Diana Savita Wagner hadn’t ever considered joining the military before. After abandoning a medical degree, the young woman tutored pupils in math, Latin and German, and worked as a web designer.

She and her husband, a Canadian software developer, had just moved to Halle in eastern Germany, where she enrolled to study mathematics.

But everything changed in March 2022, when she drove to Ukraine to provide humanitarian assistance. She had only ever heard of the country in the news.

One month prior, Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of its western neighbor. Now, Wagner was transporting urgently required medicine and medical equipment from Lviv to Kyiv.

There, she met Western journalists who were looking for a driver. So, she drove the group across mine-infested streets into villages near Kyiv and Chernihiv that had recently been freed from Russian occupation.

Residents greeted the team of reporters “like liberators,” the young woman told DW in late 2022.

“Even if you just gave them a loaf of bread, they practically kissed your feet,” she remembered. “And then we found out that the Russians were torturing people.”

She said that what she experienced made her angry, and convinced her that providing humanitarian aid was not enough.

“To hell with treating the symptoms,” she remembered thinking to herself. “Let’s remove the root cause.”

Kherson residents describe torture under Russian occupation

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In the trenches of Izium

Wagner had no military training, she didn’t speak Ukrainian and barely knew the country. But several semesters as a medical student were “still enough for first aid on the front line,” she said. The battles in Ukraine were incurring heavy losses, and medics were in short supply.

And so, after two months of basic training, in June 2022, the German citizen was deployed to northeastern Ukraine. She started as a foot soldier. Looking back, she believed it was because in the chaos of the early days of the war, her superiors hadn’t been informed of her medical background.

For weeks, she held out in the trenches before being assigned as a medic. “We were on the front line around the clock,” she said later. “You’re in some forest, in the middle of nowhere. You have no night vision goggles, or if you do, you have to share between five or eight people.”

“You hear a bang somewhere, and then you just shoot in the direction of the Russians — suppressing fire.”

Her unit’s base camp was within reach of Russian mortars and tanks, she said. “In any other army, they would have moved. But Ukrainians are honestly tough.”

There was no running water, no real toilet. “I showered in the rain, and was always grateful when it did rain,” she recounted.

“You’re constantly sweating or freezing, there’s nothing in between. In conditions like that, you slowly start to notice that it’s draining you.”

‘Not a fighter’

It was rough circumstances for someone who had experienced a sheltered childhood in Germany. Her mother was an employee, her father a police officer.

“I never watched war movies,” Wagner told DW. She couldn’t even think of the German words for standard military terminology such as “platoon,” “mortar,” or “trench.”

She only learned the language of war once she was stationed to her unit, in which many foreigners served. There, they spoke English.

She said it bothered her that most international volunteers in Ukraine hailed from the US and not from Europe. “It’s highly unlikely that Putin would drop an atomic bomb on the United States,” she explained.

“But if Ukraine loses this war, then Putin will not stop, and all of Europe will have a huge problem.”

Foreigners in the nationalist battalion

Wagner served in the so-called Sich Battalion, which had been established as a volunteer battalion and was only later integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. From the beginning, the formation was more open to foreigners, who frequently didn’t speak the language and lacked battle experience compared to other units.

The battalion had a reputation for being stalwart nationalists. But Wagner said she never got that impression.

She claims all she encountered there were “ordinary Ukrainians” such as a musician from Donetsk, or a textile tradesperson. “It’s not some sort of extremist group.”

Wagner described herself as apolitical. “I don’t feel affiliated to any party,” she said. “I’m somewhere in the middle. Not left, and not right.”

Final resting place in Kyiv

Diana Savita Wagner was killed in action on January 30, 2024, by artillery fire near Svatove in eastern Ukraine, while trying to evacuate wounded Colombian fighters. Fellow servicemen say she saved dozens of wounded military personnel during her time on the front line.

A man and woman in civilian clothes embrace in a church, surrounded by personnel in military fatigues
Diana Wagner’s family decided to lay her to rest in Kyiv, near her comradesImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

The volunteer medic was laid to rest in February with military honors in Kyiv’s war cemetery. “We felt it would be right to leave her with her comrades,” her mother Ulla Wagner told DW.

“She was passionate for the cause. She was so invested that she gave her life there,” she added. “We will travel to Kyiv once a year, to visit her.”

Wagner’s widower, Karl, told DW about the plans the couple had of alternating between living in Germany and Ukraine. “You know, the Ukrainians are so friendly,” he said.

Despite the dangers she exposed herself to, he said that he always supported his wife’s decision.

“On the one hand, I wanted her to come back. And on the other, I knew she was doing something she really believed in,” he said.

“She was fighting for the freedom of Europe, not just of Ukraine. We often take freedom for granted in the West. She paid for freedom with her own blood.”

This article was translated from German.


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