PISKY, Ukraine: Dressed in camouflage shorts and with her short hair dyed bright red, Nika looks more like a rock fan than a nurse at a makeshift Ukrainian hospital.
But the 21-year-old medical student has seen many people killed in recent months, despite an internationally-brokered truce declared in February.
At the half-destroyed house serving as a “hospital” in Pisky, on the front line of heavy fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, one soldier shows her a bloodied hand.
“Follow me into the operating room,” she smiles at him, heading into the shelter.
With a red cross drawn on the metal door, its operating bed is merely a table covered with a sterilized towel.
The scene unfolds in the yard of the abandoned house in a ghost village held by Ukrainian troops, near the ruins of Donetsk airport, where the bombing never stopped despite the ceasefire.
Nika, a student in Drogobych, a small town in the traditionally more nationalist west of Ukraine, decided to take a year off her studies and arrived in Pisky in March.
Her reason for coming is simple: “The patriots are fighting here. I am also a patriot.”
These days Nika goes by the nom de guerre of “Koza”, the Ukranian word for goat.
Her mission, she says, is to provide first aid where there are battles, then to help transport the injured to hospital.
“On the front line, there’s no need for surgeons — they can’t work in such conditions. But first aid is very important,” she explains.
Nika remembers her first days at the front as a “crazy” baptism of fire.
“There were several people injured every day. They’d been hit by bullets, by shrapnel. I stopped the bleeding, put the wounded on a drip, and gave out medication.”
She adds calmly: “Half of them did not survive.”
Despite the display of self-control, Nika appears to have been badly affected by this experience.
“Being a soldier is much easier than being a doctor. The soldiers are not responsible for the death of others. I want to be a soldier,” she says.
Despite being only 19, Alya, another volunteer nurse in Pisky, has much more experience than Nika — and her views are very different.
“I don’t intend to take up arms,” says the smiling teenager, dressed in camouflage and full make-up.
“Men will always protect a girl during fighting — and I don’t want to put anyone in danger. I want to help.”
Her red ambulance is parked near a Ukrainian army position on the outskirts of Pisky, under a half-built bridge.
She took part in the evacuation of wounded soldiers from Donetsk airport in January, when Ukrainian troops finally abandoned it after months of nearly-uninterrupted fighting with the rebels.
A year earlier Alya, a language student, had treated the wounded from Kiev’s central square, where dozens of pro-European protesters were shot dead by the police in the final hours of Ukraine’s Russian-backed presidency.
She then began attending medical courses organised by international NGOs before ending up in the east, where the near 14-month separatist conflict has claimed more than 6,400 lives.
“I am here because of the guys who need help. There are few doctors who are ready to work under bombs. I am ready,” she says.