Ukraine hospital’s staff fight dark memories of occupation

IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — Doctors prepare for cold days in the basement. They have already spent four months in operations there this year, from the start of the war well into the Russian occupation of Izium.

In any case, they can expect the generator to have a steady supply of fuel, even if it’s no match for the winter air coming through the glassless windows and collapsed walls of a hospital on a hill in northeastern Ukraine.

This hospital was the only medical facility to remain open when Russian forces overran Izium in early March, not long after the invasion of Ukraine. The city returned to Ukrainian hands last month in a counter-offensive that dealt a blow to Moscow’s war targets and military prestige.

The signs around the entire hospital complex that warn of mines disappear one by one as Ukrainian sappers painstakingly clear every patch of earth. The scars from what happened here, from the buildings and from the people who gave and received care will take much longer to heal.

The dead were collected in the morgue, which is without power and where the stench is strong but not deadly. Autopsies were impossible then and still are; the staff of three is about to quit because it just doesn’t make sense anymore.

The dead need less electricity than the living. In addition, the shadows in the morgue mask the holes in the ceiling from the bullets of the Chechen soldier that pierced the neck and stomach of a pathologist, who bled to death in front of his colleagues.

On the other side of the hospital grounds is the ambulance station, also without power. The chief paramedic has a hard time bringing himself to talk about the six months under Russian occupation when each day brought new terrors.

Abandoned is the shattered center building that served as a Russian military hospital. There are empty liquor bottles strewn with encouraging children’s drawings. Stained uniforms are scattered on the floor and bloodied stretchers lean against the walls.

The handful of doctors, nurses, paramedics and pathologists who stayed during the occupation found ways to accommodate the Russians in their midst, seeing themselves as the only hope of saving lives in a city. quickly filled with the sick and wounded.

Serhiy Botsman bitterly wants to forget those days, his worst as a paramedic. As a small cat wraps around his ankles, his gaze sharpens at the memory of a woman screaming as she lies helplessly beneath two bodies. Her injuries would eventually cost her leg — an amputation performed in the basement surgery.

But at least she survived. Botsman’s inner eye settles on the spilled entrails of a 6-year-old boy, who begged him to help his mother. Neither mother nor son survived the day.

“No one is willing to come and relieve us,” he said. “I am tired. I am so tired. For seven months no one has come to take our place. And how could I leave, knowing that no one will come to help us?”

The morgue staff had a role to play when medical training failed to ensure the dead were not forgotten in a city where so many of their friends and family had fled, where a mass grave was marked with numbers, not names. .

dr. Yurii Kuznetsov, a trauma surgeon, also struggles with his memories. He saw wounds from bombs, bullets and shrapnel, and people who came to ask for help with injuries refused to explain, but that seemed like torture.

“It’s like a sniper when he’s asked if he can see in his dreams all those people he’s knocked out. You can go crazy that way,’ he said, as the dark circles under his eyes deepened. He doesn’t have an intact house to return to – the bombs took care of that.

Until July, Kuznetsov simply lived in the basement of the hospital. Two stretchers on wheels and a low bed served as operating tables. The room was so cold that “to inject the solutions, we had to warm them up against our bodies,” he recalls. The electrician who managed to keep the light on with a diesel generator was just as important as the surgeon in the tenuous environment.

“We’ve all been terribly depressed at one time or another. We cried, cursed. We didn’t want to do anything,” Kuznetsov said. “With every saved person, with every saved life, the confidence (to be right) to have stayed here. … We were convinced that it was not all in vain.”

As the bombing subsided and Russian forces gained a firm grip on Izium, he found a makeshift house outside the hospital complex and moved operations to the ground floor.

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He still works there, in the only wing with reasonably solid walls and intact windows. If the thermometer dips below freezing, it expects to move everything back to the basement, where the temperature is cold but stable.

The memory of Fedir Zdebskyi’s death haunts hospital staff who survived the Russian occupation. Zdebskyi was a dedicated pathologist who refused to let his prosthetic leg slow him down, according to Valentyna Bachanova, a colleague who witnessed his death.

Zdebskyi regularly drove his Volkswagen through the bumpy hospital grounds to reach the morgue and catalog the dead, despite the war raging nearby, Bachanova said. One day, a Chechen soldier decided he wanted the car for himself, and refused Zdebskyi’s offer to drive it.

“Because of you I sleep on the damp ground,” said the soldier.

Zdebskyi lost his temper after a brief back and forth with the soldier, who identified himself as Ahmed and said he had been at war for all of his 26 years.

“It’s your fault you came here. You came to my country; you came here to kill and rob,” the pathologist said, according to Bachanova and another colleague in the room.

The last words he heard were from the Chechens: “Your life is still in my hands.” And then five shots – two in the head, two in the stomach and one in the ceiling. Zdebskyi was 70 years old.

The last the witnesses heard of his death was that his body had crossed the border to Belgorod, in Russia. The soldier’s commanding officer came to take their statements, but otherwise they do not know what happened to the man who killed Zdebskyi.

They knew their colleague.

“He was always concerned. People died, but he cared about their children, relatives, mothers. He always said, “This is someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband,” Bachanova said with a deep sigh. “Of course there’s no point in trying to prove anything to a man with a gun.”

____

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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