Wounded and war weary: Images of soldiers returning from the front in Eastern Ukraine

An injured soldier gets medical care inside a bus that transport the wounded from the front to a hospital in Dnipro Oblast in Eastern Ukraine. CBC News recently got a chance to speak with some of the soldiers on the bus about their experiences at the front. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC - image credit)
An injured soldier gets medical care inside a bus that transport the wounded from the front to a hospital in Dnipro Oblast in Eastern Ukraine. CBC News recently got a chance to speak with some of the soldiers on the bus about their experiences at the front. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC - image credit)

After nearly two and a half years of war, it is unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or injured. However, the limited data released suggests it's well into the tens of thousands.

CBC News recently gained access to a medical evacuation bus transporting injured soldiers from the front line to a hospital in Dnipro Oblast in Eastern Ukraine.

The 25 patients evacuated on the volunteer-run bus included men who had been conscripted under the new mobilization law and were sent to the front with only very basic training, along with those who volunteered to fight early on in the war.

Here is what a few of them told us.

Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, and another paramedic help an inured soldier
Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, and another paramedic help an inured soldier

Tatiana Romaniuk and another paramedic help an inured soldier. They are part of a team of volunteers with the organization Hospitallers, which provides medical care and transport soldiers fighting in Ukraine. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Hit by a grenade launcher 

Most active Ukrainian soldiers will allow themselves to be identified only by their call sign. This 39-year-old IT specialist is known as "WIFI," and his time at the front line was brief. He was injured after two and a half days on the front. He had been stationed at a position near Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region, an area Ukrainian officials have described as experiencing some of the most challenging fighting along the front.

WIFI told CBC News that he was in a trench just a few hours earlier, helping to fortify it, when it came under attack. He said they came under fire from a Russian automatic grenade launcher.

This 39-year-old IT specialist, known as 'WIFI,' says his time at the front line was brief. He was injured after two and a half days on the front.
This 39-year-old IT specialist, known as 'WIFI,' says his time at the front line was brief. He was injured after two and a half days on the front.

This 39-year-old IT specialist is known by his call sign, 'WIFI.' He was injured after two and a half days into his stint at the front. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

After the first shot, he said, fragments flew into his thigh. "It felt like a syringe injection," he said.

The second shot hit him in his opposite foot.

"It was red-hot and immediately, there was a sharp pain and numbness of the foot."

He applied tourniquets to his limbs in an effort to reduce the bleeding. But once tightened, he found it impossible to even crawl out of the trench so he had to be carried out by two of his fellow soldiers.

When CBC News spoke with him, he was lying on a stretcher outside of an undisclosed pickup point, messaging his mother.

Nurses transport a wounded soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine
Nurses transport a wounded soldier in Dnipro, Ukraine

Nurses move WIFI from the bus to a hospital in Dnipro. (Coprinne Seminoff/CBC)

He said had been exempt from conscription because he has cancer, which is in remission, but when Ukraine passed the new mobilization law, it removed some medical exemptions, and he became eligible.

He said military officers turned up at his home in Poltava near the end of April. After receiving about two months of training, he was sent to the front and could be back there again after he heals.

It will be up to a medical commissioner to decide whether he is able to be called up again.

"It was very difficult both mentally and physically," he said of his time at the front.

Pinned under a tank

Inside the medical evacuation bus, 'Liahk,' an accountant who was mobilized in April and sent to the front a month ago, recovers after surviving a drone attack on the tank he was was in while on the front line in the Donetsk region.
Inside the medical evacuation bus, 'Liahk,' an accountant who was mobilized in April and sent to the front a month ago, recovers after surviving a drone attack on the tank he was was in while on the front line in the Donetsk region.

'Liahk' is an accountant in his civilian life. He survived a drone attack on the tank he was was in while on the front line in the Donetsk region. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Before this 34-year-old soldier, who goes by the call sign "Liahk," was mobilized in April and sent to the front a month ago, he worked as an accountant in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

He was in a tank on the front line in the Donetsk region when, at around 7 a.m. local time on June 19, it was hit by a Lancet drone. The drone, which self-destructs when it crashes into targets, was first used by Russia in Syria and has been used repeatedly in Ukraine to target weapons and artillery on the ground.

'Liahk,' 34, a wounded Ukrainian soldier is transported to a hospital in Dnipro, Eastern Ukraine.
'Liahk,' 34, a wounded Ukrainian soldier is transported to a hospital in Dnipro, Eastern Ukraine.

