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Medics risk their lives in Bakhmut to treat Ukrainian soldiers and evacuate them

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

After nine months of fighting, the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is in ruins - neither side in control. Losses have been massive on both sides, although Western officials say Russian fatalities are particularly staggering. While there's no way to independently verify numbers, one factor helping Ukrainian soldiers stay alive are the medics who risk their lives to treat and evacuate them. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a team of them.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We're pulling up outside the house where the medics are staying. Not so far from Bakhmut, it's the first town out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello. (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor.

VITALINA: Vitalina.

BEARDSLEY: Vitalina, Maxime and Andrea, who aren't allowed to use their last names, are all in their early 20s. Before we sit down to talk, they show me where to go in case there's shelling.

OK, so this is in case we need it.

I may feel uneasy in the town of Kostyantynivka, about 15 miles from Bakhmut, but for these three, it's peace and tranquility. Vitalina describes what it's like to work in Bakhmut.

VITALINA: (Through interpreter) It's terrifying. There is shelling, and it's hard to gauge where it's going to hit while you are bandaging someone. You don't know if you should take cover or run. But somehow, you get used to it and begin to figure out if the artillery fire is close or far.

BEARDSLEY: Four teams of medics rotate in and out of Bakhmut, spending two sleepless nights in a house there. Andrea drives this team in when it's time to return.

ANDREA: I have the NVGs.

BEARDSLEY: What are they called?

ANDREA: Night vision goggles - NVGs.

BEARDSLEY: So you can you can see at night with those.

ANDREA: Yeah. So without any lights, I can drive at night. So it's - like this, you see in the night.

BEARDSLEY: He says there's only one road into Bakhmut now, and the Russians have their sights on it. So you only go at night with the car lights off, driving at top speed.

ANDREA: Personally, I do nothing. I do my job and that's all. I'm not scared. I don't feel nothing. We make sure to do all to save the lives of our soldiers.

BEARDSLEY: Vitalina says she's got the hang of Bakhmut now, but being part of the Kharkiv counteroffensive last September was very difficult. That's when Ukraine punched through Russian defenses in a surprise attack and took back huge swaths of territory in just a couple days.

VITALINA: (Through interpreter) They were my first wounded and my first up-close eye contact with the enemy.

BEARDSLEY: She says they even treated injured Russian soldiers before taking them prisoner. Taras Dzioba is a press officer for these medics with Ukraine's 80th Brigade. He says the Kharkiv counteroffensive was difficult because they pushed deep into enemy-controlled territory.

TARAS DZIOBA: We were moving very quickly, and all the rear units, all the medical staff, had to move with us. So it was a lot harder to evacuate people and to bring them to the medics in the rear because the rear units had to be all on the move all the time as well.

BEARDSLEY: Andrea says the Russians don't evacuate their wounded from Bakhmut.

ANDREA: The Russians don't have a question. They don't care for their soldiers.

BEARDSLEY: They don't evacuate?

ANDREA: They don't care - no. They don't evacuate.

BEARDSLEY: Are there just dead bodies all over?

ANDREA: Yes.

BEARDSLEY: Vitalina says experience has now given her automatic reflexes when it comes to treating war wounds.

VITALINA: (Through interpreter) There was a case when we had a soldier with his leg and arm almost torn off. So my only thought was, please don't faint. My mind wasn't working properly because I was panicking, but my hands had muscle memory and took over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: There's a lot of joking and teasing on days off - card games, magic tricks, anything to distract from work, say these medics. They also sleep and do laundry in this tiny brick bungalow whose occupants are long gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAG UNZIPPING)

BEARDSLEY: Vitalina shows me her kit - tourniquets, morphine, hemostatics to stop bleeding. She calls them her treasures. And then there are the cartoon character kids Band-Aids.

VITALINA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "We use these on our brutal men," she laughs. All joking aside, buoying spirits is an important part of being a medic.

VITALINA: (Through interpreter) We talk to them while we are treating them. We say things like get well soon so we can go have a coffee together. We are waiting for you.

BEARDSLEY: Vitalina has a 4-year-old son waiting for her outside the country. She says she risks her life to save Ukraine's soldiers because she must. If not us, she asks, then who?

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kostyantynivka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "THE WARM SHOULDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.