It was the photo of a young girl, dying in a Mariupol hospital after Russian shelling, that made up Martin Wyness’ mind. He had to go and help in Ukraine.
Less than three months later, he was in an ambulance racing to save the life of another little girl gravely injured by a Russian attack, as more shells crashed down around them. They turned around and raced back the way they had came, looking for another route to safety and medical care for the eight-year-old, whose body was peppered with shrapnel.
“They didn’t get her the first time so they had another go,” he said, in his hospital base in Donbas region. “As if that little girl wasn’t vulnerable enough.”
Wyness is part of a volunteer medical unit bridging the gap between Ukraine’s eastern frontline – which is experiencing the most intense fighting of the war – and major hospitals where war-injured soldiers and civilians can get long-term treatment for their wounds.
Medbat Pirogov volunteer hospital brings together dozens of Ukrainians, including some who returned from abroad to serve, and a handful of internationals who felt compelled to try to help out in a conflict thousands of miles from home.
“I felt this wasn’t Ukraine’s war, it was Europe’s war, my war,” said Wyness. He has twice made the journey to Ukraine from his Southampton home. The first month of the war he spent in the basement of a Kyiv hospital, patching up those injured in the battle for the city.
After the Russians were defeated he returned home for a break, but in early May returned to the new frontline near the almost-besieged town of Sievierodonetsk.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the battle in Donbas was so intense that up to 100 of the country’s soldiers were dying in combat each day.
It is a gruelling artillery duel in which the enemy is often faceless and unseen, appearing only in the form of shells, rockets and missiles, and visible through the terrible injuries they inflict on the bodies of civilians and soldiers alike.
“Some days I think I’ve got to go, it’s just too much,” Wyness said, in an interview interrupted when shells started landing close to the base and the team had to race down to a basement bunker.
Both the injuries and the constant threat of death are exhausting; the medics are targets for a military that has repeatedly bombed hospitals in Ukraine and in Syria, killing doctors, nurses and patients in defiance of international law.
The medics are fundraising for armoured ambulances that would at least protect medics and patients from the worst of the shrapnel, but the war has sent prices even for secondhand vehicles soaring. So for now the group race towards the frontline in ordinary vehicles that would be ripped to shreds if an artillery round landed too close.
Jennifer spent $4,500 (£3,560) of her own money to travel from California and risk death daily to help out. She does not want her last name published because she told her mum she was only going to Poland to help refugees, although she told her daughters – who are 17 and 23 – the truth.
“The way I’ve raised them they understand that this is an important thing to do,” she said. “If you know something is wrong and you don’t say or do anything, it’s doubly wrong.”
Jennifer worked as a medic in Afghanistan, on contract with the international mission, so is used to conflict injuries and dangerous environments but the intensity and proximity of the fighting in Ukraine has still shocked her.
“It’s more than I expected. Yesterday morning I was upstairs getting changed, a rocket flew by and landed just close by. The first night we got here we were in the basement, told to get ready to evacuate, because they thought the Russians had breached [Ukrainian lines] and were coming.”
She made up her mind to volunteer when she saw Zelenskiy appealing to the world for assistance in Ukraine’s struggle, and began researching her options before contacting Gennadiy Druzenko, the founder of Medbat. “It’s a struggle for freedom and they need help,” Jennifer said.
Ukrainians have tried to deter foreigners who do not have military experience from trying to go to the frontlines but Martin and Jennifer have practical skills that are needed as the deaths and injuries mount among civilians and soldiers.
There are also Ukrainian medics in the team, some returned from abroad, others unable to get commissions in the oversubscribed military medical corps but determined to serve. Dymtro Rusnak drove back from Germany with a car full of medical aid.
He had been getting ready for this moment for the best part of a decade. In 2014, after Russia seized Crimea and Russian-backed proxy forces took control of parts of Donbas, Rusnak changed his speciality from radiology to acute care.
“I saw I had to prepare myself, because at any moment it was possible that Russia could start a full war,” he said. When they did, he paused only to put his contract on hold – his bosses were very understanding – and gather as much medical supplies as he could from friends and colleagues.
His main worry when the shells start falling is not his own safety but the worry he is bringing his elderly parents. “Although they are proud, it is very traumatic for them, there are no parents who want to see their children’s funeral.”
He is waiting to get his German medical qualifications certified so he can practise as a doctor in Ukraine, so for now works with Wyness as an ambulance paramedic.
“These years of education and preparation, all these skills, should be used,” he said. “I wanted to be an example, you can say thousands of words, make thousands of posts on social media, but this means nothing … you have to act, to do something.”