2022 – “This is Europe’s war”: foreign medics volunteer on the Ukrainian front | Ukraine

It was a picture of a young girl dying in a Mariupol hospital after a Russian bombing, Martin Wynes believed. He had to go to Ukraine and help there.

Less than three months later, he races into an ambulance to save the life of another little girl who was badly injured in a Russian attack as more shells fell around her. They turned and ran back on their way to find another route to safety and medical care for the eight-year-old, whose body had been hit by shrapnel.

“They didn’t catch them the first time, so they tried again,” he said at his hospital in the Donbass region. “As if the little girl wasn’t weak enough.”

Waynes is part of a volunteer medical unit working to bridge the gap between Ukraine’s eastern front – which has seen the most intense fighting of the war – and major hospitals where soldiers and war-wounded civilians can receive long-term care for their wounds.

Medbat Pirogov Volunteer Hospital brings together dozens of Ukrainians, including some who have returned for service from abroad and a handful of foreigners who have felt compelled to try to help in a conflict thousands of miles from home.

“I felt like this wasn’t the Ukraine war, it was Europe’s war, it’s my war,” Waynes said. He traveled to Ukraine twice from his hometown of Southampton. He spent the first month of the war in the basement of a Kyiv hospital, caring for the city’s battle-wounded.

Having defeated the Russians, he returned home to rest, but in early May returned to the new front near the almost besieged city of Severodonetsk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the fighting in Donbass was so intense that up to 100 of the country’s soldiers die in action every day.

A Ukrainian-German paramedic (left) talks while cleaning an ambulance in Behkemut. Photo: Ed Ram/The Guardian

It is a grueling artillery duel in which the enemy is often faceless and invisible, visible only in the form of shells, rockets, and shells, and can be seen through the horrific casualties it inflicts on the corpses of civilians and soldiers alike.

“Some days I feel like I have to go, that’s just too much,” Waynes said in an interview that was interrupted when shells landed near the base and the team had to run into a bunker.

Both injuries and the constant threat of death are stressful; Medical staff are targets of the military, which has repeatedly bombed hospitals in Ukraine and Syria, killing doctors, nurses and patients in defiance of international law.

Paramedics raise money for armored ambulances, which would protect paramedics and patients from at least the worst shrapnel, but the war has raised the prices of used cars. So, for now, the group is racing to the front lines in regular vehicles that can explode to bits if an artillery shell landed too close.

Jennifer spent $4,500 (£3,560) of her own money to fly from California, risking death every day to help out. She does not want her last name published because she told her mother that she only goes to Poland to help refugees, despite telling her two daughters – 17 and 23 – the truth.

“The way I raised them, they understand this is important,” she said. “If you know something is wrong and you don’t say or do anything, it’s doubly wrong.”

Jennifer worked as a doctor in Afghanistan on behalf of the international mission, so she is used to conflict casualties and dangerous environments, but she was still traumatized by the intensity of the fighting in Ukraine.

“It’s more than I expected. Yesterday morning I was changing upstairs, a missile flew and landed very close. The first night we got here we were downstairs and were told to prepare to evacuate because they thought the Russians had broken in. [Ukrainian lines] came.”

Canadian paramedic Jennifer holds a gas mask that was given to her. Photo: Ed Ram/The Guardian

She decided to volunteer when she saw Zelensky asking for support from the world in Ukraine’s struggle and began researching her options before reaching out to Gennady Druzhenko, founder of Medbat. “It’s a fight for freedom and they need help,” Jennifer said.

The Ukrainians have tried to dissuade foreigners with no military experience from going to the front lines, but Martin and Jennifer have the necessary practical skills as the death toll mounts among civilians and soldiers alike.

There are also Ukrainian medics on the team, some of whom have returned from abroad, others who are unable to get assignments in the overcrowded military medical corps but are determined to serve. Dmitro Rusnak returned from Germany with a car full of medical supplies.

He had been preparing for this moment for nearly a decade. In 2014, after Russia occupied Crimea and Russian-backed proxy forces took control of parts of the Donbass River, Rusnak switched his specialty from radiology to acute care.

A doctor walks down a corridor at a hospital in Slovyansk
A doctor walks down a corridor at a hospital in Slovyansk. Photo: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“I saw that I had to prepare because it was always possible for Russia to start a full-scale war,” he said. When they did, he paused only to suspend his contract – his superiors were very understanding – and to collect as much medical care as possible from friends and colleagues.

His biggest concern when grenades fall is not his personal safety, but the anxiety he brings to his elderly parents. “Although they are proud, it is very painful for them, there are no parents who would like to see their children’s funeral.”

He is waiting for his German medical qualification certificate so that he can practice medicine in Ukraine and initially works in Waynes as a paramedic.

“The years of training and preparation, all those skills, have to be put to use,” he said. “I wanted to be a role model, you can say a thousand words, make a thousand posts on social media, but it doesn’t mean anything… you have to act, do something.”