Lieut Col Serhiy Bachynskiy reminds one of the doctors in television sitcoms. Compassionate and soft-spoken, the tall, greying officer has been well cast as director for morale and psychological support at Dnipro military hospital. Dnipro is the rear base for the main combat zone in Donestsk.
Ukraine’s military hospitals are strictly off-limits for journalists, but Bachynskiy agrees to meet me on the tree-lined avenue outside the gate of the 100-year-old hospital. “This is a military site and we worry about security,” he explains. “Every time the Russians hit something, we wonder afterwards where the leak came from.”
Surely the Russians would not attack this hospital? I ask naively. Bombing hospitals is a war crime. “They did it in Mariupol,” Bachynskiy reminds me.
Every few minutes, the gate swings open and another ambulance from the front, scarcely more than 100km away, drives through. Bandaged men stare through the windows.
Bachynskiy has served at the hospital since the war started in 2014. Then, casualties poured in from the battle for Donetsk airport, from Debal’tseve and the Ilovaisk Cauldron. The main difference now is that “it is every day. It never lets up,” Bachynskiy says. On the worst days, pools of blood and wounded bodies cover the floor.
“We have enough staff and equipment, but we are working at capacity,” Bachynskiy continues. “We could go on for six months, but I don’t know if we can keep this up for another two years.”
The Ukrainian government does not give precise casualty figures. In mid-June, the head of president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party said 1,000 men were being wounded or killed daily in eastern Ukraine. A month later, the defence minister said casualties decreased dramatically because Ukraine deployed long range, highly accurate Himars multiple rocket launchers supplied by the US to destroy Russian weapons and ammunition.
“We’re getting between 200 and 300 wounded a day, mainly from Donetsk,” Bachynskiy says. “Since the war started, we have received over 20,000 wounded; we crossed the 20,000 line some time ago.”
Ambulance teams comprised of a surgeon, nurse and anaesthesiologist criss-cross the battlefield picking up wounded men, whom they dispatch to hospital in Dnipro. Bachynskiy’s 400-bed hospital treats bullet wounds. Soldiers are kept at most two days before they are sent to hospitals in other cities by ambulance or train.
Victims of thermobaric “vacuum bombs” and cluster bombs are taken to Mechnikov neurosurgical hospital. Phosphorus bomb victims are sent to the burn hospital. There are hospitals for cardiology, limb amputations and shrapnel wounds.
Bachynskiy has received up to 100 wounded foreign fighters, from Canada, the US and Europe, and the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Georgia.
The colonel tells every wounded soldier that everything will be all right, even when he knows it may not be. He speaks daily to frantic wives and mothers. “I promise to keep looking for their loved one. The hardest thing is when I know the soldier is dead, but I cannot tell them. The unit notifies families in person, and sends a representative to every funeral.”
Morale is “very mixed”, Bachynskiy says; better among the 20 per cent of fighters who are professional soldiers. The problem for conscripts, he says, is that “most of the local people who have stayed in Donetsk are pro-Russian. When conscripts find pro-Russian views among the people they are trying to defend, they don’t understand.”
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‘I don’t regret it’
I am allowed to talk to the wounded soldiers who linger outside the hospital. Oleksandr Butuzov, a former car painter, aged 27, hobbles through the gate on crutches. His body appears to be on the verge of crumpling at every joint, like a marionette too loosely strung together.
Butuzov was knocked unconscious by a shell explosion in Donetsk in March. “When I woke up it was dark because the roof collapsed. I heard shouts and explosions. My comrades pulled me out of the rubble. My leg, back and hip were fractured. There is shrapnel in the back of my neck.”
Tattoos cover Butuzov’s thin arms and shoulders. His eyes well up when he mentions Ihor, the best friend who was killed two weeks after Butuzov was wounded.
Butuzov’s father has been fighting since 2014 and was also wounded this year in Donetsk, by a Grad missile. “He had two pieces of shrapnel in his leg and a concussion. He also had a stroke, and he is going back to fight.”
Has it been worth it? The soldier draws heavily on a cigarette, his face etched in pain. He thinks a long moment before answering, “I don’t regret it.”
Zakhar Bondarenko approaches me the moment Butuzov departs. The chubby-faced, 23-year-old contract soldier wears a paratrooper’s wings on a medallion. He suffered a concussion when the garage where he and his comrades were sheltering from a bombardment collapsed on June 15th. He was hospitalised for 10 days, returned to the front and was evacuated a second time, suffering from terrible headaches.
“If they diagnose something wrong with me, then they can’t send me back, but they have orders to send everybody back,” Bondarenko says. “I know a guy who was blinded in one eye by an explosion. Another guy was sewn together in pieces. They sent them back. If you have arms and legs, they say you are ready to fight.”
Bondarenko doesn’t want to fight any more, though he knows he must. “The whole army is completely demoralised ... The way they treat us ... Sometimes we don’t have food or water or rest. Everything is shitty. I don’t know how we are still holding on.” He says he had to buy his own flak jacket and helmet, and asks where equipment donated by Ukraine’s supporters has gone to.
Yet Bondarenko still hates the Russians. “We have to massacre them,” he says. How can that happen if he and other soldiers don’t want to fight?
“Fighting is when I shoot at him and he shoots at me,” Bondarenko says. “But when I am in the trenches and he just shells me, because he has 100 cannons and I have one, that is not a war. It’s a bloodbath.”
‘I am ready to fight my whole life’
Sgt Serhiy Vykhovanets is the polar opposite of Bondarkenko. The 39-year-old former metal worker has been fighting since 2014 and has the lean, mean look of a professional soldier. He gently pulls a sock over the blood-soaked bandage on his right foot. He wears a therapeutic shoe on the other foot, for a previous wounding. His T-shirt says, ‘Burn, burn bright, don’t go out’, beneath a cartoon of the Kremlin burning.
Vykhovanets has been wounded three times. “I had a head injury, shrapnel in my legs and side. My left heel was pulverised. They said I would never walk again, but I did.”
He looks embarrassed when I ask if he has been decorated.
“They don’t fight for medals, so it’s hard for him to answer,” says Alyona Shybanova, aged 33, who sits beside him. She is married to a former comrade of Vykhanovets. “My husband was in the siege of the Azovstal factory in Mariupol and now he is a prisoner at Olenivka, in Donetsk. The morale of these men is 100 per cent. They are single-minded and they are ready to fight to the end, until total liberation.”
“I recently received the Order of Courage,” Vykhanovets admits, almost sheepishly. “I keep fighting because I am a Ukrainian. How could I not?”
I tell him that the soldier I just spoke to doesn’t want to fight any more.
“No, no, I’m not like that,” Vykhanovets says. “I just love my nation. I just love my country.”
Will he go back to the front?
“Yes, of course”.
How is morale on the frontline?
“It is mixed,” Vykhanovets admits. “I will say no more ... There are a few like me ... We need weapons. We need artillery. Because when we are sitting in trenches and are being shelled, we cannot shoot back, because we don’t have enough.”
Vykhanovets’ dedication is all the more impressive because his own father is an immigrant from Russia. “I don’t talk to him. He says Putin is a great guy. My younger brother is a soldier too, and he won’t speak to our dad either. After everything they have done ... Soldiers die. Civilians die. It happens. But when kids are killed, when kids are raped ... This is unforgivable. I am ready to fight my whole life. I will fight until they kill me or until we win.”