Well-wishers mill around the entrances of the two main hospitals in this city in east-central Ukraine — men who greet friends with hugs and backslaps or share a cigarette, women who arrive to visit the wounded, sorting food parcels and pouring cups of sweet tea.
Inside the two hospitals, one civilian-run and one military, the medical staffs are busy treating dozens of wounded Ukrainian soldiers, casualties of the six-month war with Russian-backed separatist rebels in the restive provinces to the east. As those casualties have mounted, citizens and support groups for wounded soldiers and their families have begun to rally behind their long-neglected, resource-starved army in a rush of patriotic feeling.
According to the support groups’ tally, more than 800 soldiers have been killed in the conflict so far.
“We don’t have an army,” said Andrei Karnysh, a veteran of the border guard and the chairman of a regional support group, who was visiting the wounded in the military hospital. “These boys were sent on buses, with rifles and just 30 bullets each,” Mr. Karnysh said. “No body armor, nothing.”
Soldiers and veterans interviewed say the armed forces are understaffed, undertrained and underequipped as they confront a much bigger and stronger opponent: not the separatist rebels, but the Russian forces behind them, with their superior firepower. The Kremlin denies taking any role in the fighting, but almost every soldier interviewed here spoke of direct encounters with Russian troops.
“They were shooting at us like they were on a firing range,” said Viktor, a reservist with his arm in a sling. He gave only his first name, saying, as most other soldiers did, that identifying himself to a reporter would be against regulations. Viktor said he was wounded Aug. 29 as Ukrainian forces tried to retreat through a prearranged safe corridor, but came under withering fire from Russian troops anyway.
Another soldier, who said he had just returned after four months in the Donetsk region, complained that “there are no supplies in the army.” “There were no good flak jackets, weapons or equipment,” the soldier continued. “We did not see the American supplies that have been given, or medical supplies. It was difficult to get medicine.”