“Was I supposed to wait for the Russians to knock on my door?” A report from the front in Donetsk oblast.


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May 5, 2023

“Was I supposed to wait for the Russians to knock on my door?” A report from the front in Donetsk oblast.

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Military medics rescue wounded soldiers at the front every day. The lives of the wounded depend on how quickly it is possible to provide first aid and transport them to a hospital in the rear.

Photo by Emilio Morenatti and Elena Becatoros

The light from the country house does not break through to the street, which is plunged into darkness of night. Tightly covered windows do not allow sight of what is inside the building from the outside.

Medicines, bandages, dressings and all other necessary tools and medical supplies lie on the shelves and in cardboard boxes on the ground. A wire protrudes above the frame, on which a drip is hung, if necessary. The medics are now seated on the couch and chair where they usually tend to the wounded. Their unit, despite the late hours, is waiting for a call.

Seventeen soldiers

Usually it is at night—after a quiet day, where there is even free time to play darts—that work begins in earnest.

“They’ve arrived!” one of the medics shouts, violently opening the door of the cabin.

The rest jump up, button up their jackets, and head outside. Under a starry sky, at temperatures well below freezing, they light up headlamps that pierce the darkness. It is under the cover of night that it is easiest to transport wounded soldiers from the front. They hurry all the more because they have been informed that there is a soldier being brought in who has lost a leg.

There is an ambulance in the street, where another team of medics quickly explains the condition of the injured and transfers them to the evacuation point. Taras, 36, says this one needs to be taken inside. This is the fourth soldier brought in tonight. Shrapnel broke the leg of the first and remained in the limb, while the second has a punctured lung. They both lay with their wounds for over a day because it was impossible to get them to the rear due to ongoing fighting. The third, at first glance, looks good, but after removing the upper layers of his uniform, it turns out that his intestines are coming out of an abdominal wound.

This fourth one is by far the worst. His head is tightly wrapped in a bandage that turns red around the eye. Assisted by medics, he moves on his own, but very slowly and uncertainly. He moves his hands as if looking for something to grab onto.

They bring him into the house and put him in a chair. They remove the bandage and a trickle of blood leaks from the area around the swollen eye onto the floor. After a short examination, Taras estimates that there is shrapnel stuck in it. The soldier is delirious, unable to answer questions. They change his dressing, bandage his head again, put him in an ambulance and drive away.

A total of seventeen soldiers will arrive that night.

“Since being stationed in the Donetsk region, it is normal that 10-15 wounded are brought to us every day. But there were days when we would see even 40 brought in,” admits Taras.

The soldier whose leg is torn off will never arrive. Medics know that since he hasn’t arrived for such a long time, it can only mean one thing—there was no point in bringing him.

Stages of evacuation

Taras’ evacuation point is one of the elements of a system thanks to which wounded soldiers can be saved.

In the first place, this task belongs to the soldiers from the squad, colleagues of the wounded. In most cases, they put a windlass tourniquet on him, a tactical tourniquet that stops bleeding from the limbs. When the wounded man is taken out of the field of fire, medics from the battalion take him away. If the medics have time and opportunity, they take care of the injured in the ambulance.

If the situation is extremely difficult, they go to the fire zone in an armored transport and use it to take the wounded – as was done by medics near Soledar, who sped through a field that was under fire in such a vehicle.

The next, third, stage of the evacuation route is the one where Taras works: it is the evacuation point where the wounded from several battalions belonging to one brigade are brought.

“Our task is to put on dressings, stop the bleeding, put the man in an ambulance and take him further to the rear, to the stabilization point. If we have time, we put them on a drip with painkillers and antibiotics. In severe cases, we provide only minimal assistance to send them further as soon as possible,” explains Taras.

The stabilization point is the following place that the injured person ends up. Here, he is provided with more comprehensive medical assistance, and operations can also be performed if necessary.

After this there are military hospitals in the rear – all the necessary specialists are found there, as well as more specialized equipment to save the life and health of a soldier.

