On the roads of eastern Ukraine, a few kilometers from the front, a wounded soldier is evacuated on board an ambulance bus where a “medical battalion” is waiting for him to provide him with emergency care.
He is soon joined by four other fighters who, helped by crutches, find it difficult to take their place in this mobile clinic adorned with sunflowers, one of the emblems of Ukraine. These vehicles have become a familiar symbol on the roads of the region, where most of the fighting is concentrated.
From the outside, it looks like any other long-distance coach criss-crossing the countryside. But inside, amid state-of-the-art medical equipment, volunteer paramedics work all day long with soldiers seriously injured by bullets, shrapnel or mines. The vehicle has six beds and ten seats, which allows it to make long journeys.
These soldiers will then be transported to local hospitals and sometimes to more specialized establishments to receive specialized or longer-term treatment.
“We have never lost a patient on the way to the hospital,” says Dmytro Satchkov, a 24-year-old trainee doctor, whose studies were interrupted by the war.
“Every day, we receive a call. In one week, we got 62 people out,” he added to AFP.
– Deep wounds –
The bus is operated by the “medical battalion” created in 2014 when the conflict with pro-Russian separatists, supported by Moscow, broke out.
The battalion, supported by a fleet of ambulances, is made up of volunteer paramedics from Ukraine and elsewhere.
In Donbass, the region that Moscow aims to conquer, the bus often makes several round trips in a single day to and from hospitals near the front line.
The workload “depends on the intensity of the fighting,” says Dmytro Satchkov, dressed in military fatigues, a first-aid kit strapped to his leg.
“We are ready to make as many trips as possible, but it is not a usual evacuation vehicle and it is difficult to drive it on bad roads”, continues the young doctor.
Heading west towards Pavlograd in the Dnipropetrovsk region, the coach slowly weaves its way over level crossings and avoids potholes to offer respite to its fragile passengers.
The five most seriously injured are lying under insulating blankets and hooked up to machines that monitor their vital signs.
Yuri Popenko, 37, was injured by a landmine near the town of Bakhmout, the epicenter of the fighting where Russian troops have been eating away at for weeks. Both of his heels are broken.
In the back of the bus, Vassyl Yavtouchenko has his face lacerated by fragments of shells and his hands are bandaged.
“I have very deep wounds,” he says. “If the doctors sew me up, it will be faster but I think the rehabilitation will take up to a month.”
– “Keep morale” –
For Dmytro Satchkov, who also helps train new arrivals, the experience of wartime care is invaluable. It allows him to acquire vital skills that he could not obtain elsewhere.
“Our doctors don’t just learn in the classroom, they also learn and study in the field,” he says between patient exams.
Olena Guerassymiouk, 31, busies herself administering painkillers and setting up intravenous drips as the bus has to weave through traffic and military checkpoints.
Poet and activist, under the pseudonym “Guera”, she started as a volunteer five years ago and is now a qualified paramedic.
She also contributed to fundraising for the purchase of the bus, baptized “Avstriïka” (“Austrian”) in tribute to a battalion volunteer from Innsbruck (western Austria), killed in an accident of the road last year.
“The most difficult thing is to keep your spirits up. When you have very serious injuries, it is difficult to cope,” admits Olena. “It’s very difficult not to crack but it has to be done so as not to demoralize the injured”. “They are heroes,” she says.