have hands blackened and dirty of the fighting Some still wear combat boots, small chunks of dark battlefield dirt clinging to their torsos, barely covered by emergency blankets.
With bandaged heads and splinted limbsInjured soldiers arrive on a stretcher to the medical evacuation bus of Hospitallers, a Ukrainian organization of volunteer paramedics working on the front lines of the war in Ukraine.
All the soldiers were injured recently in heavy fighting in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, where the Russian forces try to advance. The battle in Bakhmut, a city now surrounded on three sides by Russian troops, has been especially bloody. Soldiers describe days of endless combat, often at close range.
“We’ve been on tour in hell”, said Yura, lying on a bed in the medicalized bus. Blood stained the thick bandage on his right arm, with metal bars to stabilize the shattered bone.
On his bicep was a dark purple bruise from the tourniquet that stopped the bleeding and saved his life. On the right cheek they wrote with a marker what time they had placed it: 19:45.
“They tried to finish me off with grenades,” said Yura, who like all the soldiers only gave his name. He had severe injuries to his right leg and arm.
Unlike most of the wounded, Yura is not Ukrainian, he is Russian, but he fights on the Ukrainian side in Bakhmut since November. The Muscovite said that he had moved to Ukraine before the war, as had a friend of his who is also fighting for Ukraine and had spent two and a half years in prison in Russia for forwarding a social media post that said that crimea – illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 – was Ukrainian.
It was his compatriots who wounded him.
He was in Bakhmut for “eight days of almost non-stop fighting,” he said, but he and his unit managed to repulse all attacks on their position.
“On the fifth day without sleep I thought I would go crazy,” he said. “In fact it is impossible to sleep there, they attack in such a way that the earth shakes.”
He showed a video on his cell phone recorded inside Bakhmut: the interior of a razed building, holes in the walls from artillery fire, rubble scattered on the ground. Beyond the twisted metal remains of a window, a glimpse of a cityscape of shattered buildings and broken trees.
Yaroslav, 37, was also injured in Bakhmut. The fighting was so close that Ukrainian and Russian forces were fighting from room to room in the same building, he said.
He was pale and his lips were almost white. Shaking almost imperceptibly, he propped himself up on one elbow as he waited for his stretcher to be carried from an ambulance to the bus for the trip to a better-equipped hospital in a city farther west.
An explosion had thrown shrapnel into his leg, below the knee.
“I came to and saw that there was no one around me, and then I realized that there was blood on my shoe, blood inside my shoe,” he said, smoking slowly. “It was totally dark.”
As his unit tried to change position, the Russian forces opened fire.
“When I left, everything was on fire.” There were dead Russians on the ground, and dead Ukrainians, too. “People ran in the street and fell, because the mines exploded, the drones were flying”.
He finished his cigarette and lay back on the stretcher. She had a lost look and slowly closed her eyes. The Hospitallers loaded her gurney and carried her to the waiting bus.
The medicalized bus – baptized as “Austrian”—the nickname of a Hospitallers paramedic who was killed in a crash by another medevac bus—can carry six seriously injured patients on stretchers and several more injured who can walk.
“We do evacuations when necessary. It could be two or three times a day,” said the chief paramedic, Kateryna Seliverstova.
The vehicle, bought with donation money, is better equipped than even some state hospitals, Seliverstova said. It is equipped with monitors, electrocardiographs, respirators and oxygen cylinders and can care for several seriously ill patients during transport to a large hospital.
“This project is very important, because it helps save resources,” he said. “We can carry six injured people who are in serious or moderate condition,” while a normal ambulance can only carry one, he said.
All six seats were taken on the journey that carried Yura and Yaroslac. On the other side of the corridor from where Yura was, another soldier was regaining consciousness fitfully, with a dark bandage on his head. A paramedic checked his vital signs on a monitor and helped him drink some water from a syringe.
Behind, a man was coughing loudly. Only the blackened tip of his nose peeked out of the cumbersome bandage on his head. He had suffered extensive facial burns.
Yura was talking quietly with one of the paramedics. Without the expression on her face changing, her tears began to slide down her face. The paramedic leaned down and gently cleaned them.
(With information from AP)
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