The call came in around noon on Wednesday. There had been “chemical poisoning” after an explosion and patients needed to be collected.
Fears of a Russian chemical weapons attack have haunted Ukraine almost since the war began, and as volunteer doctors in Sloviansk donned the old gas masks and plastic coveralls that were their only protection, they wondered if this was everything.
They set out anyway, accustomed to personal risk after weeks of driving through bombardment to treat wounded men and women in one of the most heavily fought sections of the front line.
“We got a call that there was a yellow-brown cloud after the hit and yellow-white flakes in the air like snow. The soldiers immediately started having breathing problems,” said Vit, a paramedic who asked to go only because of his nickname, which refers to his peacetime role as mayor of a small town. He worried about being captured and tortured by Russian troops just a few miles away.
The ambulance crew listened to the warning and then went to find the suffocated soldiers. Like the troops they support, they are supplementing outdated and limited equipment with courage and determination.
After leaving their patient, who had been having spasms, in the ambulance, they were told that the gas did not come from chemical weapons but from a chemical plant that had been hit by Russian munitions.
But if the fear of a particular horror stopped for a moment, the other terrors of this war are closing in on this city in Donbas, less than 20 miles from the front.
“You can win a battle and the next day there are more troops, sent back to the same place,” said Vlad, a veteran who signed up to fight again after the February invasion and is now a patient at a Sloviansk clinic. He asked not to give his last name because his family was in areas occupied by Russian troops and he feared they might face reprisals. His cheek quivered when he spoke of his children, and his fight was both personal and patriotic.
This corner of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions is one of the few areas where Moscow’s army is still steadily gaining ground, even if its advance proceeds at a snail’s pace and recent attempts to cross a strategically important river ended in defeat.
Following its victory in kyiv, Ukraine has pushed back Russian artillery from the firing range of the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv. A senior general said this week that Moscow’s troops had gone on the defensive on several other key fronts, including along the Black Sea coast, and ministers began talking about an offensive to recapture territory lost in 2014. .
But on the rolling steppe here, the geography denies the Ukrainian army some of the advantages that allowed its forces to humiliate Moscow’s troops around the capital. Soldiers rarely get close enough to fight face-to-face or deploy the Western anti-tank missiles that helped them save kyiv. Instead, their artillery cannons face off across vast open fields, dug with mazes of trenches that could have been from the last century, hitting each other with shells as jet planes occasionally roar overhead.
Many Russian weapons fire farther than Ukraine’s armed forces had at the start of the war, so while they wait for longer-range Western weapons, like the M777 howitzers shipped by the US and just beginning to arrive at the front, they must live under constant bombardment.
“The positions where the Ukrainian army is located are bombarded with artillery, missiles and air constantly, every day, so it gets to the point where there is nothing to hold on to at these points, that’s part of the problem,” he said. Serhiy. Haidai, head of the military administration of the Lugansk region.
“We repel tank attacks, but we have no chance to counter artillery. That is why we unfortunately have to withdraw. We’ve already been holding out for three months and the Russians couldn’t get through this small area. I hope that the Ukrainian army will still hold these positions and, with the weapons that we are waiting for, will even be able to fight back.”
After the humiliation of defeat near kyiv, Vladimir Putin redoubled the battle for the eastern Donbas region, where power forces held ground occupied in 2014 for eight years, claiming “independence” from kyiv which provided a pretext for the wider invasion.
The ruthless shelling they unleashed in pursuit of this goal is shown by the type and scale of injuries treated at the Sloviansk clinic, said Svitlana Druzenko, a pediatric trauma specialist and director of the volunteer Priogov mobile hospital, which treated the victims. of chemical poisoning. .
He spent the first month of the war evacuating the wounded from nearby front lines in the capital. “In kyiv and the Kiev region we did not see such a large number of wounded soldiers as here,” he said. “Here we also see much more serious injuries: arms and legs torn off, or we have to do an amputation, and we have a lot of head injuries. The main injuries here are from explosions. Near kyiv we also saw more gunshot wounds.”
Every day they collect casualties from the front or civilians from bombed-out houses, stabilize them and send them to safer hospitals. They know they are targets, because the Ukrainian government says that more than 500 health centers have been attacked.
Their ambulances have been bombed, they are raising funds for armored vehicles, they have been tracked by Russian planes, and the cities they are in have been repeatedly attacked.
Some of the Western weapons that Ukraine hopes will change the course of the war have begun to arrive on the battlefield, including M777 pistols, stingers and more anti-tank javelins, Haidai said.
The head of a national guard unit that helps protect medics this week showed off the remains of a Russian Orlan drone he was sending to kyiv for analysis. His fighters had shot down the plane, which costs about $100,000 (£82,000), with a US stinger missile, he said.
The influx of weapons was still not enough, Haidai said, but he hoped shipments would pick up speed and took heart from the Ukrainian military’s continued ability to outmaneuver Russia when artillery wasn’t holding troops back.
In the last week, Russia had twice tried to build a pontoon bridge to bring tanks and guns to the site of Severodonetsk. It was bombed first by Ukraine, which caused a great loss of lives and weapons, and then Russian engineers began again in the same place.
“The interesting thing about this bridge is the Russian tactics: they built it, they tried to bring the weapons, we got them, they built it again and we got them again,” he said. “It shows that they are trying to win not with military intelligence but with sheer numbers.”