(Lyssychansk) Near the Eastern Front, a team of medics rush to a bleeding soldier. In the next field, a remnant of a cluster bomb remained planted in the ground, a symbol of this battle of Donbass where the Ukrainian army is trying as best it can to stem the Russian assaults.
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 come in waves,” said one, 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 try again. It goes back and forth. They hit us, then we hit them.”
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.
In Bilogorivka, the missile casing crashed near the last dam leading to the village. If the Russian army takes it, it could launch the 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 happening 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 claimed that 60 people had died there in the bombing of a school housing 90 residents. 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’re getting ready to go back,” says 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 about it?” An order is an order. But we don’t have coverage. We don’t have mortar cannons. I don’t know how our unit will fight,” he explained.
High morale and the country’s massive support for its military 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 deaths 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 stats, it’s a little scary,” said volunteer medic Yuriy Kojoumiaka, after helping the injured man to a waiting ambulance a relatively safe distance from the shellfire.
“You have to be prepared for that. But it’s a shame,” adds the 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 this is war. We know it “.