DONETSK REGION, Ukraine – Between the cracks of mortars and the metal blasts of Russian self-explosive mines, Yuri, a Ukrainian army medic, prepared an intravenous line for a soldier lying on a stretcher under him.
The soldier looked like he was in his mid-twenties. His face was stained with dirt and fear.
“Do you remember your name?” Yuri asked.
“Maxim,” whispered the soldier.
Earlier that morning, Maxim had been hit by a Russian bombardment at the front in eastern Ukraine that left him with a severe concussion. Yuri and other Ukrainian medics were tending to him at a relief station barely far from what became known as the “zero line” where the bombardment was relentless.
Every afternoon thunderstorms flooded the country roads and wheat fields of Donbass, the cluster of rolling fields and coal-mining towns that have been the focus of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Rain sheets have turned the bottom of the Russian and Ukrainian trenches there into smooth mud.
Perhaps that’s why Maxim was above ground on a Wednesday morning, having decided to dry off after a wet night.
It was not clear what happened in the minutes leading up to Maxim’s injury. He was still in shock when his companions pulled him out of a pickup truck and handed him to Yuri’s medical staff and waiting ambulance several minutes later.
“You are safe,” said Yuri, a former anesthesiologist who was deputy head of the Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, the capital, before the Russian invasion. Only his first name was mentioned for security reasons.
Maxim murmured incomprehensibly.
“You’re safe,” said Sasha, another physician who had rough hands and a back pain in massage therapy.
A better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war
Maxim and his caretakers were certainly not safe.
Overnight, the Russians fired missiles and distributed several anti-vehicle mines around the road and relief station where Yuri and his crew were treating Maxim. Even if the mines are not disturbed, they are set to explode on a timer for an entire day.
One of the soldiers said that Ukrainian forces removed some explosives that were in the shape of a soda bottle, referring to a video clip taken with his phone in the dark of dawn showing soldiers firing at a mine until it exploded. But mines were still in the bush, waiting to explode.
Yuri and the other medics tried to keep their focus on the wounded soldier. But the immediate demands far exceeded their checklist for treating severe bleeding or evaluating the airway. How do you comfort the wounded? How do you assure them that they survived and moved away from the front? How do we give hope even if dozens of their friends died?
“Do not be afraid, my friend. I have arrived,” said Yuri softly as Maxim swung on a stretcher, his eyes wide and frantic.
It was clear in Maxim’s mind that the bombing did not stop. He was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling in rapid bursts.
“Don’t worry. I’m putting the needle into the vein. It’s arrived, it’s a severe concussion,” Yuri calmed down again.
The soldiers who carried Maxim to the aid center piled into their truck to return for nearly two miles to the front line. They were going back to the same task their friend was doing before he was killed: waiting for a Russian attack or an incoming Russian artillery shot to find them.
As they were leaving, one of the soldiers behind the trees shouted “Fire!” A Ukrainian mortar fired a shell at Russian positions. Smoke drifted from the firing position.
It seems that the artillery war in eastern Ukraine never ends. Even without an attack or counterattack, the bombing continues – wounding, killing, and slowly driving these soldiers crazy into trenches and pits.
Hearing the sound of mortar shells, Maxim staggered onto the stretcher again.
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Everything is fine. Everything is fine. These are ours. Yuri said to Maxim, assuring him that he was not bombed again.
Maxim’s breathing slowed. He covered his face with his hands and then looked around.
The first complete idea that Maxim organized and reported was a series of curses directed at the Russians.
“Go on, talk to us. You have a wife? You have children?” Pushing Yurii, she seized the opportunity to bring Maksym back among the living.
He muttered: The sliver.
“shrapnel?” Yuri asked. surprised. Maxim clearly had a concussion, but showed no signs of other injuries.
“He’s hit by a splinter here and here,” Maxim said, his voice faltering. The paramedics soon realized that he was talking about his friend who was injured when the Russian artillery bombed earlier.
“He was taken away to the hospital,” said Yuri, although the paramedic had no idea what had happened to Maxim’s friend. He was just trying to prevent his patient from panicking again.
“Is he alive?” Maxim asked cautiously.
“It should be,” replied Yuri, although he did not know.
For Yuri Ambulance crew and other paramedics assigned to the area, these types of calls are common. Some days they wait a few miles from the bus stop-turned-ambulance, the designated meeting point between the front lines and security, their 24-hour shift quietly waits: Yuri calls his wife several times a day. Ihor sleeps. Vova, the son of a gunsmith, thinks about how to modernize Ukraine’s Soviet-era weapons.
Other days, injuries recur and paramedics are left in constant rotation between the hospital and the relief center as they place bloodied men with their limbs tied in the back of ambulances.
Yuri stared at Maxim, encouraged by his newfound ability to communicate.
“You don’t get hurt anywhere else?” Yuri asked.
Maxim put his hand behind his neck and sprinted away, looking at the tip, expecting the blood to be there.
“We’ve all covered the bombing,” Maxim said softly.
“It’s all right, you’re alive,” said Yuri, trying to change the subject. “The main thing is that you did a good job. Good boy.”
While Yuri was getting ready for the stretcher and Maksym for the ambulance, an old red sedan, a Russian Lada, pulled up to the help station. The Soviet-era staple came to a sudden halt, as it practically slipped on corrugated pavement.
Dust settled. Artillery sounded from afar with a familiar rhythm.
A man in a loose-fitting gray shirt, obviously stunned, jumped out of the driver’s seat. The passenger opened his door and shouted: The woman is wounded!
It was an older woman named Zina, and soon they found out, and waved down in the back seat.
Paramedics decide that another group of nurses will take Maxim to the hospital while Yuri’s crew deals with the newly arrived patient in the car.
The two men who drove Zina to the relief center – her husband and son-in-law – had asked Ukrainian military posts near their home where to take her after shrapnel from an artillery blast hit her in the head. Troops had directed them to the Yuri Aid Center.
At the Lada, Zina’s blood began to pool on the canvas. She appeared to be at least in her fifties, unconscious, and another civilian was wounded in the four-month-old war, as were many caught between the guns of this war.
“Get a stretcher!” Yuri called.
It was not exactly eleven in the morning, and another mine scattered in Russia near the relief station suddenly exploded.