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After months of fighting and a brutal artillery duel, much of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine has been deserted by those who lived here, writes our correspondent John Sparks.
Still, there are times in the Donbass when normalcy takes hold – and it can happen in unexpected places.
During a visit to an ad hoc ambulance base in the city of Sloviansk, we found a medical student called Scyth (let’s say Skiff) doing his morning exercise. He performs his routine under a tree because he doesn’t want the Russian drones to see him.
Nearby, his colleague Van Damme pounded a tree trunk with his fists and feet, during a do-it-yourself martial arts workout. He works as a bodyguard for the ambulance team and it is his job to keep the rescuers safe.
Ambulances are protected by international law, but Van Damme says nothing is safe in Donbass.
“No, absolutely nothing is certain. They always bomb somewhere nearby. It doesn’t matter to them what is hit. I’m absolutely sure,” he said.
The peace was shattered when the first call came in and we watched them rush to the ambulance. The team is made up of volunteers from a charity called Pirogov First Mobile Hospital and they were tasked with picking up injured soldiers.
The Ukrainians are suffering heavy losses on the front and the authorities have begun to quantify the problem. The army now suffers more than 100 deaths a day and an average of 500 soldiers suffer injuries.
Scyth was training in Kyiv to become a plastic surgeon, but his life took an unexpected turn. Now 90% of everyone he heals has been hit by artillery shrapnel.
“Sometimes every [ambulance] is covered in blood. When we have leg amputations, hand amputations or a big injury [in the] chest, there’s blood on the floor, blood on the walls, all my clothes have blood, I can show you. It’s like the First World War, when the soldiers stay in their positions and wait right under the artillery.”
Within minutes they were back on the road and this time we were allowed to follow them.
A number of soldiers were hit by artillery shells and the medical team was sent to a collection point near the front.
They hid under trees by the side of the road and waited for casualties to arrive – the threat posed by Russian drones was a constant concern.
Eventually a number of soldiers were transported to our location and a man with multiple shrapnel wounds was brought into our ambulance.
Yet they had barely tied him down when a salvo of mortars landed nearby. Obviously, this was no place to hang out.
They stabilized the soldier in the back of the van and rushed to the local hospital. In a few weeks, they think he’ll probably be back on the front lines.
This is what Ukrainians expect and what the nation needs. Scyth and his team say they will do their best.