Itʼs a sunny morning. With fellow journalists we are going to the village of Pisky near the destroyed Donetsk airport to meet with the military. The road is repeatedly blocked by earthen embankments several meters high and fallen trees. In some places, you can see traces of tracked vehicles coming out of the fields around. Finally, we stop at the checkpoint. An energetic military man approaches us: in a bulletproof vest and helmet, with a machine gun in his hands. He looks into the car with interest, studies our accreditations and passports for a minute, and cheerfully asks:
— Where, say, do you want? To Pisky? Are you sure? There was a fight there in the morning. And the artillery is constantly working. And itʼs better not to go this way: missiles regularly strike on it. Yesterday they hit with Grad. But if you want — then go. But as fast as possible, — he says, giving us passports and accreditations, and waving goodbye.
We get in the car with fellow journalists, accelerate from zero to 120 km/h, jumping over fresh pits. The route to Donetsk is unrecognizable. A few weeks ago there was a flat asphalt, and now there are fragments of shells on the road, and on the roadsides, there are traces of fresh funnels. On the opposite lane — shredded green Zhiguli car with no one around. Halfway to Avdiyivka, about 20 kilometers away, we turn to the village. Russians also hit it: houses smashed by explosions here and there. However, here are much less pits from the shells.
At some point, the air begins to move — from behind the trees, a few kilometers from us, the Ukrainian jet artillery is working: the missiles, leaving a yellow trail of fire, fly into the sky. On the horizon, behind the hills, black smoke rises. After a few kilometers, it becomes clear that the village where we have to meet with the military was fired upon not long ago. Mobile communication appears sporadically. There is a message from the press officer Iryna, with whom we had to meet: "Hello, we canʼt work today. Tanks and artillery have been working on us since the morning. There is no connection. You can try to go to the meeting point, maybe the situation will change. But itʼs up to you. Letʼs stay in touch.”
Finally, we turn on the road to Pisky — a small village, which until 2014 could be called a successful suburb of Donetsk. There were quite wealthy houses here. And very close, a few kilometers away, planes landed at Prokofiev Airport — now totally destroyed. It was here that the "cyborgs" — the Ukrainian military, who in 2014-2015 for more than 240 days defended the airport from the Russians. During 8 years of war in the Donbas and Pisky, there is little left — almost every house here is damaged either by shells or mines.
— You canʼt go further. Pervomaiske [a village on the road to Pisky] was shelled an hour and a half ago. Doctors took the wounded from there. Until the situation calms down, the road is closed. If you want, wait on the road, — the military tells us, stopping the car a few kilometers from the meeting point with the press officer.
Another message from her comes: “We can work today. You can go to the meeting point, then weʼll come up with something." We pass a checkpoint and for a few kilometers we stop against concrete blocks and anti-car barriers: small metal hedgehogs are scattered on the road.
— Weʼve arrived, — says Iryna, coming out of the fortifications. — Letʼs go now. The only thing is that your car is low, and the road is broken there. It was raining, everything was sour. So letʼs do this: get where we can on car, and then go on foot. Itʼs not very far from here, actually.
Not far away are 5 kilometers on a dirt road, one and a half of which can be passed by car. Then we go on foot. There are traces of war all around: here a shell is stuck in the road, there is twisted metal from artillery, and there are burnt grass and trees. In the distance, a chainsaw roars and an ax knocks — the army stocks up on wood for the stove. Despite the spring, the nights in Donbas are still cold.
— Until recently, we had almost one of the quietest parts of the frontline near Donetsk, — Iryna explains, — We expected that on February 24, when it all started, the Russians would attack us. But the situation was a little different from previous years. Though in the last couple of weeks theyʼve become active. They started working on us with artillery, planes are flying, and tanks are working as well. This morning there was an attempt of breakthrough into the positions where you and I were supposed to be. We fought back. The orcs are now a little calmer. But in the evening we are waiting for another attempt, — the press officer explains on the way.
And she adds casually: the frontline has stretched, and now more people have to be thrown to hold it. After all, earlier it was impossible to pass some areas [to enemy positions] without aircraft, artillery, and tanks. Now the situation has changed, as well as the distance: in some places, there can be a hundred or two meters to the enemy trenches, in some — up to ten kilometers.
