By ELENA BECATOROS
DONETSK REGION, Ukraine (AP) — Their hands are blackened and grimy from the fight. Some are still wearing their combat boots, small flecks of black soil from the battlefield clinging to their torsos, bare under the emergency blanket.
With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medical evacuation bus by members of the Hospitallers, a Ukrainian organization of volunteer paramedics who work on the front lines in the war in Ukraine.
The soldiers were all wounded recently in fierce fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have been pressing advances. The battle in Bakhmut, a city now encircled on three sides by Russian troops, has been particularly bloody, with soldiers describing endless days of combat, often at close quarters.
“We’ve been on tour in hell,” said Yura, who like all the soldiers would give only his first name for safety reasons. He lay on a bed in a specially equipped medical bus, with his arm and leg badly wounded.
Blood stained the heavy bandages around his right forearm, which metal rods held together to stabilize the shattered bone. His bicep bore a deepening purple bruise left by the tourniquet applied to staunch the blood and save his life. The time it was put on was scrawled in pen across his right cheek: 19:45.
“They tried to get me with grenades,” he said.
Unlike most of the wounded, Yura is not Ukrainian. He is Russian, but fought on the side of Ukraine in Bakhmut since November. The Moscow native said he moved to Ukraine before the war, as did a friend of his who is also fighting for Ukraine and had spent 2 1/2 years in prison in Russia for reposting a social media post saying Crimea — annexed by Russia in 2014 — was Ukrainian.
It was his own countrymen who wounded him.
He was in Bakhmut for “eight days of almost uninterrupted combat.” But he and his unit managed to repel all the assaults on their position, he said.
“On the fifth day without sleep, I had thoughts that I would go crazy,” he said. “In fact, it’s impossible to sleep there. They shell it in such a way that the earth trembles.”
He showed a video on his mobile phone shot inside Bakhmut: the interior of a devastated building, holes punched through the walls by artillery, rubble strewn across the floor. Beyond the twisted metal remnants of a window, a glimpse of an urban hellscape of shattered buildings and splintered trees.
Yaroslav, 37, was also wounded in Bakhmut. The battle was so close that Russian and Ukrainian forces fought room to room inside buildings, he said.
Pale and with an almost imperceptible tremor, his lips nearly white, he propped himself up on an elbow as he waited to be carried on a stretcher from an ambulance onto the bus for the trip to a better equipped hospital in a city further west.
An explosion had sent shrapnel through his leg, piercing it below the knee.
“I came to my senses and saw that there is nobody around me, and then I understood that there is blood oozing into my shoe, blood squelching in my shoe,” he said, quietly drawing on a cigarette. “It was totally dark.”
As his unit had attempted to move from its position, the Russian forces began shelling.
“When I left, everything was on fire,” he recalled. There were dead Russians lying on the ground, and dead Ukrainians, too. “People were running in the road and falling down, because mines were exploding, drones were flying.”
He finished his cigarette and lay back on the stretcher. His eyes fixed on some invisible point before him, and he slowly closed his eyelids. The Hospitallers lifted his stretcher and carried it to the waiting bus.
The medically equipped bus — named “Austrian,” the nickname of a Hospitaller paramedic who was killed in a crash of another medical evacuation bus — can carry six severely wounded patients on stretchers, and several more walking wounded.
“We’re doing evacuations as necessary. It could be twice or three times per day,” chief paramedic Kateryna Seliverstova said.
Bought with money from donations, the bus is better equipped medically than even some state hospitals, Seliverstova said. It is stocked with monitors, electrocardiographs, ventilators and oxygen tanks and can care for severely ill patients while they are transported to a major hospital.
“This project is really important, because it helps to economize resources,” Seliverstova said. “We can transport six injured people who are in serious or moderate condition,” whereas a normal ambulance can only transport one.
All six places were taken on the trip evacuating Yura and Yaroslav. Across the aisle from Yura, another soldier slipped in and out of consciousness, a brown bandage wrapped around his head. A paramedic checked his vital signs on a monitor, and helped him sip water from a syringe.
Behind him, a man coughed deeply. Only the blackened tip of his nose was visible from his heavily bandaged head. He had suffered extensive burns to his face.
Yura spoke softly to one of the paramedics. Without his expression changing, tears began rolling down the side of his face. The paramedic leaned over and gently wiped them away.
Vasilisa Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka contributed from Donetsk region, Ukraine.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine