Ukraine’s volunteer frontline medics get by with DIY
FROM doctors to students and businessmen, volunteers are risking their lives to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the frontline.
In the village of Vodiane, near Donetsk airport where heavy fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has flared again since Thursday, 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 armoured 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 Yuri, 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 helping load a badly-wounded comrade into a van. The man was swaddled in a bloodied duvet and survival blanket and was still clutching his cellphone.
Civilian volunteers immediately tried to stabilise 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, Yuri’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 defence ministry has army doctors who could save lives but they are not here,” said Yuri, who has taken on the nickname Shaman.
Some civilian doctors, however, come to work on the frontline in time off from their regular jobs.
In the village of Piski, closer still to Donetsk airport, one such volunteer told AFP he worked full time as a surgeon in a military hospital at Khmelnytskiy in western Ukraine.
He wanted to enrol 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, Yuri 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 to come here.
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,” Yuri 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 economised 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 Ukrainska Pravda news website last month.
The manager of the fund, Oleksandr Antosha, in turn 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 told AFP.
As organisers in Kiev rack their brains over finances, drivers like Yuri keep driving to and from the frontline.
As Yuri 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, 35 kilometres from Vodiane, where he will be airlifted to the hospital in Dnipropetrovsk.
From first aid to crowdfunded ambulances, “this is happening only because of volunteers” Yuri said, as he sped past traffic on the dark highway.