Ukraine war: Ambulances ‘covered in blood’ amid warnings ‘absolutely nothing is safe’ in Donbas region

After months of fighting and a brutal artillery duel, much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has been deserted by those who lived here.

There are few pedestrians and even fewer shops and services to be seen. When you do see traffic, it is generally connected to the war.

Tanks and troop carriers – even mobile rocket launchers – thunder down the highways and byways. As I write this sentence, four self-propelled howitzers have just passed in front of a hotel window.

Yet there are moments in the Donbas when normality intrudes – and it can happen in unexpected places.

On a visit to an ad-hoc ambulance base in the city of Slovyansk we found a medical student called ‘Scyth’ (pronounced Skiff) doing his morning exercise. He performs his routine under a tree because he does not want the Russian drones to see him.

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Nearby, his colleague ‘Van Damme’ pounded a tree trunk with his fists and his feet, in a do-it-yourself martial arts workout. He works as the bodyguard for the ambulance team for it is his job to keep the rescuers safe.

‘It doesn’t matter to the Russians what gets hit’

Ambulances are protected under international law but Van Damme says nothing is safe in the Donbas.

“No, absolutely nothing is safe. They’re always bombing somewhere nearby. It doesn’t matter to them what gets hit. I’m absolutely sure.”

Image:
Bodyguard Van Damme is tasked with keeping ambulance workers safe

The peace was shattered when the first call came in and we watched as they raced to the ambulance.

The team are volunteers from a charity called ‘Pirogov First Mobile Hospital’ and they have been tasked with picking up injured soldiers.

An ad-hoc ambulance base in the city of Slovyansk
Image:
An ad-hoc ambulance base in the city of Slovyansk

The Ukrainians are suffering heavy casualties at the front and officials have begun to put numbers on it. Each day, there are now more than 100 military deaths, with 500 troops on average being injured.

When Scyth and his team returned I asked him what type of injuries they had treated.

“Oh, like always. Sad, but like always.”

“Was it artillery, was it shooting?” I asked.

“It was artillery,” he said with a shrug.

This is like the First World War’

Scyth was training in Kiev to be a plastic surgeon but his life has taken an unexpected turn. Now, 90% of everyone he treats have been hit by shrapnel from artillery fire.

“Sometimes all the (ambulance) is covered in blood. When we have leg amputations, hand amputations, or a big injury (in the) torso, there’s blood on the floor, blood on the walls, all my clothes have blood, I can show you. This is like the First World War, when soldiers stay in their positions and just waiting under artillery.”

Within a few minutes, they were back on the road and this time, we were allowed to follow along.

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 Scyth and Van Damme doing a martial arts workout
Image:
Scyth and Van Damme doing a martial arts workout

A number of soldiers had been hit by artillery shells and the medical team were sent to a pick-up point near the front.

They hid under the trees by the side of the road and waited for the casualties to arrive – the threat posed by Russian drones a constant worry.

Eventually, a number of troops were ferried to our location and a man with multiple shrapnel wounds was ushered inside our ambulance.

Deserted streets as artillery thunders down highways

A camouflaged ambulance
Image:
A camouflaged ambulance as medics warn ‘absolutely nothing is safe’

Yet they had barely strapped him in when a round of mortars landed nearby. Clearly, this was no place to hang around.

They stabilised the soldier in the back of the van and sped to the local hospital. In a few weeks, they think he’ll probably be back to the front.

Inside an ambulance in the city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine
Image:
Inside an ambulance in the city of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine

This is what Ukrainians expect and what the nation needs. Scyth and his team say they will do their best.

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