Ukraine: The overwhelming distress of Debaltseve’s residents

Two weeks after the fighting ended in the bitterly-disputed eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, people are still living in shelters and basements. These Debaltseve residents stayed because they are the most fragile and disadvantaged or because they were trapped by the bombing. A Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team arrived in Debaltseve to provide drugs and medical supplies on 21 February, three days after the rebels took the city. The team continues to evaluate needs and provide medical consultations.

Between 200-300 people were living in a huge shelter in an outlying neighborhood of Debaltseve, known for its fairly modern buildings. Some of them left, but others, in a state of resignation, are still there. If it weren’t for the darkness and the carefully arranged beds and chairs, this Soviet-era relic could be an underground garage. A young blond woman is panicked by the notion of leaving. On the other hand, children are playing outside in the sunshine.

“All the windows in my apartment are broken,” says a 69 year-old woman, who is living in a shelter in the center of the city, in the basement of a government building. “It is too cold there. I’m not moving from here until there is electricity and I can cook food.”

There is no electricity and no running water. People have to get water from wells. The people who have stayed in Debaltseve need everything. One woman, the mother of a six year old girl, explains that she used to live in Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine. Her house burned, she came here, and the house where she was living in Debaltseve also burned. “All that’s left is what we have on our backs,” she says.

The city had two hospitals where clinics had been located. However, the Railway hospital, where 30 doctors used to work, is now a battlefield. An abandoned tank sits at one of the building’s entries. Some 20 people have taken refuge in this hospital.

“I don’t see many people in the neighborhoods where I go to visit patients,” says Dr. Maurice Negre, an MSF doctor. “It seems as though people are hiding at home because when I go to see a patient who has difficulty moving, suddenly there’s a whole crowd.” A count of invalids and the bedridden has begun so that they can receive aid. The new authorities want to deliver food to them.

“I saw a very difficult case,” Dr. Negre says. “This was a 26 year-old man with muscular dystrophy. His legs are twisted and he cannot extend them.” Alexei lives with his mother, who cares for him. The house next to theirs was completely destroyed. They do not have a wheelchair and his mother could not move him to take shelter from the bombing.

People who live in houses have coal stoves that provide good heat. However, there is no heat in the large buildings and temperatures have dropped to freezing. The Central hospital - which was not damaged as extensively as the Railway hospital - is freezing. Exploding shells blew out the windows. However, the head doctor, Valery Loutsenko, is still there. He is determined to bring the hospital back into operation. He has just set up two wards on the ground-floor, each with five beds, in a wing of the building where the windows did not explode. Two coal stoves were installed in the hall.

The MSF team is evaluating emergency needs there to determine what kind of help it can provide. Initially, that could involve mattresses, as all of the hospitals are soaked. Drugs and medical kits can follow, along with coal stoves to heat the interior and logistical help to supply drinking water.

A medical station was set up in the center of the city in a small room of a government building. Two doctors see patients there. A nurse provides medicine for them or their relatives, particularly to treat chronic illnesses.

Several doctors are also expected to arrive from Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine. However, their arrival will not begin to meet the needs of a population estimated at more than 5,000. Most of them have been traumatized by the bombing. Several worried patients ask the same question – “It’s not going to start again, is it?”.