One of the doctors tries to reassure the injured man, assuring him that the tourniquet that is tightened on him just above the knee does not mean that he will lose his leg.

At his side, another swears, looking at the smoke rising above the Donbass, in this area where the slow but methodical Russian progress seems irremediable.

Several soldiers form a circle of protection around the rescuers, noting the coordinates of the next medical evacuation from the front.

“They are coming in waves,” said one of them, Mykola, of repeated attempts by Russian troops to push south across the Donets River near the village of Bilogorivka.

“They tried over the weekend and we pushed them away. They’re trying again. It’s back and forth. They hit us, then we hit them.”

– Riddled with holes –

Neither Moscow nor Kyiv have signed the 2008 convention banning the use of cluster bombs and missiles, which open in flight releasing their thousands of explosive-laden mini-bombs capable of spreading on very large areas.

At Bilogorivka, the missile casing crashed near the last roadblock leading to the village. If the Russian army took it, it could launch an assault on Kramatorsk, the administrative capital of eastern Ukraine, controlled by kyiv.

In what appears to be an increasingly desperate effort to hold the front line, Ukraine has sent many reinforcements there. A few kilometers east of Bilogorivka, the besieged cities of Lyssychansk and Severodonetsk could fall at any time.

It is virtually impossible to verify what is going on inside Bilogorivka, as the village and its surrounding roads are constantly shelled. But the faces of the Ukrainian soldiers darken at the mere mention of his name.

This weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 60 people had died there in the bombing of a school housing 90 inhabitants. The soldiers retreating from the city could not confirm this to AFP, the school being in the north of the city under Russian control.

“We are preparing to go back,” explains a returning fighter, nom de guerre Leto (“Summer”), near a green van riddled with holes the size of a child’s fist.

“What can you do there? An order is an order. But we don’t have cover. We don’t have mortar guns. I don’t know how our unit is going to fight,” says he.

– ‘Scary’ death toll –

High morale and the country’s massive support for its army enabled Ukraine to defend kyiv in February-March and then block Russia’s advance into Donbass.

But those successes are increasingly hard to replicate, as Ukrainian casualties mount and Russia’s numerical and military superiority allows it to reap lasting gains.

It is difficult to estimate the number of soldiers that both sides lost in the war. But the doctors at the bedside of the wounded soldier in Bilogorivka estimate it to be much higher than the toll suffered by Ukraine in 2014, in the war against pro-Russian separatists supported by Moscow.

“Overall, if you look at the statistics, it’s a bit scary,” said volunteer medic Yuriy Kojoumiaka, after helping the injured man to an ambulance waiting a relatively safe distance from the shellfire.

“You have to be prepared for that. But it’s a shame,” adds this 37-year-old art teacher turned doctor. Another paramedic, Andriï Koukhar, 38, is just as disillusioned.

“Many die,” says this trained dentist. “There’s nothing you can do to help a lot of these guys, and they’re dying. But it’s war. We know that.”


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