A bloody retreat as Ukrainian unit hit by Russian cluster bombs

A seriously injured soldier from the Ukrainian airborne unit is evacuated after a Russian cluster bomb attack on June 26. (Photo by Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
A seriously injured soldier from the Ukrainian airborne unit is evacuated after a Russian cluster bomb attack on June 26. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

OUTSIDE OF LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian airborne unit was relieved to be pulling back from the front Sunday morning, riding a column of armored personnel carriers away from the embattled city of Severodonetsk, which had already fallen to the Russians, and Lysychansk, which was on the brink.

“Nothing happened to us to when we were at the front,” the unit commander said. “It was while we were retreating that we got hit.”

They were hit, and hit badly.

As the convoy moved into the farm village of Verkhnokamianske, with many of the soldiers riding on the outside of the vehicles, the first blast struck right by them. It was a cluster bomb, they would later surmise, something that tore through the contingent of men clinging to that side of one truck.

Several men were wounded, with blood pouring from limbs and, in one case, a soldier’s head. But there was no time to treat them while the convoy remained in the crosshairs of Russian artillery. The uninjured applied tourniquets where they could, dragged the hurt back onto the vehicles and raced out of the village, across rutted farm lanes to a line of trees across a golden wheat field about a kilometer away.

It was just one of the many chaotic scenes that keep unfolding as Ukrainians give up ground to Russia’s relentless push to control the eastern Donbas region.

Some soldiers pushed their unit’s vehicles into the tree cover, piling on branches to keep them hidden from drones used for targeting. The others did what they could for the injured, making do with their personal first aid supplies because they had become separated from the unit’s big field medical kit.

There were eight men wounded, at least two of them seriously. The soldier with the head injury was drifting in and out of consciousness.

The commander had just radioed their location and requested medical evacuation teams when several Washington Post journalists covering the retreat came upon the group. The soldiers yelled for the journalists to get out of 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,” the soldiers said.

A Russian cluster bomb attack hit Ukrainian soldiers as they moved into the farm village of Verkhnokamianske on June 26. (Video: TWP)

For the next harrowing half-hour, the security escort worked with the unit’s medic to stabilize the most serious cases. It was a purely humanitarian impulse, he would explain later. Combat medics are trained to treat the injured, no matter the flag on their uniform.

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

The pair administered IV fluids and considered the soldier’s breathing, which was labored. A nasal tube was inserted and oxygen levels checked.

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

“Where is Cat?” the man asked, his eyes opening. “Is Cat all right?”

The others assured him his buddy was fine. “He’s up walking around.”

Across the field, a Ukrainian artillery battery fired a series of shells, barrels belching smoke and flame into the sky.

“We need to get these men going,” said the commander, who asked that he and the soldiers not be named for security reasons. “Then we need to move on.”

The Post’s security escort administered a shot of morphine and handed the unit’s medic a bottle of 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 needed to be kept awake, he added, so that his condition could be monitored. With that, another soldier squatted by the stretcher and said something to the injured man. They both laughed.

“Here they come,” the commander said a short time later, eying two plumes of dust racing along the edge of the field. The road out of Lysychansk had been filled with ambulances all morning.

In minutes, the military ambulance rolled up. The medics jumped out, but the soldiers were ready to load their own men.

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

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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