Transport alive

Until a year ago, Taras was a dentist in Ivano-Frankivsk, the capital of one of the districts in western Ukraine. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, he decided that he couldn’t just sit at home. He volunteered at the draft commission.

“It’s everyone’s duty,” says Taras. Although he admits that among his friends he does not know people who serve in the army.

He immediately made it to a medical company. Initially, he was supposed to work within his specialization, but work was scarce and he felt that dental treatment was not the most important task during the war. He asked to be sent to an evacuation point. Although usually doctors don’t serve in such places because they are too valuable to risk by sending them to the immediate rear of the front, within reach of shells.

In early March 2022, with the Russians advancing on many key Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, and Taras beginning his military service, there was not much time to train in tactical medicine. Almost immediately he was sent to a battlefield area, to the Zhytomyr oblast – the Russian columns attacking there tried to surround Kyiv from the west.

“I didn’t know anything about tactical medicine. It wasn’t like I was learning on the wounded, because we had some training, and I’m a doctor. But I’ve learned most things in practice,” says Taras.

He quickly got used to the war around him. He says he had no problems seeing the wounded.

“The most important thing is to transport them alive. The hardest part is when it doesn’t work out and a person dies in your vehicle,” he admits.

I have no right to complain

His colleague from the medical subdivision, 29-year-old Oleksandr, jokes that a year ago the only thing he had in common with medicine was the fact that his grandmother was a nurse. His family home is in Borodianka, less than 50 km from Kyiv. Oleksandr lived in Zhytomyr, where he was the head of the building materials department at a store.

When on February 24, a friend woke him up with information that there had been an invasion, he went to Borodianka to take care of his mother and two grandmothers.

There were already battles in the vicinity of the city—mainly in the city of Hostomel, where the Russians tried to seize the local airport. Artillery could be heard in the distance. Oleksandr pestered the family to leave Borodzianka for a safer place. Then he promised himself that as soon as he calmed down about them, he would immediately report to the nearest draft commission.

However, the family resisted. Grandma did not want to leave the house, even though the first rockets were already falling on the city, soon the first Russians would appear in it. It was only bombs dropped from planes—one of the most terrifying weapons—that convinced Oleksandr’s family that it was time to flee.

In the chaos and gigantic traffic jams that formed on the main roads at that time, they managed to reach the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast only after a few days. There, Oleksandr made sure that they had everything they needed, and then he did what he had promised himself—he went to the draft commission.

Assigned to a medical company, he did not make it on the first transport to the front, so—unlike Taras—he could undergo intensive training in tactical medicine. He also learned on his own from textbooks and the internet.

In the future, already in the unit, he was to become an instructor himself and teach other soldiers how to help the wounded on the battlefield. Unlike other units, where training in tactical medicine lasts one day, he and other instructors taught soldiers theory and practice over six days.

It was only in January that he was sent to Donbas.

“When I was in the unit at the rear, my conscience tormented me that I was somewhere far in the back. But when I came here, it turned out that many soldiers recognized me and thanked me for what I taught them, because it has been useful to them,” says Oleksandr.

He expected that when he had to help beyond training, on a concrete wounded person, it would be more difficult for him. It turned out that he had no problems at all.

“It’s a particular job, and I have to do it whether someone is missing a limb or showing their guts. Maybe my hands shook the first time, but that was mainly because I wanted to do my job as well as possible,” says Oleksandr.

“Anyway, I have no right to complain,” he adds. “I spend the night under a roof, I have something to eat, I even have ground coffee. There, at the very front, the boys live in terrible conditions.”

Lucky loser

Little Alisa will soon celebrate her third birthday. It was she who was the main argument used by the wife of 32-year-old Artur, convincing him not to join the army. He replied that he wanted to volunteer. She took his documents. He argued with her to give them back. She cried, she didn’t want to hear about it.

When the family left Kyiv and found themselves in a safe place, Artur went to the draft commission without his documents. He couldn’t bear to see Alisa crying all the time, scared because of the sirens blaring the air raid alert.

