KYIV, Ukraine – They are Ukraine’s “medical angels,’’ a roving band of bright yellow ambulances with blue and khaki signage that rush to the front lines at the first hint of something amiss.
As daylight pierces through the snowy skies Monday, a call comes in for the medics of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, whose new temporary home is in the heart of downtown Kyiv.
Their male and female workers — many of whom sleep sitting up with their shoes on, ready to run — throw on their flak jackets and helmets and hop into their emergency vehicles, ripping through Kyiv’s barren streets, snaking around chunks of concrete, sirens blaring.
“Some sort of shooting, some sort of attack at a checkpoint,” says PFVMH co-founder and lawyer-turned-medic Gennadiy Druzenko, 49, calmly through a walkie-talkie. “Our people will be there.”
Two PFVMH vehicles soar 30 miles to the northwest edges of Kyiv, where hundreds of shocked and saddened faces idle in the freezing cold with small suitcases.
PFVMH ambulances make only a momentary stop and then high-tail it down one of Ukraine’s deadliest strips toward a dangerous hub of Russian aggression.
Often times, you can smell the war before you can see it: gunpower, smoldering ruins, trash and tires burning somewhere in the nearby plains. The cell service drops out, and bombed and blistered buildings remain on either side of the dusty road, past the “Bucha District” sign and into the Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
Just a few days ago, around 60,000 Ukrainians lived in the town. Now, it’s impossible to know how many are still there, having survived Russia’s persistent aerial bombardment.
Streams of Ukraine’s most vulnerable residents hobble across the ashes of the city’s broken bridge: tiny babies wrapped in blankets, the elderly in wheelchairs and barely able to shuffle with a cane, a sick child engulfed in necklaces of pearl-white medical tubes. They are families without fathers, since the men of the house are mandated to stay and join the fight while their loved ones are trembling and ashen with shock.
A mother and her young daughter, teen son and their family dog climb into the back of our car, shaking so much they cannot speak, cry or pull their stares away from the searing scene.
Another young woman named Elizabeth speaks with wide-open eyes as she mimics the way she and her grandmother ran into the bunker with hands over their heads like something akin to an action movie.
“My babushka and I see this, all this shelling,” she says.
The civilians struggle through their homeland’s ruins, almost oblivious to the scattered shell casings, blown windows and burnt buildings all around. Even with the rumbles of warplanes above, the panic seems to have given way to absolute exhaustion and disbelief.
Each face that passes by seems a mosaic of trauma, heaviness and an anguished hope to make it through. Many residents have gone days without running water, food or electricity as the local death toll mounts.
Irpin is an embodiment of war — in which the innocent always suffer. It is hard to imagine how ordinary people could ever go about their lives in an ordinary way again. The once-sleepy working town has, overnight, been transformed into a jungle of hollowed homes and shattered dreams, of lives that will never be the same again.
I see one young woman alone pulling a blue suitcase, curling almost into a fetal position on the curb before the medical volunteers gently guide her into a waiting minibus.
Working with military and Territorial Defense Volunteers, the PFVMH and Red Cross make endless trips in and out of the dangerous red zone, even as the artillery becomes louder and more rapid, both incoming and outgoing fire booming through the gloomy sky.
Over the weekend, the town was left in ruins by indiscriminate Russian shells. Ukrainian forces blew up the bridge themselves Saturday in a bid to halt the Kremlin’s tanks from being able to use the critical artery and easily cross into Kyiv — the ultimate prize in the devastating invasion.
Yet even as families fled Irpin on Sunday, the Russians retaliated by striking a running family with mortar shells, instantly slaughtering two children, their mother and a male family member.
Victoria Kramarenko, 55, a PFVMH volunteer and burn-nurse specialist, rushes into the cluster of the displaced masses to carry luggage and cradle newborns up a small hill, all while embodying a picture of maternal calmness. It’s the sort of work that can never be finished, never be triumphant, despite how many lives are saved.
I notice a small dog shivering beneath deadened branches, speckled with blood and clearly wounded. As the shelling picks up and we run forth, I beg to take the defenseless little animal, but I am screamed at to keep going, that there is no time to stop now. I cannot bear the thought of the little animal stranded in the shelling, dying alone.
Minutes later, Igor, a PFVMH volunteer, promises me someone will save the injured dog.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is amid its eleventh day, and Russian troops are closing in on Kyiv despite Ukraine’s relentless and unwavering quest to protect its cherished capital.
And while the growing PFVMH team is no stranger to conflict — having first started treating the wounded in the country’s violent 2014 Maidan Revolution, followed by eight years of screeching in and out of the protracted conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Eastern enclave of Ukraine — it is bracing itself for the potential of even worse to come.
“The first, most important thing to do was find a base in the city and start to organize the supply chain and get the medicines and the things we need in case the electricity and roads are cut,” Druzenko says of the early days of the full-scale invasion.
“To be efficient, even in war, there needs to be discipline and order.”
As something of a commander for the medics, Druzenko does not stop working — gently encouraging his team and fielding calls, intent on saving as many lives as possible. He is here for the long haul.
“I feel this war will be quite long and very bloody, but every small town has become a small fortress,” he says. “This time is a tragic time, but we are optimistic at the same time. Ukrainians have never been prouder of themselves than they are now. Everyone fights.”
Druzenko examines a large box of fresh bandages for a moment and later turns to me.
“I have no doubt we will win,” he continues, energized. “But the price we will pay will be very high. Only we know that when you trade freedom for bread, you will have neither freedom nor bread.”
The group’s volunteers hail from more than 172 locations across the country and have treated more than 50,000 civilians and combatants in the fight. But it is not just the medical professionals who do the saintly, lifesaving work.
Desperate to hold on to their embattled nation, the non-governmental organization treasures its drivers, cooks and supply-chain managers just as much. Operating solely on public donations around the globe, even some of its largest donors – including Oleksandr Klymenko, 45, who sells religious images and donates all proceeds to PFVMH – has left behind his old life to do whatever he can amid the war effort.
“I am better withholding a paintbrush than with a Kalashnikov rifle, but I will do whatever is needed of me,’’ he said. “Right now, I am driving for the mobile hospital.
“Kyiv is the most beautiful city, and every time I hear a rocket or missile coming, it strikes my heart. I worry a lot about what will happen, but if I must choose between dying in Stalingrad or living in North Korea, I choose dying in Stalingrad. I will not give up on my home.”
And then a small sliver of hope on a bleak and ever-darkening landscape, as Igor rushes in with his phone on Google Translate.
“Someone got the dog,” he declares in halting English. “It will go to the hospital!”