As 15-year-old Liza Chernichenko pressed on the gas pedal while frantically driving through the Donetsk region, she realized she had been shot in both legs, but with four others in the car, including two men bleeding profusely, she kept driving, even as Russian forces continued firing
“There was no fear, there was no shock,” said Chernichenko, who spoke to CBC from her hospital bed in Lviv.
“There was just a determination to go forward.”
Chernichenko, who had planned to hunker down with her godmother and try to wait out the relentless barrage near her community of Komyshuvakha, ended up fleeing after two men were injured in an attack and needed someone to drive them to the hospital.
Her dramatic escape on May 1 came as Russian forces stepped up their assault on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where they aim to seize a greater chunk of Donetsk and Luhansk, along with gaining full control of Mariupol, where an unspecified number of Ukrainian fighters remain at the Azovstal steel plant.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials confirmed that all women, children and the elderly had been evacuated from the sprawling Soviet-era steel plant, while other residents from besieged areas in Ukraine’s east continue to make harrowing journeys west out of the immediate war zone.
Chernichenko told CBC that after she heard the shelling attack, she biked from her home to where two men lay injured with shrapnel wounds.
In the commotion that ensued, she decided the men needed to go to the hospital in Bakhmut, a community about an hour’s drive away. One of the injured men had a car that could get them there, but given the fierce fighting nearby, no one wanted to drive.
So Chernichenko took the wheel.
The two who were injured got in the car along with one of their wives and another man who offered to help navigate.
Driving to avoid mines
She says as she drove out from the village, they passed under a bridge and she saw mines a few hundred metres in front of her, sitting like “chess pieces” that she had to drive through.
Farther up the road, a pole was split into two, and beside one of the halves, lay the body of a woman.
Chernichenko, who already knew how to drive, says as they rounded a corner, she and her passengers suddenly came under fire from Russian forces.
She was hit and so was the car. Its engine stalled briefly before restarting.
With her legs bleeding and pain radiating through her feet, she was relieved when 20 minutes into the journey, they came across Ukrainian troops who took control and got everyone to the hospital.
Chernichenko had been struck by at least four bullets and her baby toe on her left foot had been blown off.
As she retells the story from her hospital bed, she is self-assured and speaks confidently about how she had no other choice but to act.
At 15, she projects the image of someone who has spent years taking care of herself.
But when a doctor comes to tell her she needs to have her bandages changed, she yells that she doesn’t want to go.
When she is taken to a different room, her screams can be heard through the hospital’s hallway.
“It’s terrible,” said Dr. Halyna Hachkevic, head of the trauma department of the Children’s Hospital of St. Nicolas in Lviv.
“Seeing people’s grief.”
Chernichenko is sharing a room with a girl who was trying to flee Kramatorsk on April 8 alongside her mother when a missile struck, killing at least 59 people.
The girl was hurt in the blast, while her mother was killed.
Hachkevic says her team receives about 12 pediatric patients from the war zone every week. The youngest they have seen is just nine months old.
In Lviv, foreign doctors from the United States and Italy have arrived to help perform surgeries, but in communities along the front line, doctors and those with no medical training have been struggling to provide care while their hospital buildings are coming under attack.
Hospital under siege
Before the war, Kostiantyn Sokolov, 35, worked at the Azovstal steel plant where he helped to manage the supply of equipment, but on Feb. 24, as Russian forces invaded the country, he moved into a maternity hospital in Mariupol where his mother works as a doctor.
He spent nearly two months there before he and his parents had to flee.
The hospital came under attack multiple times. Sokolov, who has no medical training, worked to secure diesel for generators, carried people on stretchers, and held up lights so doctors could perform surgeries and deliver babies.
When another maternity hospital in Mariupol was bombed on March 9, Sokolov said a surge of patients arrived needing help.
He and his parents wanted to stay in Mariupol as long as they could but were warned by Russian forces, who now control the port city, that they had to leave.
“The tactical team told us to evacuate or else we would be executed,” he told CBC while parked in a long line for gas in Lviv, where he had arrived a week ago.
When they left Mariupol on April 19, he says their car came under fire.
“Thank God, they don’t have a very well-aimed sniper,” he joked.
They went through a series of Russian-controlled checkpoints and a so-called filtration camp where his phone was searched and he was interrogated about whether he had any connections to Ukraine’s military or the country’s security services.
He was there for about four hours, which he says is considerably less than most men his age because he was travelling with his mother who was a doctor.
Once his parents are settled, he hopes to return to Eastern Ukraine, where he says he will join the fight.
At the hospital in Lviv, Chernichenko isn’t sure what lies ahead for her.
While she is able to walk a short distance on crutches, it will be days if not weeks before she is discharged from the hospital and she knows it will be too unsafe to return to her village in Donetsk.
Her best option now, she says, is to get in touch with a nurse she met on the train to Lviv who gave Chernichenko a number and offered to help take care of her when she is out of the hospital.
“War is the worst thing that can happen in this life,” she said.
“It makes no sense for me to blame anyone. You can only blame one person and it’s [Russia’s] president.”