From doctors to students and businessmen, volunteers are risking their lives to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the front line.
In the village of Vodiane, near Donetsk airport where heavy fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has flared again, Yuri Bondar mans an ambulance, racing against time to shuttle the wounded to local hospitals.
Soldiers take the injured out of the airport — one of the war’s hottest flashpoints — in armored vehicles to an area defended by the ultra-nationalist group Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, where two volunteer ambulances, one driven by 29-year-old Bondar, stand waiting.
Some of the wounded walk with a limp, others lean on the shoulders of their comrades and a few arrive in a very bad way.
“He has a bullet somewhere in the back,” one soldier told the medics as he helped load a badly wounded comrade into a van.
The man was swaddled in a bloodied duvet and survival blanket, and was still clutching his mobile phone.
Civilian volunteers immediately tried to stabilize him, giving him an IV drip.
Many of the wounded have injuries inflicted in rocket or mortar attacks, showing the ferocity of the fighting at the airport.
In theory, Bondar’s job is only to transport the wounded, but due to the lack of doctors he and his colleagues often provide first aid to the most seriously wounded.
“The defense ministry has army doctors who could save lives, but they are not here,” said Bondar, who has taken the nickname Shaman.
However, some civilian doctors work on the front line in time off from their regular jobs.
In the village of Piski, closer still to Donetsk airport, one such volunteer said he worked fulltime as a surgeon in a military hospital at Khmelnytskiy in western Ukraine.
He wanted to enroll as a doctor in the war zone, but was turned down, so now he works for two weeks straight without a break so he can come and help on ambulances run by Right Sector on his days off.
A bearded policeman-turned-businessman who has a young son, Bondar volunteered with the ASAP EMC Hottabych foundation, whose four ambulances have evacuated more than 1,000 wounded in nine months.
“Someone has to do it,” is all he will say of why he put his career to one side.
After going on almost 500 calls in the war zone, sometimes under shelling, he has learned to assess the condition of the wounded and decide how to transport them.
The most seriously injured are put in an ambulance, the lightly wounded are loaded into a military medical truck with a hole in its windscreen due to shelling.
“The army trucks leave a lot to be desired. These are trucks from the 1980s that should be scrapped,” Bondar said with a sigh.
Meanwhile, the founder of the Hottabych ambulance service, Ilya Lysenko, said he has made the condition of his ambulances — particularly their speed — his priority.
“If I economized on the vehicles, I might as well sign my men up as suicide bombers. It’s difficult to shoot at a fast-moving ambulance and that has saved our lives many times,” Lysenko told the Ukrainska Pravda Web site last month.
Oleksandr Antosha, the fund manager, lamented the severe shortage of doctors ready to go to the war zone.
Ukraine’s deep economic crisis has also led to a significant fall in donations that keep the ambulances running.
“The only solution is to launch an appeal to the Ukrainian diaspora” in the West, Antosha said.
As organizers in Kiev rack their brains over finances, drivers like Bondar keep driving to and from the front line.
As Bondar fixed his eyes on the road, the badly wounded soldier in the back of the ambulance was getting an injection on the way to a helicopter base in Chervonoarmiysk, 35km from Vodiane, where he was to be airlifted to a hospital in Dnipropetrovsk.
From first aid to crowd-funded ambulances, “this is happening only because of volunteers,” Bondar said, as he sped past traffic on the dark highway.
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