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Home World News Washington Post World News A bloody retreat as Ukrainian unit hit by Russian cluster bombs

A bloody retreat as Ukrainian unit hit by Russian cluster bombs

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A soldier of the Ukrainian Airborne unit was evacuated on Sunday after a Russian cluster bomb attack.  (Photo by Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
A soldier of the Ukrainian Airborne unit was evacuated on Sunday after a Russian cluster bomb attack. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

OUTSIDE LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian airborne unit was relieved to withdraw from the front on Sunday morning, riding a column of armored personnel carriers away from the disputed city of Severodonetsk, already in Russian hands, and Lysychansk, which was on the edge.

“Nothing happened to us while we were at the front,” said the unit commander. “As we retreated, we were hit.”

They were hit, and badly hit.

As the convoy pulled into the farming village of Verkhniokamianske, with many of the soldiers on the outside of the vehicles, the first blast slammed right through them. It was a cluster bomb, they would later suspect, something that ripped through the contingent of men clinging to that side of a truck.

Several men were injured, with blood pouring from limbs and, in one case, a soldier’s head. But there was no time to deal with them while the convoy remained in the sights of the Russian artillery. The uninjured put in turnstiles where they could, dragged the injured back to the vehicles and ran out of the village, up winding farm roads to a row of trees over a golden wheat field about a mile away.

It was just one of many chaotic scenes that continue to unfold as the Ukrainians yield ground to Russia’s relentless attempt to take control of the eastern Donbas region.

Some soldiers pushed their unit’s vehicles into the tree cover and piled on branches to hide them from drones used for targeting. The others did what they could for the injured and had to make do with their personal first aid supplies as they had become separated from the unit’s large medical equipment.

Eight people were injured, at least two of them seriously. The soldier with the head injury drifted in and out of consciousness.

The commander had just radioed their location and requested medical evacuation teams when several Washington Post reporters covering the retreat attacked the group. The soldiers yelled for the journalists to leave the area: “It’s not safe!”

But the Post team’s security escort, a former combat medic, had a well-equipped trauma kit in the car. “Come, come,” said the soldiers.

A Russian cluster bomb attack struck Ukrainian soldiers as they entered the farming village of Verkhniokamianske on June 26. (Video: Heidi Levine, Photo: Heidi Levine/Heidi Levine)

For the next horrifying half hour, the security escort worked with the unit’s medic to stabilize the worst cases. It was a purely humanitarian impulse, he would later explain. Combat medics are trained to treat the wounded, regardless of the flag on their uniform.

The convoy’s medic removed one man’s helmet to reveal a heavy bandage. “He was hit on the head,” he explained as a Ukrainian interpreter helped with communications. “But I can’t find an exit wound. The shrapnel is still there.”

The couple administered IV fluids and considered the soldier’s breathing, which was labored. A nasogastric tube was inserted and the oxygen level was checked.

Nearby, another soldier lay on a canvas stretcher in a pool of his own blood, his thigh heavily bandaged.

“Where’s cat?” the man asked, his eyes wide. “Is Kat okay?”

The others assured him that his buddy was okay. “He’s walking around.”

Across the field, a Ukrainian artillery battery fired a series of shells, barrels that threw smoke and flames into the air.

“We need to get these men going,” the commander said, requesting for security reasons not to mention his name and the soldiers. “Then we must move on.”

The Post’s security escort administered an injection of morphine and handed the unit medic a bottle containing four antibiotic pills. “Give him one now and tape the bottle to his body so the doctor knows what he’s had,” he said.

The soldier had to be kept awake, he added, so his condition could be monitored. Then another soldier crouched by the stretcher and said something to the wounded man. They both laughed.

“Here they come,” the commander said a short time later, watching two plumes of dust race around the edge of the field. The road from Lysychansk was filled with ambulances all morning.

Within minutes the military ambulance arrived. The medics jumped out, but the soldiers were ready to load their own men.

“Give them space, give them space,” the commander said. “Take these two first.”



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