Canadian Farmer Turned ‘Superman’ Escaped Putin’s Troops to Save Little Girl
KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Eastern Ukraine—When one of the eight Russian soldiers in the room cocked his weapon and held it ready, Paul Hughes, a volunteer aid worker from Canada, thought his time was up.“I kept thinking over and over, I’m going to die… people kept coming in and out of the back and I’m like, that’s where
KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Eastern Ukraine—When one of the eight Russian soldiers in the room cocked his weapon and held it ready, Paul Hughes, a volunteer aid worker from Canada, thought his time was up.
“I kept thinking over and over, I’m going to die… people kept coming in and out of the back and I’m like, that’s where they keep the bodies and that’s where they’re going to shoot me,” he said, recounting his terrifying ordeal in an interview with The Daily Beast.
He appeared to be in high spirits last month at a training ground near the Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka, in the Donbas region. Here, a group of Canadian soldiers from the Saber team were busy training local Ukrainian troops on emergency medical equipment. Hughes had used donated funds to buy an ambulance in order to assist with casualty evacuation training.
Before volunteering in the war, Paul was working as a farmer back in his native region of Calgary. He left for Ukraine in March after feeling overwhelmed with the desire to help the country in any way he could. Paul set up a grassroots organization, HUGS Ukraine, that provided humanitarian aid deliveries and assisted in the evacuation of civilians from the most dangerous frontline areas in the country.
It is an extremely hazardous job. In January this year, two foreign volunteers, New Zealander Andrew Bagshaw and Briton Christopher Parry, were killed on an evacuation run to the front lines in the eastern Ukraine town of Soledar. Their personal documents were posted online by the Russian mercenary group Wagner, but the exact circumstances of their death remain unclear.
On July 26 last year, Paul got a call that he now knows could have led to his death. It was from Julia Lapionova, a Ukrainian mother living in the Netherlands who was worried sick about her young daughter.
Six-year-old Katya was living in Tavriisk, a town in Kherson, with Julia’s ex-husband at the time.
“I called them and worried a lot,” Julia told The Daily Beast. “They couldn’t leave that place for a long time because all the bridges were ruined. Even the remaining roads were constantly attacked. It was horrible, the Russians destroyed cars even with kids inside.”
When the Kherson region was occupied by Russia, the family “decided to take action,” Julia said. In an effort to evacuate Katya from Ukraine, Julia’s ex-husband would take the girl to an acquaintance’s home in a gray zone near the border with Zaporizhzhia—a virtual no man’s land. Paul would then pick her up to drive her to the border near Poland, where her mother would be waiting.
“My poor girl, with my ex-husband, walked all the way from Tavriisk to Zaporizhzhia by foot, which is around 200 km. After that, they got into a gray zone with no connection. I was going insane, and didn’t know what to do.”
Most of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, which includes the nuclear reactor at Enerhodar at the center of nuclear meltdown fears, was occupied by the Russians when they swept in from Crimea in the early days of the invasion. The main population center in the city of Zaporizhzhia has remained in Ukrainians hands, and has become a hub for refugees fleeing battles in Mariupol and Bakhmut.
Unbeknownst to Paul at the time, the Russians were conducting operations in the region, and had direct access to the area.
While driving through looking for the coordinates of the family—who had reached the home near Zaporizhzhia—a vehicle branded with the infamous Z symbol drove up to him. Heavily armed Russian soldiers then demanded he get out of the vehicle, and drove him at gunpoint to a house in the occupied town of Vasylivna.
“It was like a really bad acid trip,” he said of the eight-hour interrogation that followed. “They asked me whether I knew who Hitler was, told us they had come to clear Ukraine of Nazis, told me how bad and terrible Ukraine was, and how I should be helping Russia.” They constantly accused him of spying, he said, demanding to know why he was in Ukraine, and where he had gotten the money for his operations from.
“Eventually, a big guy came in, he had huge forearms, bald, and looked like Jason Statham or someone. He looked like this was going to be the guy who would kick the shit out of me, or who would stick a knife in my head,” he said.
The Russian man, he explained, was not as hard on him as he expected him to be. “He asked me what I did, and I said I was a farmer. He said he had been one as well. We had a conversation about growing crops, and he asked me about my favorite ice hockey players,” he said of the bizarre interaction. Incredibly—after nearly a day of captivity—the commander decided to let him go, allowing him to leave in his vehicle.
Paul then made his way to a Ukrainian checkpoint, and managed to get a Wi-Fi signal to find that the home Julia was in was only a kilometer away. He was able to drive there, with the backdrop of artillery fire between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers rumbling in the background.
“When I got there, it almost bowled me over when she jumped on me. They were, she was shaking. She was so massively traumatized. Then bombs started going off and I piled her into the car and we drove off as fast as possible,” he said.
“As soon as I picked up the girl, we saw Russian mortar fire starting to fall around us. We were the only vehicle for miles around, so they must have been shooting at us! I drove through no-man’s-land like a maniac for 10 minutes, and then drove all the way to the Polish border to hand her to her mother.”
‘The fire is still raging’
Paul described the decision to risk his life that day as a no-brainer.
“When I said I was going to go down and get a 6-year-old girl, I was, I didn’t really think about my own personal safety anymore. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t do a risk analysis or anything. I just, yeah, go get this kid. Right?,” he told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes you get that call to go and do something that’s incredibly dangerous. And if you don’t take the call, then that means somebody else must. So, yeah, it’s passing the buck.”
Katya has since been reunited with her mother in the Netherlands, where they plan to stay “permanently, because there is nothing to come back for and our home is destroyed,” Julia told The Daily Beast.
“She had problems at first. Katya was panicky, afraid of loud noises. Especially during New Year’s, we haven’t seen any fireworks. Because the child had hysterics, we moved into the area where fireworks were banned by law. But now she is with me. Katya goes to school, studies, plays with her toys and feels perfectly fine. She even met new friends here which helped with adaptation a lot,” she said of her daughter’s transition.
“Paul is Katya’s Superman now. She tells me how he picked her in a car with all of those missiles landing around and saved her. Katya calls him ‘Superman’ every time we mention him. I wish there were more people like him in the world,” Julia said.
The Canadian farmer, meanwhile, is getting constant updates about the Ukrainian family’s new life in the Netherlands.
“She takes swimming lessons and dancing lessons and goes to school and has all kinds of friends and, you know, celebrating her birthday and she’s got a decent life, this little girl,” Paul said.
He told The Daily Beast he plans to stay in Ukraine, doing this work until the end of the war. His 20-year-old son has even made the move from Canada to join him.
“Asking when I’m going to pack up is like asking a firefighter when he plans to leave the fire,” Paul said. “He’s going to leave when the fire is out! And now the fire is still raging.”