Speaking like that, we come to positions. Here life goes on as it always did for all these years: the shift of warriors that has just came from the trenches explores the situation in the kitchen. Several soldiers are sitting on a bench under a camouflage net and basking in the spring sun. In the distance, in front of the entrance to the dugout, soldiers on a smoke break exchange the news. It seems that the red Marlboro and Pryluky cigarettes are still the most popular.
— Today we have pea soup and pasta with meat, come in, take it, — shouts the chef, looking out of the kitchen.
The only change compared to previous years was the constant sound of artillery. Both Russian and Ukrainian. The cannonade does not subside. The military, however, donʼt pay attention to it. It is far.
— Do you want to see the trenches? Or maybe you will talk to people here? Still [want to go to the] trenches? Well, as you want. Just be careful: they shoot, — says Mykhailo, a local officer for moral and psychological support. Until recently, they were called "zampolits" [political commisar] — in Soviet times, they were people from the Communist Party who supervised commanders and soldiers and carried out "preventive and educational" work.
We descend into shallow trenches. The wind is blowing in the trees, small lizards are running underfoot, flowers have sprouted a few hundred meters in the field — tulips, probably.
It smells spring, and also fresh herbs and earth. The illusion of spring is shattered by artillery shelling. After the next turn, Mykhailo asks us to bend over the nets — snipers can work, and the positions of the Russians are several hundred meters from here. Finally, we get to the observation post which is closest to Russians. We squat behind the fortifications, looking at the field. We havenʼt seen Russians yet.
Next to us, a man sits on an old box of ammo. He looks about 30, has been in the war for several years, and has the call sign Prapor [flag in Ukrainian]. He is constantly smiling, lighting cigarette after cigarette when he talks about the Russiansʼ attempts to break through the frontline.
— Today at about 6 am they tried to get to the neighboring post. First, there were tanks. They rolled from behind the trees and fired, trying to dismantle the observation post. Then the artillery joined. And then the aircraft. I was lying here, looking through binoculars as the close position was bombed: first, Russians dropped three bombs, then made a U-turn, dropped three more. And disappeared. Next, it seems, it was the infantry. But our boys fought back. Then shells fell somewhere in the village, — the military tells. He says this is the third or fourth attack in the last two weeks.
— Russians are doing the same thing: first they conduct artillery preparation, then with the support of armored vehicles they try to break through to Ukrainian positions. Then itʼs infantryʼs turn. And they are… I donʼt know under what substances they are fighting. Imagine: we hit them with mortars, and they unload from the armor and conduct tactical formation! Iʼm not kidding. As in the square: they stand in rows, the commander in front of them tells them something. And at this time the mines are exploding [near them]. And we look at all this through binoculars, — says Prapor.
The story is interrupted by several loud volleys. Everyone is silent for a few seconds, listening. There is no whistling. "To us? No, from us. Thatʼs our [missiles]," the military exhales. We immerse ourselves in the trench as deeply as possible and continue the conversation.
— We were near Volnovakha city in the first days. In the battle, captured a couple of Russian BMP-3. They were intact. I donʼt know why, but Russians just left them: everyone inside, including the mechanic-driver, jumped out and started running away. What happened to these Russians? They are good now, — says Mikhail, slightly smiling.
Another soldier, Batya, comes to us out of the dugout. A 60-year-old man joined the army after February 24. The authorities want to dismiss him because of his age, but Batya refuses. He says in that case he will join the Territorial Defense forces, as a person can serve there until he or she is 65 years old. Telling this, Batya keeps anti-tank grenade launcher on his shoulders.
— I want to show you this. Or someone will say that we donʼt have such things. We have a hell of grenade launchers, thanks to international partners. Seriously. Any kind you want. [They work] both against tanks and against infantry. But what exactly we have, sorry, I will not say. Just know that we have it, — says Batya.
He disappears just as quickly with his grenade launcher in the dugout. Artillery is working in the fields again. We try not to pay attention to it. Small field birds jump on camouflage nets.
— Yes, we canʼt get Russians from those grenade launchers on long distances. But one way or another, they need to break through our positions. So we have to wait until they get closer. The Russians are afraid to engage in an open battle, infantry against infantry. Because they lose. Thatʼs why they fire missiles and artillery from afar. It was like that near Volnovakha, it is the same here... Maybe weʼll go to have lunch? We have a delicious soup, — suggests Mykhailo, listening to the air.