“Was I supposed to wait for the Russians to knock on my door? I had to do something,” he says.

He recalls that when he said that he came without documents, the members of the military commission burst out laughing. One of them said that half of the applicants there were in this situation.

Artur, an employee of the Institute of Veterinary Medicine in Kyiv, was assigned to the medical company as a driver and paramedic.

After only six days, he ended up in the Zhytomyr Oblast, where the Ukrainian army was holding back the Russians attacking Kyiv. It was then that he realized that war was no joke. They rode in ten buses towards the base. There was no cell phone service, they got lost, so they got out of their vehicles. A moment later, fighter jets appeared in the sky, shooting somewhere in the area. The freshly minted soldiers scattered and fell to the ground. Arthur felt animal fear for the first time.

Sometimes he thinks of himself as very lucky in misfortune.

Two months later, Kyiv was safe, and Artur’s brigade was transferred to Donbas. They were standing at the train station, about to enter the carriages. Suddenly, rockets began to fall around them. One of them hit the ammunition stocks, which exploded. Medics rushed to carry out the wounded.

“Most of the soldiers had concussions. Only two people died, they were railway workers. If the attack had taken place a few minutes later, we would have been inside the carriages, and there would have been hundreds of victims,” admits Artur.

Without anesthesia

Another event proving his luck occurred when he was already in the area where he is now stationed.

The commander ordered him to take two wounded. They were scouts, draped with equipment and wearing heavy vests. After providing help, Artur was to take their equipment to an agreed upon place. Although he always wears a helmet and body armor, he didn’t bring them this time because it was nearby. He went to one building, where he was told to take the belongings of the wounded soldiers to the house across the street. As he walked towards it, he saw an acquaintance he hadn’t seen in a long time.

“I’ll take this back,” Arthur nodded at the things in his hands. “Then I’ll return and we’ll talk.”

He walked a little farther and heard explosions above his head. He fell to the ground. It was a cluster rocket, its shrapnel flying through the air at tremendous speed. They hacked up a nearby car and hit right next to Arthur, who lay glued to the ground.

“They say that before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Hell no! I just thought, ‘why the fuck me?’” he says today.

When it died down, he got up. He didn’t even look to see if he was okay, just grabbed the gear and ran on. He was halfway there when he heard the explosions again. Now he didn’t even stop, but ran as fast as he could. Soldiers leaning out of a cellar saw him and shouted for him to run to them. He ran as fast as he could with the equipment he was supposed to carry. He heard the swish of shrapnel. A dog ran parallel to him and shrapnel hit it. Artur ran to the basement, shouted “excuse me” without stopping and jumped inside. He was bruised all over, but came out unscathed.

No sooner had he recovered than he was told to run to save a soldier and evacuate him immediately. It turned out that shrapnel had pierced an artery of the friend he was supposed to talk to. He survived only because Arthur gave him immediate help.

The dog also survived. Arthur pulled the shards out of it and sewed up its wounds. However, the animal does not approach him to this day, because he operated on it without anesthesia.

There are things you don’t get used to

After all this, Artur finds it difficult to return to his relatives on leave. He doesn’t know what to do with himself there. When he was at home for ten days, he slept well for the first two and then wanted to go back. He doesn’t know what to talk about with those who haven’t been through what he has.

At first it was difficult for him to approach a wounded man. He was repulsed by the screams and blood. This has passed now. He performs his tasks mechanically, not paying attention to the fact that a limb is held by a scrap of skin or muscle. He has become deaf to the cries of the wounded.

The only thing he hasn’t become used to is the death of his friends. Of the ten colleagues with whom he shared a room at the military base as soon as he joined the unit, three of them are still alive today.

“It’s not like all of them were gone at once. They died gradually,” he says.

Even now, in February, he drove one of them away. He survived, but both his legs were amputated. The friend was a mortarman; a shell broke apart inside the barrel.

Arthur believes that after all of this he will return to the life he led before the invasion.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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