“Bring a stretcher!” Life and death on the front line of Ukraine.

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine. Between the crackle of mortar fire and the metallic explosions of Russian self-detonating mines, Yuriy, a Ukrainian army medic, prepared an intravenous catheter for a soldier stretched out on a stretcher below him.

The soldier appeared to be about 20 years old. His face was smeared with dirt and fear.

— Do you remember your name? Yuri asked.

“Maxim,” the soldier whispered in response.

Earlier this morning, Maxim came under Russian bombardment on the front in eastern Ukraine, resulting in a serious shell shock. Yuriy and other Ukrainian doctors attended to him in a first-aid post, just a short distance from the so-called “zero line”, where shelling continues.

Daily daytime thunderstorms flooded the back roads and wheat fields of Donbass, a swath of hilly fields and mining towns that has been the focus of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Sheets of rain turned the bottom of the Russian and Ukrainian trenches into slippery mud.

Maybe that’s why Maxim found himself above the ground on Wednesday morning, deciding to dry out after a damp night.

It is not clear what happened in the minutes before Maxim was wounded. He was still in shock when his comrades dragged him out of the pickup truck and handed him over to Yuri’s medical team and an olive drab van that had been turned into an ambulance waiting for him a few minutes later.

“You’re safe,” said Yuri, a former anesthetist who was deputy head of a children’s hospital in the capital Kyiv before the Russian invasion. He gave only his first name for security reasons.

Maxim muttered indistinctly.

“You’re safe,” said Sasha, another medic who had strong hands and massage experience.

Maxim and his guardians were definitely not safe.

During the night, the Russians fired rockets that exploded. several anti-vehicle mines around the road and the first-aid post where Yuri and his team treated Maxim. Even if the mines are not disturbed, they are set to detonate on a daily timer.

Ukrainian forces have defused some of the explosives in the form of soda bottles, one soldier said, pointing to a video taken on his phone in the predawn darkness that showed soldiers firing at a mine until it exploded. But the mines were still in the bushes, waiting to explode.

Yuri and other doctors tried to focus on the wounded soldier. But the immediate requirements extended beyond their checklist for treating heavy bleeding or assessing the airways. How to comfort the wounded? How to convince them that they survived and left the front? How to give hope, even if dozens of their friends died?

“Don’t be afraid, my friend. You have arrived, – Yuriy said soothingly, when Maxim hobbled on a stretcher with wide and crazy eyes.

It was clear that in Maxim’s thoughts the shelling did not stop. He was breathing heavily, his chest heaving up and down in quick jerks.

“Don’t worry. I’m inserting a needle into a vein. You have arrived, this is a strong concussion,” Yury reassured him again.

The soldiers who had taken Maxim to the infirmary got back into their truck to drive about two miles to the front line. They were returning to the same task their friend was doing before he was almost killed: waiting for a Russian attack or an incoming Russian artillery shell to find them.

As they were leaving, a soldier behind the trees shouted, “Fire!” Ukrainian mortar shelled Russian positions. Smoke was rising from the site of the shelling.

The artillery war in eastern Ukraine seems endless. Even if neither side attacks or counterattacks, the artillery barrage continues, wounding and killing the soldiers who hide in trenches and trenches, slowly driving them insane.

At the sound of mortar fire, Maxim twitched once more on the stretcher.

“It’s all right! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. It’s all right. It’s all right. These are ours. These are ours,” Yuriy told Maxim, assuring him that he was no longer being shelled.

Maxim’s breathing slowed down. He covered his face with his hands and looked around.

The first complete thought, organized and transmitted by Maxim, was a series of curses against the Russians.

– Come on, talk to us. Do you have a wife? Do you have children?” Yuri pushed, seizing the opportunity to bring Maxim back alive.

“Shards,” he muttered.

“Shrapnel?” Yuri asked. He was surprised. Maxim had an obvious concussion, but there were no signs of other injuries.

“He has fragments both here and here,” Maxim said in a broken voice. The doctors quickly figured out that it was his friend, who had previously been wounded as a result of a Russian artillery strike.

“He was taken away, taken to the hospital,” Yuri said, although the medic had no idea what had happened to Maxim’s friend. He was simply trying to keep the patient from panicking again.

– Is he alive? Maxim asked cautiously.

“He must be,” Yuri replied, though he didn’t know.

For Yuriy’s ambulance team and other doctors assigned to the area, such calls are a common thing. There are days when they wait a few miles from the bus station-turned-infirmary, a designated rally point between the front line and security, and their 24-hour shift goes by without incident: Yuri calls his wife several times a day. Igor is sleeping. Vova, the son of a gunsmith, is thinking about how to modernize Ukraine’s Soviet-era weapons.

On other days, casualties are frequent and medics have to constantly move between the hospital and the infirmary as they place bloodied men with tourniquets tied to their limbs in the back of their ambulances.

Yuri looked at Maxim, encouraged by his newfound ability to communicate.

Are you hurt anywhere else? Yuri asked.

Maxim put his hand behind his neck and stepped back, looking at his appendage, almost expecting blood.

“We were all covered with shelling,” Maxim said quietly.

“It’s okay, you’re alive,” Yuri said, trying to change the subject. “The main thing is that you did well. Good guy”.

While Yury was getting the stretcher ready and Maxim was getting ready for the ambulance, an aging red sedan, a Russian Lada, drove up to the first-aid post. The staple of the Soviet era came to an abrupt halt, practically skidding across the beaten asphalt.

The dust has settled. In the distance, artillery thumped in a familiar rhythm.

A man in a baggy gray T-shirt, obviously distraught, jumped out of the driver’s seat of the car. The passenger opened the door and yelled, “The woman is hurt!”

It was an older woman named Zina, they would soon find out, and she was sitting face down in the back seat.

The doctors decided that another group of doctors would take Maxim to the hospital, and Yuriy’s team would take care of the newly arrived patient in a car.

The two men who took Zina to the infirmary, her husband and son-in-law, turned to Ukrainian positions near their home asking where to take her after she was hit in the head by shrapnel from an artillery shell. The soldiers sent them to Yuri’s first-aid post.

In Lada, Zina’s blood began to accumulate on the fabric. She was at least 50, unconscious, another civilian wounded in the four-month war, like so many others caught between the guns of that war.

“Get a stretcher!” Yuri called.

It was not yet 11 am, and next to the first-aid post, another of the mines strewn with Russians suddenly exploded.