After several hours in the trenches, you stop paying attention to the artillery. You donʼt shiver from each volley anymore. As we go, Iryna shares good news: they recently had a wedding at their positions. The newlyweds got married on April 11, registered by the commander. They celebrated in the dugout, surrounded by the military.
— Come to us again. We have many stories. Plus you still have to write a report on the liberation of Donetsk. And you will definitely have such a text, — says Iryna in farewell. Inversion traces are slowly disappearing in the sky above us.
South of Donetsk Oblast. We go on the road, overtaking other cars. The thermal power plantʼs pipes smoke in distance. Tractors work in the wide fields — despite the war, sowing in Donbas continues. Black clouds of smoke rise above the horizon. They have already become an integral part of local landscapes. Cows and goats graze on both sides of the road. We turn to a small village, and enter the yard. Several ambulance cars are parked here. Nearby, two teams of medics play with a ball — just throw it from hand to hand. We approach the paramedic Polina. She is 21 years old, born and raised in now-occupied part of Zaporizhzhia Oblast. She studied to be a civilian medic but later transferred to the Armed Forces.
— Sometimes we get bored when there is no work for a long time. And thank God [as there are no casualties]. Today we decided to buy a ball so that time would pass faster. All our belongings were left at our permanent location in Mariupol. From there, you know, there is little to take away now, — the doctor tells us.
Next to Polina, there is Stas, a driver. He is 24, local, from Donbas. Before the Russian invasion, he lived in Kyiv and planned to go to work abroad. Instead, he joined the army.
— To be honest, Iʼve already paid for everything. Both tickets and housing. But then the full-scale war started. I thought everything over and decided that running away would be wrong. And in the army, I can help. Especially as Iʼm local, I know the roads. So I went to the military registration and enlistment office, and from there I went to the medics. Now take out the wounded [from the battlefields], — says Stas.
The third member of the team is Yuriy, 28 years old. He is from Vinnytsia Oblast. He has been working in the evacuation for several years, working with artillerymen. On February 24 he was studying in Kyiv, improving his skills. And a few days after the Russian invasion began he was at the frontline.
While we get acquainted, the evening descends on the village. Roosters are crowing in the neighboring houses, chickens are cackling in the dust near the road. They are being dispersed by a military truck speeding through the village. Doctors say this is now a common picture. The fighting is ongoing.
— We can go with you, walk around the village. There is a beautiful lake here, locals put benches on the shore. We can go to see the sunset… — Polina is interrupted by a mobile phone call, — We have a wounded, heavy one. We will take the "techik" [Volkswagen T4] and drive to get him. You can come with us, but be quick, — the girl sharply says to us. We donʼt have time to get acquainted with the fourth member of the team, the driver.
Polina quickly checks the medical bag, the driver is already behind the wheel, and Yuriy jumps into the ward for the wounded. In just a minute, an ambulance goes to the horizon at a speed of more than a hundred kilometers. We are trying to catch up with it.
Blue lights are flashing on the roof of the ambulance, a red cross glued to the rear window is approaching us, then moves away. While we try to go around the pits, the doctors simply do not pay attention to them. We fly through the checkpoints unnoticed — on our way the military block the oncoming lane, giving a green corridor for the evacuation. We get to the spot in ten minutes. We stand near the entrance to the village, between tall green trees. Yuriy is trying to call his colleagues to hand over the wounded man. There is no mobile connection. After consulting, he and Polina walk along the roadside, stopping in 500 meters. They talk on the walkie-talkie there and return, looking at the sky.
— We are unlikely to see a drone here, — says Polina to the accompaniment of several explosions, — Now the soldier will be brought here. Probably on a "loaf" [UAZ-452] car. What other transport can they have there? There was a shelling from Grad, the man didnʼt have time to jump into the shelter and was injured by fragments.
At this moment, a small all-wheel-drive jeep flies up to us, followed by a UAZ. The rear doors open quickly. Our Volkswagen T4 is already waiting for the patient. The military snatch the stretcher and throw the wounded man into the ambulance. Doctors are standing near the soldier already. They check the bandages, looking for injuries that colleagues may not have noticed. The military, meanwhile, jump in their cars and disappear in the shelled village.
— Weʼre lucky. Our colleague was near the wounded man, he did a great job. We just need to deliver the person. All bandages are in place, there is anesthesia, the indicators are stable, — says Yuriy.
