“Listen to the voice of Mariupol” is a series of stories of people who managed to evacuate from the besieged city of Mariupol. The series continues with our interview with Oleksandr, who worked in the operating room of the Mariupol Regional Hospital, saving the lives of the city’s residents and defenders injured as a result of shelling by the Russian occupiers.
Oleksandr has been working as an anesthesiologist for 11 years. All this time he has been living in Mariupol — the place where he was born, the place where he had his home, his family, his beloved work, and where he planned to spend his entire life. After the invasion by Russian forces, he started his shift at the hospital and proceeded to work in the operating room day and night for over two weeks. His patients included pregnant women who were injured after Russian bombs hit the maternity hospital on March 9.
— On February 24, my wife and I were in Bukovel (a resort in the Carpathian mountains — ed.). After reading the news, we immediately decided to return to Mariupol, where I had my job at the hospital, and where the rest of our family was. On the afternoon of the 25th, we were already at home. The next day I went back to work at the hospital, where I stayed pretty much 24 hours a day, until March 15.
In general, my working days were more or less normal, without taking into account the huge number of injured people (both civilians and military) that we treated. Everything was fine with our electricity supply, since as a rule, hospitals are equipped with autonomous diesel generators. So all the equipment was working in the operating room. Initially, the biggest problem we faced was probably the weather conditions. Most of our windows were shattered and we had to cover them with cardboard and tape. So it was very cold, there was no heating at all at the hospital. On March 2, when the mobile network went down, it got really bad. As well as being unable to get in touch with relatives to check if they were okay, it became difficult to call the emergency services. People could not call them, so the emergency response teams divided the city into sectors which they would patrol, checking for injured people and anyone requiring admission to hospital.
During my shifts at the hospital, I could not communicate with my wife and daughter. Once every three or four days, when there was a let-up in the shelling, I would rush back home. It was around one and a half kilometres from the hospital. So I would quickly come home to hug and kiss my family, then hurry back.
People whose houses had been destroyed were coming to the hospital all the time, seeking shelter. We offered them water, which was brought in by volunteers in the early days, and also food. At first there were not so many people, maybe about 50 or 60. But later the shelling of the city intensified. With each day, the number of destroyed buildings grew; consequently, so did the number of people seeking shelter.
Each day, no less than 20 injured people had surgery at the hospital. There were days when we had to perform operations on up to 30 people. But this was not the total number of injured, not at all. These were only the people who required surgery under anaesthetic. Many more were treated in the hospital admissions department and in smaller operating rooms, without the help of anaesthetists.
At the time, many surgeons, traumatologists, gynaecologists, urologists, radiologists and laboratory technicians were working at the hospital. I think there were 70 to 80 medical personnel in total, maybe even more. We all understood that the war was going on out there, and that we had to help people. This was our one task. We all realised it: if we didn’t do this, no one else would be able to help them.
The most shocking event was the shelling of the maternity hospital. Several expectant mothers with injuries were brought to us. Among them was the woman whose photo was published all over the media. Sadly, she died along with her child. We helped, we tried hard to help her. Her pelvis was completely shattered, she had lost her right leg, and her lower abdomen was wounded. I gave her an anaesthetic, and the surgeons attempted a Caesarean section. According to the protocol, we had to attempt to save the child first, but after the Caesarean section, the child showed no signs of life. Between the moment the woman was admitted to hospital and the moment she was declared dead, no more than two or three hours passed. Regrettably, I don’t know what her name was. Her condition was very serious. She could not tell us her name, and no one was there with her — no family, no friends. That’s why she passed away as “unidentified woman, about 35 years of age”.
There was another story, of a woman in her seventies. She was caught under shelling in the Cheremushky district and sustained a leg injury. Wounded, and in freezing conditions, she had to crawl several kilometres to get to the road. She was found there in the middle of the night by Ukrainian soldiers, who brought her to our hospital. She was drenched and freezing. Her leg, which could not be saved, had to be amputated. The lady survived, but lost her leg and her home.
On March 12, our hospital was captured by the Russian army. I was in the operating room at that time; we were performing a Caesarean section. At some stage, our colleagues entered the room to inform us that the Russian military had arrived. They told us that everyone had been forced to stand against the wall and undress, to check whether they had any tattoos or marks from carrying a rifle or gun (bruises on the shoulders). From that moment until March 15, you could say that I was held captive. Every day we would ask the Russians if we could leave the hospital and go home. Their response was always the same: “Sure, you’re free to go, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be shot on your way home”.
