ELena Bulakhtina was on her way back to her medical clinic when a cluster bomb screamed into the sky. There was a bang, then two seconds later a series of bangs, as shrapnel of deadly shrapnel hissed through the air. Boulakhtina, a doctor, threw herself on the ground. She arrived in the basement of her workplace just as a second bomb went off, then a third.
Not everyone was so lucky. The Russian attack took place on Tuesday afternoon, in the once peaceful village of Hrushivka, about 8 km from the front line in northeastern Ukraine. A few residents stood next to a generator, where they could charge their phones and check their emails. Pensioner Nikolai Koliyenko sat on a bench in front of his house. It was covered.
Bomb fragments killed Koliyenko. A woman in her 50s, Vera Shevtsova, also died. “We couldn’t do anything for them. The old man was repeatedly injured by shrapnel. We left him. These are our triage rules,” Boulakhtina explained. Instead, she helped the living. Among them was a seriously injured 10-year-old boy, Andriy Seydnuk, who was hit in the head by a metal casing.
The building filled with screaming children and desperate adults. “I only knew that I was treating a boy with a green hoodie. He was barely breathing. I bandaged his head. We had nothing for children. Miraculously, I found a tube about his size so we could intubate him. We had no oxygen, so I ran our ventilator on room air. It was the best we could do for him,” she said.
Other victims were brought in. Among them, a teenager injured by shrapnel in the arm and leg, a 40-year-old mother of five children hit in the abdomen and a pensioner suffering from arterial haemorrhage. No longer a young man with a serious spinal injury who was unable to walk or feel his legs. The patients – around ten of them – were taken to Kharkiv hospital, 100 km away. The 10-year-old boy checked himself into a neurological unit, where his condition on Friday was serious.
The episode was terrible. And what one might call banal. It was ordinary in the sense that Moscow has dropped cluster bombs on civilians since the start of its full-scale invasion more than six long months ago. The Hrushivka tragedy was, on a small scale, an echo of the horrors of Mariupol, where thousands died this spring from air-launched rockets and missiles.
“My son was a smart boy. He loved gymnastics. He used to walk around alone. When the explosion happened, I tried to find him,” Seydnuk’s father Denis said, sitting outside the clinic and smoking a cigarette. “I was screaming and screaming, ‘Andriy! Andrew! Has anyone seen a boy with a green hoodie? And then the doctors told me what had happened. Andriy’s older sister, Uliana, and her mother, Olga, were not injured.
The Russians occupied Hrushivka – a community of 1,000 people, with a school, a few shops and a fishing lake – in March. Ukrainian armed forces drove them out two weeks ago in a massive counter-offensive in which Kyiv recaptured almost all of Kharkiv Oblast. The new front line is down the road in the town of Kupiansk, now the scene of a great and thunderous battle.
On Thursday, thick black smoke drifted down a hill to Hrushivka. From somewhere nearby, a Ukrainian tank fired at Russian troops hiding in a forest, hollowed out about two kilometers beyond the Oskil River. Then there was the dramatic sound of multiple US-supplied HIMARS long-range rockets taking off.
A British combat medic and ex-soldier, who goes by the name Fish, said the Russians had tried to break through, so far without success. He showed fragments of shrapnel he recovered from Tuesday’s attack. They included tail fin pieces and a detonator. He treated patients in the dark, illuminating their wounds with a headlamp and a cell phone.
“I was watching TV in April in the UK. I saw these injured children in Kyiv and decided to come and help,” he explained. “There is no reason for children to be trapped. It is inhuman and deplorable. He and other volunteers had treated wounded soldiers during Ukraine’s recent successful military operation in a ruined school, laying them on wooden pallets and hanging drops from metal railings.
Stas Yaramenko, an anesthetist, was scathing about the Kremlin’s tactics. “Russia is a terrorist country. They use nuclear blackmail. They want us to negotiate on their terms,” he said. Could Ukraine win the war? “We have no alternative. Look what happened in the 1930s. Stalin starved Ukraine and had our poets and composers shot,” he said.
Just outside the village, a group of refugees from Kupyansk took shelter under a broken overpass. Alexiy Mitutianov, 38, said there was heavy fighting in and around the city and continuous shelling, especially during the day. There was no electricity or gas and the three shops still open were almost out of food. Anything that was left was extremely expensive, he said.
Mitutyanov said residents held a pro-Ukrainian rally on March 9 after Russian troops arrived across the border. About 150 people gathered in Kupiansk’s Constitution Square, which was previously named after Lenin. “We waved Ukrainian flags. I lit a flare. Immediately a Russian soldier grabbed me. I didn’t have time to protest. I spent the following months in prison,” he said.
Several hundred people were crammed into the basement of a police station, he added. Their guards came from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. They regularly beat the detainees, using wooden sticks and rubber tubes, he said, adding: “They were worse than the Russians.” The Ukrainian army freed him when they took over the city, he said, adding: “I’m broke and I don’t have a plan.”
Back in Hrushivka, Bulakhtina said she would take a break from the war next month and return home to Canada. Originally from Russia, she says she despises Putin and decided to use her medical skills in Ukraine. “It’s history in the making. I wanted to do something rather than sit at home and post ‘Fuck Poutine’ on Facebook all day,” she said.
Still, the sight of seriously injured children took its toll, she conceded. “I’m not paranoid. But every time I go out, I look up at the sky,” she said. “You’re kind of constantly on the lookout to see if something lands on you. If it lands on you, there’s not much you can do. And if it doesn’t, fall down and run.