A Ukrainian-Israeli paramedic who barely escaped with his life in a deadly Russian missile attack that killed an American colleague in February has spoken to the JC about his ordeal — and his determination to resume his life-saving work.
Maksym Vainer, 29, who emigrated to Israel with his parents from Ukraine in 2006, was badly injured and spent six weeks recovering in hospital in Dnipro.
“It was a life or death situation — just a matter of luck who lived and who died,” he told the JC.
“My left leg, penetrated by shrapnel, was broken and bleeding, but adrenaline allowed me somehow to run to a rescue car. The pain only came later.”
He was one of a team of five from Global Outreach Doctors (GoDocs), a US NGO, who had raced to help a group of people reported seriously injured by Russian artillery inside Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, the scene of intense fighting for months.
Vainer scanned the skies for any incoming artillery or missiles as he and the four other rescuers tried to save a badly wounded woman’s life.
“We knew the pattern. The Russians shell once, see what happens, like a rescue effort, via a reconnaissance drone or binoculars, then they strike again,” he said. “I scanned all around but heard and saw nothing.”
However, a Russian Kornet rocket was on its way. It smashed into his Mercedes-Benz van, killing his colleague, former US Marine Peter Reed. “I was knocked over by the explosion’s blast-wave and lost consciousness, briefly.
The woman and another man injured in the previous hit were also dead,” recalled Vainer, but two rescuers plus him were still alive.
Knowing more rockets would probably be coming in, he took command of the effort to escape, though he was disoriented and his hearing was muffled by the blast.
An Australian volunteer who had driven the rescuers’ second Mercedes was in a state of shock. They had no time to get Reed’s trapped body out of the wrecked vehicle, nor to collect the other bodies.
They snaked through rubble-strewn streets to the relative safety of a Ukrainian checkpoint.
The broken bone in his leg has largely knitted together, but the flesh wound is still “nasty and large”.
His hearing, damaged in one ear, is slowly coming back, and he is out of hospital.
He is already co-ordinating further rescue and paramedic activity from his laptop. “I am still deciding whether I will resume going to the frontlines, but I expect I will.”
He recalled that as he reached the safety of the hospital, he had wanted to speak to his family in northern Israel, but his bag, containing his mobile phone, had been inside the destroyed vehicle alongside Reed.
“Fortunately, other members of our team came to visit me the day after and had found my second mobile phone at our HQ in Kramatorsk.”
During his recovery, Vainer was visited in hospital by Reed’s widow.
His parents, who live in Upper Nazareth, now renamed Nof Ha’Galil, had seen reports of Reed’s death, but Vainer had never told them he was working on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine, “though they may have guessed”.
Fortunately, he says, no one had given his name to reporters.
When the war broke out in February last year Vainer had been in Ukraine to look after his grandmother in their home city of Zaporizhzhia, in Ukraine’s south not far from Dnipro.
He immediately “paused” his degree course at the Technion in Haifa, where he was studying applied mathematics, and volunteered as a frontline medic, though he had to learn paramedic skills in the field.
Vainer is just one of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians injured or killed in the attritional street-by-street battle for Bakhmut. It has come to symbolise the senseless and vicious nature of a war where there is so far no sign of decisive success for either side.
“There is no indication that this war will stop soon,” he told the JC. “It pains me to say this but, as much as I don’t want to admit it, it will probably end in some sort of a stalemate.”
Meanwhile, he said, “I will stay here for as long as the war lasts. I still feel mentally strong.”
Although he said the war is the responsibility of the Russian regime, he also blames the majority of Russians for their support of the invasion.
“I don’t want hellish torture for the Russian people,” he said. “But the suffering they inflict on others is at another level.
“One thing is for sure: I will never live under Russian rule.”