreams of the made-up propaganda idea of the “Russian world,” many make the simple but often deadly choice: to wait.”

A day before I witnessed Bakhmut’s artillery concert in Chasiv Yar, I met Pete for the first time at the Pokrovsk railroad station, one of the region’s evacuation hubs. From here, a regular evacuation train leaves for Dnipro and further to Western Ukraine. Specialising in evacuating people of age, with disabilities, and before or after childbirth, Vostok SOS sends people evacuated from their homes to places where they find appropriate shelter with this train.

When I arrived, the platform was already busy, with people of age climbing out of the evacuation vehicle and searching for their bags, railroad workers in orange high-visibility vests running the lifting platform, and Edvard and Vlad from our evacuation team placing a person on a flexible stretcher and carry them through the narrow corridor into the couchette compartment. The process needs to be carried out carefully and swiftly; other evacuation cars with patients are already queueing.

We had just finished accompanying our beneficiaries, including a 13-day-old child, into the train and stood chatting and smoking when Pete approached me. My first thought was: this is a marine veteran, and I have no idea where that thought came from. Only much later I learned that it was correct.

He introduced himself as a paramedic and seemed to work with Base UA, an organisation evacuating even from hazardous areas. When I replied that I work with stress and trauma, not only with beneficiaries but also with helpers, he nodded and said, “We are all traumatised. Isn’t that why we are all here?” With that sentence, he won over my respect and my trust. Rarely do responders speak about their trauma, and hardly anyone understands that past traumatic experiences have much to do with them being such fearless, committed volunteers.

After receiving the message of Pete´s death, I spent the rest of the Saturday with alternating feelings of rage, helplessness, and sadness. My brain circulates around questions like “Why him?”; “Why were they there with three ambulances, providing a visible target?”; “What happened?” I know that the days before, he evacuated from Bakhmut, responding to evacuation requests Vostok SOS received and passed on to him. But not on Thursday.

And in between, I remembered banal pieces of my recent conversations with Pete. For example, a brief exchange on showerhead preferences. It is delightful (however, often not possible) to take a warm shower after a long and hard day in the field. He recollected a shower sprinkling from above like rain in one place where he stayed. I distrust such showers; if they suddenly turn cold, you have no space to turn away. Why do such things come into my mind? The trivial is never far from the dramatic, pushing itself into the foreground in the saddest and most devastating situations.

Two days after meeting Pete in Pokrovsk, I ran into him at the gas station in Konstantinivka. One often meets other responders at the gas station because a) there are not so many gas stations on frontline territory, and b) not all of them offer coffee and a toilet. He was on his way to drive a patient to Dnipro; we were heading towards the destroyed villages in the Kharkiv region to do monitoring. We’ll be in touch, he said, and so we were.

With time I realised that we had some things in common: loving nature, hiking and skiing, liking to work independently and in challenging contexts, and not being afraid of encountering the consequences of violence. And we seemed to share the same values.

In Pokrovsk, two people screaming at each other 20 m down the platform had interrupted my first chat with Pete. The man started pushing the woman, and I asked our evacuation team member Roma to settle the situation. He went there and pacified the guy with a single movement, as Pete recollected the case a couple of weeks later. Great guy this Roma, he said, impressive performance. Listening to that, I felt proud of Roma and connection with Pete.

Before I went to bed on Saturday, I re-read our signal feed. He asked whether Vostok SOS’s hotline currently receives evacuation requests from Bakhmut and could provide his team with such requests. I put him in touch with my colleagues in charge of those processes. Reading that exchange, one part of my brain started constructing guilt feelings as I contributed to his going to Bakhmut. Another part said correctly, you could not have stopped him anyway; this was his mission. The parts continued disputing for about an hour.

Instead of sleeping, I read media articles, Facebook, and Instagram posts acknowledging his death. The comments below were full of his friends’ obituaries, mixed with disgusting pro-Russian comments by strangers. His death also caught the interest of the other side of the frontline. Around 3 am, I fell asleep to wake up at six, feeling deep-frosted without freezing.

Whereas Saturday was the shock day, the circling thoughts day, the day of rage and helplessness, Sunday was the silent day. Anything planned for this day, any further conversation seemed obsolete. Pete is dead, and I am alive. It’s interesting how much pain my body mobilizes when I think this sentence.

“Russian troops have continued to make small advances in an attempt to encircle embattled Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk Oblast, the U.K. Defense Ministry reported on February 4,” I read on Kyiv independent. “According to the brief, the two main roads into Bakhmut are likely threatened by direct fire following the Russian advances.”

Information pieces fall into place like puzzle stones when reading more news and messages from other colleagues. Pete and his team were not on a regular evacuation trip. At the location of the incident, there had been shelling before, and there were injured civilians. There are different versions of how they got to know about that. When you hear injured people need medical aid, it becomes difficult not to go to that place, even if it is dangerous. When they came to the location to save lives they came under fire themselves, obviously a targeted attack. One version of the story says that Pete protected someone else’s life with his body. I am not sure whether this was his choice, but even if, I would not be surprised.

Targeting medical facilities and ambulances is strongly ostracised internationally. The incident that resulted in Pete´s death is not a usual phenomenon of war. It underscores the criminal and genocidal character of Russian warfare that violates all international agreements and human rights.

I go through what remained of Pete in my life: his Bakhmut evacuation plan as a PDF, our signal feed, and a skiing instruction video. Thanks to our discussions, I realised my major technical skiing flaw and Pete recorded a video to instruct me how to correct it. In a moving ambulance, holding on to the wall not to fall he showed and explained the correct skiing posture. “I think I call it combat ski instructing, and missiles will also not stop the joy that is skiing.”, he laughed. I replied that missiles cannot stop joy in general, to which he commented, “Damn right.” That was my last private conversation with Pete Reed, a person I knew only for a couple of weeks and will remember forever.

Pete Reed was a US-American paramedic specialising in high-impact contexts and the founder of Global Response Medicine. He worked with Global Outreach Doctors in East Ukraine, providing medical aid and medical evacuations to particularly vulnerable civilians. Earlier he served as a paramedic in Northern Iraq and other war and disaster settings.

Dr. phil. Imke Hansen is a scholar of East European History specialising in experiences of violence and a trauma therapist of Somatic Experiencing. In 2020, she switched from academia to the field, working full-time in trauma-informed crisis response and peacebuilding with Libereco Partnership for Human Rights and Vostok SOS.

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