All that time the Russians were shooting at residential buildings from their tanks and armoured vehicles, which they had stationed in the hospital courtyard. When asked why on earth they were doing that, their response was, “There is a chance that Ukrainian forces are hiding there. We’re neutralising them”. They were simply using our hospital as a shield, because they knew that the Ukrainian military would not return fire while they occupied the site. From March 13, the Russians were forcing people out of the basements of demolished buildings and bringing them all to the hospital. All the floors of our 8-storey hospital were full of civilians, many of whom were injured. When those people asked the soldiers, “Why are you doing this to us?” they would give their textbook reply: “We’re liberating you from the Nazis”.
Out of all those Russian soldiers who were at our hospital (during the day there were about 50–60 of them, but by night there were no less than 200–300), I think that no more than 10–15% were professional soldiers. The rest were not professionals – just young boys, or the opposite — old men. I got to speak to one of them, a 19-year-old lad. He was from some small town near Donetsk. He said he’d just gone out to buy bread, when a military car pulled over. He was “drafted”, given a uniform and a rifle, and ordered “to Mariupol”. He had been ordered to keep watch over one of the hospital wards. There was also an old bloke from the “DPR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic” — ed.); he was also from somewhere near Donetsk. A plumber. His story was similar: he’d simply been pushed into a military van, handed a uniform and a gun, and sent to the frontline.
On the morning of March 15, I was examining the children of some civilians who had taken refuge at our hospital. By that time, the other doctors and I had made up our minds — we had to evacuate. If during the first days, as I already mentioned, we were doing 20 to 30 operations daily, from March 12 onwards we could only do 3 to 5 operations per day, 7 at most. And so we realised that it made almost no sense for us, as medical specialists, to stay. So we resolved to flee, one way or another, despite the fact that the Russian troops were threatening us. Later that day, around 11am or midday, we waited for the truck with water and food supplies to arrive at the hospital site. There was always a commotion at this moment, as many civilians would rush out to get water and food. At the very same moment, we simply stepped out of the hospital and hurried home. There were seven of us. We split into two groups. First, two doctors went out. Next was one doctor’s mother, who had also been staying in the hospital, along with that same doctor’s brother, who had been volunteering and helping out there. After 15 or 20 minutes, my group left: I was accompanied by a neurosurgeon and a nurse. On our way we saw a lot of graves in people’s yards, and burnt-out tanks bearing the letter “Z”.
In the morning of March 17, before leaving Mariupol, I decided to visit my father. He lived in another part of the city. My sister was also staying at his place, together with her husband and child, as well as my dad’s partner. On my way there, my car was shot at by Russian soldiers. You can still see bullet holes on the bonnet. I arrived at my dad’s house, but, sadly, did not find him there. He was in hospital. He had a chronic condition and required treatment every other day. A week later, my father died, as dialysis was no longer available at the hospital.
We left for Zaporizhzhia. On the way out of Mariupol there was a long queue of cars. We waited there for about an hour. The Russian soldiers inspected our passports, car registration documents, and luggage. But quite superficially, I should say. The reason for this was the huge media presence at the checkpoint, with a lot of journalists filming. So everyone behaved themselves in front of the cameras. There were a variety of journalists there. There was a correspondent for Deutsche Welle. There were Russian journalists too. The latter had the word “Press” emblazoned on their chests, and patches on their sleeves — either with the Russian flag or that of the “DPR”.
At one of the checkpoints, the soldiers asked, “What have you got?”, and I answered, “Soap”. They demanded that I give it to them. So I gave them our soap and shampoo and moved on. They did not check my phone. We got lucky that time. I cleared its content, of course. All my photos, all the chats — I deleted everything. We were driving in a convoy of 3 vehicles. My family and I were in the first car. In the second car was my colleague, the neurosurgeon, with his wife, also a doctor — a pathologist — and their children. The neurosurgeon’s wife’s parents were in the third car. We were so worried that we could be turned around because we were medics. And yet we decided to answer openly if they asked us who we were. Everyone knew where lying could take us. If we were found to be lying, things would become much worse for us all.
Both of my parents were medics — my mother was a general practitioner and my father was an anaesthetist. So ever since I was a child, I knew that medicine would be my only path. I graduated from university in 2009, then served as an intern for 2 years, and since 2011 I’ve been a certified anaesthetist. That means I’ve been in this trade for 11 years now. All that time I’ve been living and working in my home city of Mariupol. My wife and I really loved our city and never thought of moving anywhere else. We were all born here — me, my wife, our kid. All our life was in Mariupol.
After a short stay in Zaporizhzhia, Oleksandr’s family moved further west, to Lviv. However, as a result of the stress and fear from the endless air raids, they decided to move further away. First, the family travelled to Poland, then to Germany. Oleksandr is not eligible for military service owing to his health conditions and spine problems. He is currently abroad, taking care of his family.
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