In 20 minutes we get to the next point: the hospital where the wounded are treated. Here they can perform urgent surgery, stop bleeding, and remove debris from the body. The soldier is transported to the dressing room for examination. Yuriy and paramedics from the hospital accompany him. The driver parks the ambulance nearby. We are not allowed into the department — they say, this requires a separate permit from the head of the medical service who now works in the operating room. So we return to the medical base in a small village near the frontline. Polina is already meeting us near the house.
— Youʼve got a bad karma. Just came here — and we got a job, — the girl jokes, — In general, our situation is changing. Sometimes, the artillery works for a couple of days and the frontline does not shut up. It happens that the Russians stop and go to test the strength of the neighboring Ukrainian positions. But we still have work to do, because we need to help colleagues from other departments. A week ago there were many wounded with various injuries: contusions, amputations, shrapnel. And all at once. Today, fortunately, everything is relatively calm so far.
We go into the house and immediately receive an invitation to the kitchen: a small room with a table in the middle of which is a plastic bucket with dumplings. In the corner, near the sink, there is a small table with washed dishes, a refrigerator stands near the window. There are also cans of coffee and boxes of sweets and cookies. Despite the different situation at the front, the Ukrainian military havenʼt changed in their tradition: they are constantly trying to feed the guests. We continue the conversation.
— The difference is that on the old frontline you knew everything one way or another. And in previous years there were not so many wounded. For example, in the past, doctors almost fought over who should go to the evacuation. And now there is enough work for everyone. Plus, there are new positions that have emerged recently, — says Polina.
Yuriy returns. He says that everything is relatively good with the wounded. One fragment of the shell entered the manʼs waist, another injured his leg in two places. However, he is stable. The only thing left to check is whether the shells have affected internal organs, such as the kidneys. But this is the concern of doctors, the paramilitary team has done its job.
— In the beginning, we actually worked as intelligence. Because the first days are always chaotic. We need to establish logistics. In our case — the points of receiving the wounded. And no one knew the roads. The situation was constantly changing. Once we went forward, and were in 30 kilometers from Mariupol already. Then we went back. And it was difficult to say how safe the roads we used yesterday were at that moment, — explains Yuriy.
Dumplings are eaten, and in silence and darkness we move to the room. Stas is already waiting there — he is sitting on the bed and playing on his mobile. From the screen you can hear the voices of heroes and the sounds of sword blows. Polina lights an e-cigarette and climbs on the bed with her feet.
— At that time we were only given a point where we had to pick up a person. And Stas and I looked for the road by ourselves. Yura was without a driver at all at that time. We somehow went to the positions [of our troops], got the tank shelling, got stuck there for a day, and almost lost our car. But we got out. We were also awarded the orders for heroism, although I was against it. First of all, it is necessary to reward boys and girls who are on the front line with the military. Our task is small — to pick up a person from the agreed point, stabilize him or her and bring to the hospital alive, — says Polina.
There is a waiting of several hours. Doctors say that since February 24th they have not even counted their visits [to the frontline]. But there were more than 50 of them. The most important thing is that despite the artillery and air shelling, not many are wounded. And most tasks, as the guys joke, are somatic. For example, to bring fighters to the dentist from positions and back. Because everyone has teeth ache.
— Fear was the first few days. Then somehow you get used to it. Itʼs scary if they start using chemical weapons. Because in theory you know what to do, but in practice, you have never encountered it. Plus, we can only fight the symptoms. Shortness of breath, vomiting, loss of consciousness. But how the body will react — you can never guess. So far I have not had such cases, but who knows what will happen next. And it was so different. Local civilians also get injured, we help them. Sometimes people were just brought to our doorstep, the driver shouted: "A doctor!" and fled. Iʼm coming — and there are three persons with shrapnel wounds. And you canʼt leave them, so you take them to the hospital.
Itʼs almost midnight. Despite the explosions in the distance, there is no work for medics. We decide to go to bed.
— I still canʼt get used to this war. It seems that itʼs not happening to me. That itʼs all is a nightmare. And tomorrow I will wake up and everything will be fine. But it wonʼt be, — says Polina in farewell.
In the morning, the sky above the village is full of shells that explode a few kilometers from us.
Translated from Ukrainian by Olya Panchenko.