A paramedic’s close brush with death. He was struck by shrapnel from a Russian rocket in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine’s most viciously contested town. And survived.

18 April 2023 By Paul Martin


A woman was lying bleeding heavily on the road at a bus station in Bakhmut, the centre of an epic ongoing battle for control of an already largely-devastated town in eastern Ukraine. She had been hit by artillery an hour earlier.   

Maksym Vainer, a 29-year-old paramedic, was scanning the skies for any incoming artillery or missiles as he and four other rescue team members from Global Outreach Doctors tried to save her life — a rescue mission of the type they had conducted with enormous bravery dozens of times.  They had arrived a minute earlier.  

“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,” Maksym told Correspondent.World. “I scanned all around and I heard and saw nothing.”  

But a Russian Cornet rocket was on its way.  It smashed into the Mercedes Benz alongside him, killing his colleague, American Peter Reed.  

“I was knocked over by the explosion wave and lost consciousness – briefly.  The bleeding woman and another man, both injured in the previous hit, were also dead,” recalls Maksym, but he and three of the rescuers were still alive.  “It was a life-or-death situation — just a matter of luck who lived and who did not,” Maksym continued.  

“My left leg, penetrated by shrapnel, was broken and bleeding but adrenalin allowed me somehow to run to the second rescue car.  The pain only came later.”

Knowing more rockets would likely be coming in, Maksym took command of the effort to escape, though he was himself disoriented and his hearing muffled by the blast.  An Australian volunteer who had driven the rescuers’ second Mercedes was in a state of shock.  

Colleagues Ray and  Roman realised that Reed was dead, but they had no time to get his trapped body out of the wrecked vehicle, nor to collect the two local people’s dead bodies.  

The rescuers’ van snaked through rubble-strewn streets to the relative safety of a Ukrainian checkpoint on the outskirts of Bakhmut,. Maksym was triaged and eventually taken to a hospital in the city of Dnipro.  

He was just one of thousands of fighters and civilians injured or killed in this months-long 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 semblance of decisive success for either side.

During his recovery, Maksym was visited in hospital by Peter Reed’s widow. 

He recalls that as he reached the safety of the hospital he had wanted to speak to his family. But the bag containing his mobile phone had been inside the destroyed vehicle alongside Reed.  “Fortunately other members of our rescue team came to visit me the day after and had found my second mobile phone at our HQ in Kramatorsk.”  

Maksym’s parents, who live in Upper Nazareth in Israel, now renamed Nof Ha’Galil, had seen reports of Reed’s death, but did not know their son was working on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine, “though they may have guessed”.  Fortunately, Maksym says, no-one had given his name to reporters. 

The Vainer family had moved from Ukraine to Israel in 2006, largely because Maksym’s father was a highly skilled engineer who could easily find a job.

On the day the war broke out (February 26 2022) Maksym was in Ukraine to look after his grandmother in their home city of Zaporizhzhia, which is situated close to Russian frontlines in Ukraine’s south — not far from Dnipro. He had “paused” his degree course at the Technion in Haifa, where he was studying for a Masters degree in Applied Mathematics, and had immediately volunteered as a frontline medic, though he rapidly learned the arts of rescue and survival through practical experience.

Six weeks after his brush with death, Maksym told Correspondent. World that the broken bone in his leg has largely knitted together, but the flesh wound is still “nasty and large”.  His hearing in one ear is coming back. 

Though not fully recovered, he is already doing “tons of work” co-ordinating further rescue and paramedic activity — for the time being from his laptop computer.  “I am still deciding whether I will resume going to the frontlines, but I expect I will.  

“There is no sign of this war ending soon,” he tells Correspondent.World.  “It pains me to say this but — as much as I don’t want to admit it — there will probably realistically end with some sort of a stalemate.”

At least until  hostilities cease Maksym says he is determined to continue working for GoDocs, exposing himself to the risks inherent in the humanitarian aid efforts in Ukraine.  “I will stay here for as long as the war lasts.  I still feel mentally strong. One thing is for sure, I will never live under Russian rule.”

His home city is still held by Ukrainian forces, but, he points out, the province of Zaporizhzhia is sixty percent occupied by Russian soldiers.   He is concerned that the Russian-occupied nuclear plant, said to be the largest in Europe, may malfunction and leak out nuclear material, or worse.  

“Ukrainian workers and engineers there are heroes held hostage by the Russian aggressors.  But there is only so much these human beings can endure, especially mentally, and they will become more prone to make mistakes due to illness or mental and physical exhaustion.”

Maksym grapples with the memories of what he has seen during the war already — and not just on the frontlines.  In the early stages of the war his organisation had helped bring civilians out of Mariupol as it was being pummelled by the Russians.  He recalls:  “I met refugees with very shocking stories. 

“In late March 2022 when Mariupol was still contested, a woman in her late 20s reached our hub where we were helping  fleeing people.    She and her six-year old son had been walking with her 65-year-old father. He had a heart problem exacerbated by the tension and the conflict, and died on this journey.  The only thing she could do was to bury her father in a very shallow pit in the ground. She had to keep fleeing towards safety with her small child.  

“I still wonder: When will she be able to find her father’s grave?” 

Though he says the war is the responsibility of the Russian regime, he also blames the majority of Russians for what he sees as their complicity in and support of the aggression.

“Russian people as a whole are willing to do this and are for this.  It’s a misconception in the West that they are hostages to the Putin regime,” he tells Correspondent.World. “No no, Putin is the provider of the will of the common Russian folk for this type of activity. Lots of them don’t even consider that Ukrainian people exist.  They see our people only as Russians living here.  They don’t care.  Also they listen to and watch mass media propaganda dictating what to think. Nothing has changed from the days of Goebbels.

But he says much of it stems from ignorance rather than outright malice. “They have no comparison to make — the majority of Russians have never been abroad. So it’s easy to believe in the fake grandness of the former Soviet or Russian empires.” 

Maksym concludes: “I don’t want hellish torture for the Russian people.  But the suffering they inflict on others is at another level.

“It’s so shocking to see all this barbarity in the 21st century.”