On the first Wednesday of July, Yuri, a pensioner who spent more than two decades as a rescue worker in the Ukrainian mines, was preparing to finish his four-day shift: guarding his battalion’s checkpoint in rebel-controlled Lugansk.
As he waited for other men from his pro-Russian unit, the Ukrainian army arrived. The rebel, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Kolyvan, was caught in a heavy barrage of mortar fire and now lies in a provincial hospital in the Russian town of Donetsk, less than 5km from the Ukrainian border. His left arm has been reduced to a stump just below his shoulder and doctors have amputated the bottom third of his left leg.
His only pleasures now are a handheld radio, the cigarettes he sneaks when the nurses are gone and watching the clouds move by – the only thing he can see out the window from his bedridden vantage point. “All I really want,” he says, “is to be able to sit.”
As the Ukrainian army closes in on the rebel-held territories of Lugansk and Donetsk in the war-torn east of the country, the hospitals on the other side of the border provide a glimpse of what sort of life awaits members of the rebel army when the fighting ends.
If the first few months of the war were marked by a stream of Russian “volunteers” pouring across the border, these days the flow is in both directions, as scores of injured rebels are transported back to Russia for emergency medical care, in some cases the vehicles carrying them having to cut through forests and along back roads in Ukrainian army-controlled territory.
Between 10 and 20 injured fighters are transported daily to the Donetsk Central Hospital on the Russian side from rebel-held territory in Ukraine, says Lilia Nikolaevna, a nurse at the provincial hospital in charge of the trauma ward where the injured separatists are taken.
“Every day it’s more and more. You can’t even count,” she says of the overall number. “There are boys who are 20, 21 years old and they are missing legs, they are missing arms. It’s terrifying.”
While many so-called Russian volunteers have joined the separatist fight in east Ukraine, including professional fighters from Chechnya and Ossetia, the majority of the rebel ranks are made up of local men with little military experience.
“I wore that uniform but it doesn’t mean we were soldiers. No one taught me what to do,” says Kolyvan, whose only previous military experience was his brief conscription in the Soviet army more than 30 years ago. “There were people joining us who had never touched a gun,” he says.
Anton, a 27-year-old dental hygienist from Lugansk, says the only weapon he was given was a pistol produced in 1941. Also caught in mortar fire, he now lies at the Donetsk hospital, his leg broken in multiple places. “I had a life. I was going somewhere,” he says.
On Sunday afternoon, two buses and a minibus pulled up at the hospital carrying 40 injured rebels, the hospital’s biggest single delivery to date. Out came half-naked bodies on stretchers and others in bandages and on crutches, some still dressed in their full camouflage uniforms with patches for the Donetsk People’s Republic and Russian Orthodox Army on the sleeve. One man wore a laminated Russian Orthodox icon on his sling.
Outside the vehicles, dozen of representatives from the Russian Emergency Ministry and hospital officials worked with rebel medics to sort the wounded fighters, keeping the most seriously injured and packing the healthier ones into ambulances destined for bigger hospitals in the Rostov region.
Mingling with the group were half a dozen representatives from Russia’s border guard service, which is part of the FSB, the modern-day KGB. Dressed in matching green, the border guards interviewed the patients before sending them onwards, asking how, where and when they had been injured, and asking them to sign their name at the end of a form.
Despite the injuries, most of the fighters say they have no regrets about joining the separatist forces. Some say they will go back and fight in a few months once they have recovered; they would not be able to return if Kiev took back full control of the east.
“We are all on a wanted list,” says Alexei, a 44-year-old rebel nicknamed “the Cossack” lying in hospital in nearby Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. His wife and son left their home in Krasnoarmeisk in Ukraine after pro-Kiev fighters showed up at his mother’s house looking for him.
He, and others, warn that even if Kiev retakes Lugansk and Donetsk, the biggest city in eastern Ukraine and the rebels’ main power base, it would face years of partisan warfare in the region. “Then we will actually be real terrorists – like al-Qaeda,” the Cossack said.
One who will not be returning to the fight is Kolyvan. Unable to care for himself, his wife Irina has travelled to Russia with him and now sleeps in the neighbouring bed. On Monday they will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary there.
Of approximately 30 men who made up his division in the Ghost Battalion just four are still fighting, the rest have been killed or injured, Kolyvan says.
Any future in a Kiev-controlled Ukraine, he says, is unimaginable. “I spent 21 years as a rescue worker in the mines and all of a sudden they call me a terrorist.”
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