A former Norwegian MP for people of Sámi heritage and now a military medic for the International Legion, she explains why she came to defend Ukraine, talks about the battles she took part in, and recalls how she received roses from Ukrainian military on March 8 under fire.
The whole world is helping Ukraine in the war with Russia: while the governments of the countries negotiate list of necessary weapons and the amount of financial aid, some of their citizens are going to Ukraine to fight the aggressor. Hundreds of foreign volunteers have joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense, including 35-year-old Sandra Andersen Eyra, a military medic and a former member of the Sámi Parliament of Norway which is the representative body for people of Sámi heritage.
Tell us why you decided to support Ukraine?
I have never been to Ukraine before, but I lived in the north of Norway, near the border with Russia. We all knew that war was approaching, and most have probably been preparing for it for years. It is our moral duty to help. Because the last great war on our continent was the war in my country [Norway was under German occupation in 1940-1945], and many countries came to our aid. Today we are doing the same for Ukraine.
Each of us has personal reasons to join. Most of the military decide to return to battle because it is all they know and why they are trained. For me, everything is different. This is my first war. Until last year, I was a government official in Norway, a member of the local parliament, also worked as a fisherman and had my own business. That is, everything at home was very safe, comfortable and good, but I felt that all my life I was heading to this decision. All my friends are military, so being a combat medic is all I wanted to do.
I arrived in Ukraine in early March. My combat unit was the first in the International Legion to be stationed in the northern districts of Kyiv and to help liberate them. We took part in the battles near Bucha and Irpen, and only then went to fight on the southern front of the country.
Was coming to Ukraine to fight a difficult decision? How did your family react to it at home?
I didn’t have to think: I saw what was happening, and 24 hours later I was at a military base in Ukraine. It was a very quick decision for me, but I never doubted it was the right thing to do. However, at the beginning I did not tell almost anyone about leaving, because I did not want to provoke unnecessary worries, which will eventually prevent me from keeping my focus. Therefore, only a month later, relatives from the media found out where I was. This did not surprise anyone. Now they are just hoping and praying that I will return home safe and sound.
You are the only woman in your unit. What are your impressions of such an experience?
I got used to this while working as a fisherman in Norway. It’s the same – just the guys and me. However, I like it, and I have no problem with it if I can do what needs to be done.
The Ukrainian troops I met were truly amazing and treated me like a queen. I used to hear that Eastern European boys treated girls with respect, but now I had the opportunity to see for myself: I spent several days with Ukrainian soldiers in ambush, and in all my life I have never been treated better.
I still remember how cold it was, and they poured me my first cup of tea. I never drank it before the trip to Ukraine, because I thought I didn’t like tea. But surprisingly, I was wrong. Even to the sound of bombs, Ukrainian soldiers gave me chocolates, candies and roses for International Women’s Day. Of course, they also taught me the main Ukrainian phrases, such as “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Ukraine!” Glory to heroes!”. They said that this phrase is the most important, because people around us should know that we are friendly.
What did you know about Ukraine before, and what impressed you the most upon your arrival?
Thanks to my past profession in Norway, I met many Eastern European people – from Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. So the culture is not new to me, but coming to Ukraine in wartime is definitely very special for me. One of the most impressive things in Ukraine is that the civilians here are amazing, they are doing an unprecedented amount to help us. Having almost nothing, they give away everything they have. I admire how they cope with everything, how they thank us, how they try to show how much they appreciate our help.
And what was the most difficult thing you had to face in Ukraine?
Of course, a lot of bad things happen in war: war crimes, deaths, shelling of civilians, heavy fighting and people who use the war for their own benefit. Sometimes it’s easy to lose motivation, it’s hard to remember why you fight and why you keep doing it for free. To be here, we [foreign volunteers] have to pay out of pocket for equipment, food, fuel, and whatever else is needed. If we run out of money, we will not be able to continue to fight. That is why sometimes you can be disappointed and tired of everything that is happening in the political sphere. But I hope this will change soon, and foreign fighters will receive more help in the future.
So what are your personal plans for the future?
We will stay here as long as we can and as long as necessary. We see the course of the war: we hope that it will end soon, but we really understand that when politics is involved, there will be no quick solution. So we live day by day and week by week – no long-term plans.
However, I have not been home since the end of February. So maybe I will leave Ukraine for a couple of weeks to catch my breath, replenish our supplies and then return to the front.
On the other hand, I found many friends among the Ukrainian military and civilians. So I definitely plan to go back during peacetime to celebrate life, eat delicious food and enjoy places that, as I heard, are especially beautiful in Ukraine in summer.