'Liahk,' was pinned under a turret that collapsed when the tank was hit. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

After the tank was struck, part of the turret collapsed, pinning Liahk and his commander inside. The driver of the tank was able to get out and started to pull Liahk out, too, but then he yelled out that he needed to try to restart the tank, because they were likely going to come under fire a second time.

"It was a miracle the tank started, so he drove us out," Liahk told CBC News as he winced in pain and waited to board the evacuation bus.

As they drove out of the combat zone, the commander kept Liahk talking before himself losing consciousness and lapsing into a coma.

'Liahk,' a 34-year-old, injured soldier from Lviv.
'Liahk,' a 34-year-old, injured soldier from Lviv.

Injured soldiers are usually picked up at an undisclosed location. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

A narrow escape

A soldier with the call sign "Kniaz," which means prince in Ukrainian, stood out among the group of soldiers CBC met, because he is 60 years old. On June 19, Kniaz was driving a military vehicle toward Avdiivka, which was seized by Russian forces in February, when his vehicle was struck by a projectile dropped by a first-person view (FPV) drone.

Shrapnel pierced his head, shoulder, arms and leg. He says his ability to escape from the vehicle quickly saved his life because the vehicle went up in flames soon after.

'Kniaz,' whose call sign means prince in Ukrainian, volunteered to fight at the start of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. He also previously fought against Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk in 2017. 
'Kniaz,' whose call sign means prince in Ukrainian, volunteered to fight at the start of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. He also previously fought against Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk in 2017.

'Kniaz,' 60, volunteered to fight at the start of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. He was already a veteran of the war against Russia-backed separatists that has been playing out in Eastern Ukraine since 2014.  (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"The drones bother us the worst," he told CBC News. "We don't have as many as the bastard Russians."

Unlike some of the others being evacuated, he volunteered to fight at the start of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. He also previously fought against Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk in 2017.

"It is a duty of every man to defend his motherland," he said.

Wounded soldiers share a cigarette while waiting outside a hospital in Dnipro, Eastern Ukraine.
Wounded soldiers share a cigarette while waiting outside a hospital in Dnipro, Eastern Ukraine.

Wounded soldiers share cigarettes while waiting outside a hospital in Dnipro. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Calming fears and tending to injuries

Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, isn't a soldier, but does have a call sign: "Rudy," which means redhead, a nod to her long, copper hair. She is a combat medic with Hospitallers, a group of volunteer paramedics, and spends two weeks a month transporting injured soldiers to hospital.

The repurposed bus transporting soldiers has six beds inside along with medical equipment. On the day CBC visited, it was sweltering inside, and a heavy smell of sweat and blood hung in the air. Romaniuk estimated it was 40 degrees C inside the bus.

Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, whose call sign, 'Rudy,' means redhead, a nod to her long, copper hair, is a combat medic with Hospitallers, a group of volunteer paramedics, and spends two weeks a month transporting injured soldiers to hospital. 
Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, whose call sign, 'Rudy,' means redhead, a nod to her long, copper hair, is a combat medic with Hospitallers, a group of volunteer paramedics, and spends two weeks a month transporting injured soldiers to hospital.

Romaniuk, 33, whose call sign, 'Rudy,' means redhead, tends to an injured soldier. (Coprinne Seminoff/CBC)

The most seriously injured were transported by stretcher to the beds and hooked up right away to medical equipment that measured their heart rate and oxygen levels. The rest were crammed on board in whatever space was available. A lucky few got seats while others sat in the aisle.

Medical evacuations can happen with very little advance notice. When soldiers are injured at the front, they receive immediate medical care at military stabilization points and are then transported to a pick-up point, where they are met by the Hospitallers and transported to hospital.

Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, medic with Hospitallers volunteer group.
Tatiana Romaniuk, 33, medic with Hospitallers volunteer group.

Romaniuk says the first thing many of the seriously injured soldiers want to know is whether they will have to lose a limb. ( Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Romaniuk says the most difficult part of a medical transport is if a soldier deteriorates en route, as happened to one patient while CBC was on the bus. Upon arrival at the hospital, the soldier required emergency surgery for shrapnel embedded in his spine.

Romaniuk said the first thing one soldier who had been inured after only a week at the front wanted to do when he got on the bus was borrow her cellphone and call his family.

She said a common question all soldiers ask her while they are being transported is whether their limbs will need to be amputated.

"They are worried about how it will be, what they will do next and what their life will be like," she said.

A wounded Ukrainian soldier rests on his way from the frontline.
A wounded Ukrainian soldier rests on his way from the frontline.

A wounded Ukrainian soldier rests after getting off the medical transport. Many of those returning are preoccupied with what comes next and how to resume their lives. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)