January 1, 2024 at 3:47 PM ET
I watched Russia bomb Ukraine — launching more than 150 missiles and drones on Friday in one of the largest attacks since its invasion in February 2022. At least 30 people were killed, and more than 160 wounded. Then, on Saturday, Ukraine bombed the border city of Belgorod in what Russia described as a “terrorist attack.” Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, said at least 24 people were killed.
Russia responded by bombing Peshkova's home city of Kharkiv – a city of more than 1.4 million people in eastern Ukraine – wounding two dozen people and bombing residential buildings, a hotel and a kindergarten. Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, was nearly lost early in the war when Russian forces overtook nearby villages, besieging the city on three sides — but it eventually resisted defeat, although its proximity to Russia kept it in harm's way.
The mutual bombardment heralded the arrival of a long winter with the counterattack halted and soldiers dug in on the barely budging front lines. As in the trenches, morale at the medical base was low. It was the group The first to confront the human damage caused by missiles in Kharkiv, hoping that the victims will survive the race to the hospital.
“There is no New Year in my soul,” said Byshikova, who has worked as a doctor for 15 years. “It's just a word.”
In the station's kitchen, she and six paramedics and ambulance drivers crowded around a table covered with plates of cookies and orange slices. They sipped cups of black tea and instant coffee, waiting, unsure of what their 12-hour shift would bring, unsure of what new brutalities they would encounter.
“Hopefully it's nothing,” the paramedic said. Natalia Mikitenko, 48, sips tea.
“Ideas are embodied, so we only want to think about the good,” Peshkova replied. “I hope we don't have any calls.”
The radio was silent – for now.
“When will it all be over?”
Aside from the medical base, war was Kharkiv's defining feature.
At the Kharkiv Palace Hotel — one of the sites bombed the day before — faded curtains fluttered from broken windows like flags. Above the hotel entrance, twinkling lights hung. The side of the block was stripped to a cinder block. Floor lamp depicts an empty room.
Mykola Yuryshko, 54, stood in the front and looked at the hotel, which was frequented by journalists and NGO volunteers.
“It's terrible,” he said. “It is horrible.”
Juriczko, who has lived in Milan for 14 years, was home for the holiday to visit friends. He knew Italians who couldn't believe the war in Ukraine was still going on. A friend – who is married to a woman from Moscow – asked him about the evidence.
He said: “I said: Would you agree to let your children go on tour here if there was no war?” “The only thing is – when will it all be over?”
In the distance I heard air raid sirens.
Underground, at the nearest subway station, the alarm faded. Trains passed on the tracks, and a steward spoke over the overhead loudspeaker. Families standing in front of a tall Christmas tree. Once, it stood proudly in Kharkiv's Freedom Square, but with the coming of war, it was tucked deep in the belly of the station, where it was protected.
Next to the tree, there was a clock topped with a Santa hat – its hands never moving forward, frozen in time.
Up the subway escalators and across the street, in a small shop selling Ukraine's popular “cherry liqueur” — a sweet liqueur known as pyana vyshnya — a poster of Putin was taped to the wall near the cash register, a bullet hole between his eyes.
It was 11 p.m., the start of a citywide nighttime curfew.
At the table, Byshikova spoke about the calls coming in recently – a lot of elderly people need help. Their children have fled and are living in countries across Europe. There was no one to take care of them. One call brought her to a paralyzed, emaciated man who couldn't feed himself. Another call led to a couple relying on social services changing their dirty underwear only once a day.
Doctors' jobs changed because of the war. During the counterattack, they would follow the front lines, transporting wounded soldiers to nearby hospitals, some of whom had lost limbs. As the bombing increased, it became difficult for patients to stabilize, as shrapnel penetrated their bodies in multiple places.
Once, at another medical base, Byshikova was 300 yards away when a huge aerial bomb exploded, shattering the building's windows and shaking her to her bones.
“In the beginning, we went to the bombed areas every day,” she said. “Everyone wants this all to be over.”
With a stethoscope wrapped around her neck, Byshikova had shiny nails and soft bangs. She showed her colleagues pictures of her 12-year-old son, as she was raising him alone after divorcing his father, who was currently serving in the army. She was dealing with a lot. But she won't give up.
They waited wearing their red uniforms, striped with reflective tape.
When a call comes in, the crew has two minutes to get out the door, and another 10 minutes to get to the victim's location. The timing often depends on roads that have fallen into disrepair due to frequent bombing. They must always be ready.
“You can't predict what the enemy will do,” Byshikova said. Russia was “trying to destroy everything.”
Behind, 10 ambulances were lined up in the parking lot. The ambulance left running was new, a donation from Poland. The bulletproof vests were tucked in front near the driver's seat. The helmet was strapped to the tailgate. Their boss often reminded them that their safety was the most important thing. They weren't on the front lines, but they were still working in a war zone.
Nearby was the frame of another ambulance, destroyed in a bombing, and its body had turned black. They dragged her to the station to remember.
Another 10 minutes. They talked. Wait.
The station dog — abandoned at the bus station, now recovering from cancer — curls up like a roll on the sofa, where paramedics sometimes sleep or watch movies. Their Christmas tree was dark, surrounded by empty parcels, wrapped in pretty paper. They were trying to save electricity.
It was now five minutes to midnight.
In the station kitchen, they cut more oranges. They were longing to sip champagne with their families. Instead, they shared olives, slices of bread, slices of cheese and jam-filled buns.
Their breaths, collectively held. Byshikova expressed her hope that everything will be better next year. I dreamed that the conflict would end.
The clock has turned. No noise, just quiet.
The new year came, and the war continued. But for one night, they were saved.