The name got here at about noon on Wednesday. There had been “chemical poisoning” after a blast and sufferers wanted accumulating.

Fears of a Russian chemical weapons assault have haunted Ukraine virtually because the war started, and because the volunteer medics in Sloviansk pulled on the ageing fuel masks and plastic overalls that had been their solely safety, they questioned if this was it.

They set off anyway, inured to private dangers after weeks of driving by means of shelling to patch up the women and men injured on one of the vital intensely fought-over sections of the frontline.

“We got a call saying 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,” stated Vit, a paramedic who requested to go solely by his nickname, which refers to his peacetime position as mayor of a small city. He was nervous about being captured and tortured by Russian troops who had been just some miles away.

The ambulance staff listened to the warning after which went to get the choking troopers. Like the troops they help, they’re supplementing restricted, outdated tools with braveness and willpower.

Soldier Vlad in hospital in Slovyansk
Soldier Vlad in hospital in Slovyansk. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

After dropping off their affected person, who had gone into spasms within the ambulance, they had been instructed the fuel got here not from chemical weapons however from a chemical plant that had been hit by Russian munitions.

But if the concern of 1 specific horror was placed on maintain for a second, the opposite terrors of this war are drawing nearer to this metropolis in Donbas, lower than 20 miles behind the frontline.

“You can win one battle then the next day there are more troops, sent back to the same place,” stated Vlad, a veteran who signed as much as struggle once more after the February invasion, and now a affected person in a Sloviansk clinic. He requested to not give his final identify as a result of his household had been in areas occupied by Russian troops and he feared they may face reprisals. His cheek shook when he talked about his youngsters, and his struggle was private in addition to patriotic.


This nook of the Luhansk and Donetsk areas is likely one of the few areas the place Moscow’s military continues to be persistently gaining floor, even when their advance proceeds at a snail’s tempo and up to date makes an attempt to bridge a strategically essential river ended in a rout.

Ukraine has adopted its victory in Kyiv by pushing Russian artillery again from inside firing vary of the nation’s second largest metropolis, Kharkiv. A senior basic said this week that Moscow’s troops had been placed on the defensive on a number of different key fronts, together with alongside the Black Sea coast, and ministers have began speaking about an offensive to take again territory misplaced in 2014.

But on the rolling steppe right here, geography denies the Ukrainian navy a few of the benefits that allowed its forces to humble Moscow’s troops across the capital. Soldiers not often get shut sufficient to struggle head to head or deploy the western anti-tank missiles that helped them save Kyiv. Instead, their artillery weapons face off throughout huge open fields, dug in with mazes of trenches that would have come from the final century, pounding one another with shells whereas jets often scream overhead.

Many Russian weapons shoot additional than those Ukraine’s navy had initially of the war, so whereas they look ahead to western weapons with an extended vary – such because the M777 howitzers dispatched by the US and simply beginning to arrive on the frontline – they need to dwell below fixed bombardment.

A block of flats in Sloviansk destroyed on 5 May
A block of flats in Sloviansk destroyed on 5 May. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“Positions where the Ukrainian army are staying are bombed with artillery, missiles and by air constantly, every day, so it gets to the point where there is nothing to hold on to in these points, that is part of the problem,” stated Serhiy Haidai, the top of the navy administration for the Luhansk area.

“The attacks with tanks we fight off, but we have no possibility to counter the artillery. That’s why unfortunately we have to retreat. We have been holding for three months already, and Russians couldn’t get through this small area. I hope the Ukrainian army will still hold these positions and – with the weapons we are waiting for – can even go into counterattack.”

After the humiliation of defeat close to Kyiv, Vladimir Putin doubled down as an alternative on the battle for the jap Donbas area, the place proxy forces have held floor seized in 2014 for eight years, claiming “independence” from Kyiv that supplied a pretext for the broader invasion.

The ruthless bombardment they unleashed in pursuit of this aim exhibits within the kind and scale of the accidents handled on the Sloviansk clinic, stated Svitlana Druzenko, a paediatric trauma specialist and director of the all-volunteer Priogov mobile hospital, which handled the chemical poisoning victims.

She spent the primary month of the war evacuating injured individuals from close to frontlines within the capital. “In Kyiv and the Kyiv region we didn’t see such a large amount of wounded soldiers as here,” she stated. “Here we also see a lot more severe injuries: torn-off arms and legs, or we must do an amputation, and we get a lot of head trauma. The main injuries here are from blasts. Near Kyiv we also saw more gunshot wounds.”

Every day they accumulate casualties from the frontlines, or civilians from bombed-out houses, and stabilise them and ship them on to safer hospitals. They know they’re targets, as a result of the Ukrainian authorities says greater than 500 healthcare centres have been hit.

A disused health facility on the outskirts of Sloviansk that was hit by an airstrike in late April
A disused well being facility on the outskirts of Sloviansk that was hit by an airstrike in late April. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Their ambulances have been shelled – they’re fundraising for armoured autos – they’ve been tracked by Russian jets, and the cities the place they’re based mostly have been hit repeatedly.

Some of the western weapons that Ukraine hopes will change the course of the war have began arriving on the battlefield, together with M777 weapons, stingers and extra anti-tank Javelins, Haidai stated.

The head of a nationwide guard unit that helps to guard the medics this week confirmed off the stays of a Russian Orlan drone that he was sending to Kyiv for evaluation. His fighters had shot down the plane, which prices about $100,000 (£82,000), with a US stinger missile, he stated.

The weapons inflow was nonetheless not sufficient, Haidai stated, however he hoped the shipments would pace up and he took coronary heart from the Ukrainian navy’s continued ability in outmanoeuvring Russia when artillery was not holding troops again.

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In the final week Russia had twice tried to build a pontoon bridge to convey tanks and weapons spherical for the siege of Severodonetsk. It was bombed the primary time by Ukraine, resulting in a big lack of weapons and lives, after which Russian engineers began once more in the identical place.

“What’s interesting about this bridge is the Russian tactics: they built it, tried to bring over the weapons, we got them, and they built it again and we got them again,” he stated. “It shows they are trying to win not with military intelligence but with sheer force of numbers.”

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