Just before the start of Alexandra Rudkovskaya’s shift on Saturday, her mother gave her a big, long hug. The friendly mothers give their children when they do not know when – or even if – they will see them again.
Rudkovskaya, 24, works as a paramedic in Kharkiv – a choice she says leaves her mother “worried to a point of hysteria.”
“She says you have to leave this city, you have to go to a safe place. Why do you have to do this? I only have one child, stop doing this,” Rudkovskaya told CNN.
Just hours after their hug farewell, things of her mother’s nightmare came true when Rudkovskaya and her partner Vladimir Venzel risked their lives to reach an injured patient. CNN was there to witness their bravery.
Kharkiv, located near the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine, was one of the first cities to come under attack when Russia invaded two months ago. It has been under almost constant shelling ever since.
As first aiders in the city, Rudkovskaya and Venzel experience that they run towards danger – even though everyone else is fleeing – on a daily basis.
They know they have to work fast. Russian forces have increasingly terrorized the city with so-called “double-pressure” attacks: hitting a target, waiting a few minutes for the first responders to arrive, and then hitting the same spot again.
As they hear the deep slut from a bombing raid early on their guard Saturday, Rudkovskaya and Venzel are on standby for an emergency call. Moments later, they get one. At least one person has been injured during the shelling.
Rudkovskaya, Venzel and their driver jump into their ambulance and set off. Each has a flat jacket, but they only have one helmet between the three.
Moments after they arrive at the site of the first attack, the whole place begins to shake again. The building next door has been hit. The loud blasts from several explosions are followed by the sound of broken glass.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel know what to do. They run down the darkened entrance and hide at the bottom of the stairwell, waiting for the worst to pass. Venzel tells the CNN team that they should cover their ears and open their mouths to avoid damaging their hearing.
While this is happening, the team is struggling to locate the injured person who they were called to help. Ambulance personnel in Kharkiv rely on mobile phones for communication, but the signals are disturbed when there is a hit – which is often the case.
“We are without connection and they are shooting the shit out of us,” Rudkovskaya says.
When she’s able to get through, she shouts on the phone, “Tell me your damn house number.”
“12G,” says the desperate voice at the other end of the line. “I repeat: 12. Gregory. I have said it to you a thousand times,” says the caller desperately. “The man is dying.”
As a barrage of rockets rains down over the area, the CNN team has no choice but to run for safety. Rudkovskaya and Venzel run inside again.
Moments later, they manage to find the victim, a 73-year-old man who has received grenade wounds and head trauma. The bandages around his head are covered in blood and he gasps as doctors move his arm, but rescue workers say he will survive.
Venzel asks about the pain, but the man only points to his ears. He has become deaf from the explosion and cannot hear. The couple stabilizes him and rushes him to the hospital.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel, 25, work for the Center for Emergency Medical Care and Disaster Medicine in the Kharkiv region.
They say the organization has been extensive since the beginning of the war. Some of its staff chose to leave Kharkiv when the invasion began, and the service has suffered significant material losses in Russian attacks over the past two months.
The center’s director, Victor Zabashta, says 50 of its 250 ambulances are out of service after being hit by shrapnel.
Rudkovskaya and Venzel are stationed in Saltivka, a district on the northeastern outskirts of Kharkiv.
The neighborhood is among the hardest hit in the region and a current target for Russian bombing. many of its apartment buildings, shops and even the local school have been destroyed. Parts of the neighborhood have also been cut off from basic services such as water and electricity.
But despite the hard fighting, many of Saltivka’s residents are determined to stay put. As their neighborhood gets bombed, they sweep up the shards of glass, clean up, and move on with their lives.
Most are elderly and have nowhere else to go, according to ambulance staff.
“When we offer to take them to the hospital or a safe place, they say, ‘We will not go, we will stay here, this is our house.’ “And they stay there. We still have people living in Saltivka, we do not know how,” says Rudkovskaya.
Like many of those they help, the couple is also steep: They go nowhere.
“What else did we spend six years studying for?” says Venzel, who has a two-year-old son. “You feel an obligation to help people left behind here.”
Back at the base later, Rudkovskaya and Venzel continue with their jobs. They are only halfway through a 24-hour shift. The rear window of their ambulance has been blown out by the explosions. They need to clean up the broken glass and get the vehicle ready for their 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 did not understand how to do this work, because they shelled non-stop, and there were a lot of wounded people,” says Rudkovskaya.
“We had a woman with a hole in her chest. And we ran and helped. It was very scary. It was outside, open space, they started firing, and we did not know where to run and what to do, because there is no coverage. ”
There is no room for emotion, says Venzel, one simply has to move on. “When you’re there, in that moment, you have to do what you can. No emotions. You do your job, and that’s it,” he says.
And he says he is determined to keep going. “We keep making our work the last,” he says. “And then also after the war.”