As Russian rockets rain down on Kharkiv, his paramedics are risking their lives to save others
Rudkovskaya, 24, works as a paramedic in Kharkiv, a choice that she says leaves her mother “worried to the point of hysteria”.
“He says you have to leave this city, you have to go to a safe place. Why do you need to do this? I only have one child, stop doing it,” Rudkovskaya told CNN.
A few hours after their farewell hug, her mother’s nightmares came true when Rudkovskaya and her partner Vladimir Venzel risked their lives to reach an injured patient. CNN was there to testify their courage.
Kharkiv, located near the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine, was one of the first cities to be attacked when Russia invaded two months ago. Since then it has been subject to almost constant bombing.
As first responders in the city, Rudkovskaya and Venzel find themselves running into danger – even if everyone else is fleeing – every day.
They know they have to work fast. Russian forces are increasingly terrorizing the city with so-called “double tap” attacks: hitting a target, waiting a few minutes for first responders to arrive and then hitting the same spot again.
When they hear the deep thuds of a bombing raid at the start of their shift on Saturday, Rudkovskaya and Venzel are waiting for an emergency call. Moments later, they get one. At least one person was injured in the bombing.
Rudkovskaya, Venzel and their driver jump into their ambulance and drive off. Each has a flak jacket, but they only have one helmet between the three of them.
Moments after they arrive at the site of the first strike, the whole place starts shaking again. The building next door was hit. Loud rumbles of several explosions are followed by the sound of shattering glass.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel know what to do. They run down the dark entrance and hide at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the worst to pass. Venzel tells the CNN team to cover their ears and open their mouths to avoid hearing damage.
While this is happening, the team struggles to locate the injured person they have been called to help. Ambulance crews in Kharkiv rely on cell phones for communication, but signals are cut off whenever there is a hit, which happens often.
“We are disconnected and they are bombarding us with shit,” says Rudkovskaya.
Once he gets through, he yells into the phone, “Tell me your damn house number.”
“12G,” says the desperate voice on the other end of the line. “I repeat: 12. Gregory. I’ve told you a thousand times,” says the caller desperately. “The man is dying”.
As a flurry of rockets rains over the area, the CNN team has no choice but to run for safety. Rudkovskaya and Venzel run back inside.
Moments later, they manage to find the victim, a 73-year-old man who suffered shrapnel injuries and head trauma. The bandages around his head are covered in blood and he winces when the doctors move his arm, but rescuers say he will survive.
Venzel asks about the pain but the man points only to his ears. He was deafened by the explosion and cannot hear. The couple stabilizes him and rushes him to the hospital.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel, 25, work for the Center of Emergency Medical Care and Disaster Medicine in the Kharkiv region.
They say the organization has been strained since the war began. Some of its employees decided to leave Kharkiv when the invasion began and the service has suffered significant material losses in the Russian attacks over the past two months.
The director of the center, Victor Zabashta, says that 50 of its 250 ambulances are out of order after being hit by shrapnel.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel are deployed in Saltivka, a district on the north-eastern outskirts of Kharkiv.
The neighborhood is among the hardest hit in the region and the current target of Russian bombing. many of its condos, shops and even the local school were destroyed. Parts of the neighborhood have also been cut off from basic services such as water and electricity.
But despite the heavy fighting, many of Saltivka’s residents are determined to stay. When their neighborhood is bombed, they sweep away the broken glass, tidy up and get on with their lives.
Most are elderly and have nowhere else to go, according to paramedics.
“When we offer to take them to the hospital or to a safe place, they say, ‘We don’t want to go, we will stay here, this is our home.’ And they stay there. We still have people living in Saltivka, we don’t know how, “says Rudkovskaya.
Like many of those who help, the two are adamant: they are not going anywhere.
“What else did we spend six years studying?” says Venzel, who has a two-year-old son. “You feel compelled to help the people who stayed here.”
Returning to the base later, Rudkovskaya and Venzel continue their work. I’m only halfway through a 24 hour shift. The rear window of their ambulance was blown up by the explosions. They have to clean up the shattered glass and prepare the vehicle for the next patient
“This is normal. It’s our job … It’s scary, but we’re still alive, thank God,” says Rudkovskaya.
She has been with the ambulance service for five years and Venzel has worked here for seven, but nothing prepared them for the horrors of working in a war zone.
“At the beginning of the war we didn’t understand how to do this job, because they bombed relentlessly and there were many wounded,” Rudkovskaya says.
“We had a woman with a hole in her chest. And we ran and helped. It was very scary. She was out in an open space, they started bombing and we didn’t know where to run and what to do because there is no cover.”
There is no more room for feelings, says Venzel, you just have to move on. “When you are there, in that moment, you have to do what you can. No emotion. Just do your job,” he says.
And he says he’s determined to keep going. “We will continue to do our job until the end,” he says. “And then also after the war.”