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Ukraine is Bleeding

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on the morning of 24 February 2022 the high command in Moscow expected a rout of Ukraine's army and a swift sweep down to the capital Kyiv. After months of intense fighting across the country's vast territory, on the streets of its cities and across the flat plains of the countryside, casualties are mounting on both sides and the two sides have settled into a grinding war of attrition in the Donbas region.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities are keeping tight-lipped about the actual number of soldiers and civilians killed. For Ukraine, outnumbered and outgunned by the sheer volume of Russian armour and personnel, obscuring its losses and keeping up morale is part of a wider fight for survival as the country is battered from all sides.

The Russian army has downgraded its objectives significantly, if those were ever clearly defined. Fighting is once again - as it has been since 2014 - concentrated in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk which together constitute the Donbas, short for the Donets Coal Basin. It is here that Ukraine's overstretched forces are now facing the most intense pressure from hundreds of battalions of Russian forces tasked with giving their government some form of victory to have made the invasion tactically worthwhile.

Panos photographer Mads Nissen and journalist Kjeld Hybel from the Danish newspaper Politiken made their way to a hospital near the ever-shifting frontline to report on the human face of Ukraine's desperate struggle for survival.

Ukrainian authorities have announced that the country's army is losing between 100 to 200 soldiers a day, though there is no official total of the losses to date. And while in Russia, where the conflict is still being billed as a "Special Military Operation", recruitment is becoming a problem, Ukraine has plenty of volunteers and regular forces. It's the mismatch in heavy weaponry that is starting to give Russia the upper hand in the East. At the hospital Mads and Kjeld visited, soldiers are constantly being brought in by ambulances and military vehicles with serious injuries resulting from shrapnel and gunfire. Most complain that they are being overpowered by more modern Russian weaponry. Since everywhere in Ukraine is within range of Russian missiles, the location of this hospital is being kept secret to protect patients and staff. The head surgeon, at first weary of outside visitors, admits to not having slept for two nights due to the volume of urgent work. He is said to have performed 35 operations in a single day.

Asked about how much of a difference foreign aid and volunteers are making to his efforts to save lives he is reticent, not wanting to suggest that the Ukrainian government is struggling to provide for its army. "If I drive a Lada and someone comes and offers me an Audi, why wouldn't I take it?" he asks rhetorically, referring to donations of military kit from Europe and the US.

The alleged use of white phosphorous munitions by the Russian army has become one of its most feared tactics. When it comes in contact with oxygen, phosphor will burn at high temperature, producing large amounts of toxic smoke. It is very difficult to put out and sticks to clothing, burning through skin and bones. The grim fascination with phosphor bombs is summed up by one soldier as "like stars melting from the sky".

Many of the wounded are keen to get back to the front to fight the invader. "The only thing I'm thinking about is saving my country from the Russians - and living in peace" says Andriy, a young serviceman who was lucky to keep his leg which was riddled with shrapnel. For some, the experience of conflict is overpowering. Mads noticed numerous young men just staring into space, aimlessly.

“They stare at nothing. I'm looking, but they just stare... at something beyond. I imagine how the mind is playing the clip over and over again. The shelling, artillery and explosions. The mind just won't move on.... Trauma in a loop. The more you deny it, the more it accelerates. Each time the scenes repeat more persistently and explicitly."

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