Ukraine: Testimonies from patients and medical staff in the Donetsk region
Aleksander is from Debaltseve, a city of 25,000 people in Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The edge of the city hugs the frontline in the ongoing conflict between Ukrainian and rebel forces. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed on 5 September, people living on the outskirts of the city continue to experience shelling on an almost daily basis. Alexander was wounded on 13 October and is being treated in Svitlodarsk hospital. MSF has been supporting the hospital with urgently needed medical supplies for treating wounded patients. Aleksander is receiving counselling from an MSF psychologist to help him deal with the traumatic experience.
“I’ve lived all my life in Debaltseve. I was a train driver there for 38 years. On the morning of 13 October, I was out in my mother’s yard, cutting the vine branches so we could cover them for winter. My apartment is in the centre of Debaltseve, but my mum lives on the outskirts, in a place that has always been under bombardment.
My mum called me to have breakfast. As I opened the door, a shell dropped just four metres from me. Everything in front of me was swimming. I thought to myself: this is the end. I fell down. I looked down and realised my foot was missing. I was lying on the ground for 30 minutes; it seemed like eternity to me. The sky was blue and I looked up and thought, I want to live. It was getting cold and I was losing blood. The ambulance came and took me to hospital. At first they didn’t want to operate because my condition was so bad. I was dying. The doctors practically pulled me out of hell, not once, but twice. But they had to amputate my leg.
Of course it wasn’t the first time there was shelling. A few weeks before, a shell landed not far from my place. The windows broke. I fixed them and told my mum that it was a warning, that we had to leave this place. Gradually you start forgetting things like that, you get used to the shelling coming from both sides. You can’t be frightened anymore. We used to hide at night in a shed or in the basement at my mum’s place. When there is heavy shelling, you can hear it coming quite close. The windows rattle. We would climb down, lock ourselves in. I had brought down some chairs, water, and even installed some electrics. The sound of shelling was so loud. We were scared. It was not just us; all our neighbours did this as well. Some of them even stayed overnight in their basements.
My mum, she’s 80 years old, is here with me and she is so glad. Not for my grief of course, but because she doesn’t have to hear the bombings anymore. It really made her blood boil. My uncle was living in Popasnaya, but they couldn’t stand it anymore. They are retired, much older than me. There is a basement at the school where they stayed for two months. Two months! They would leave just to buy something to eat and then return to the basement. They ended up with heart problems. They locked up everything and left for Russia.
It’s unlikely I’ll move back to Debaltseve. I’ve found a flat here to rent so we’ll stay for another month after I leave the hospital next week. I’m going to try walking with the crutches and after that, well, I’d like to have a prosthetic leg so I can be a full member of society.
On one hand, I’d like to have my leg back, but on the other, what a happy man I am to have my eyes, my ears. And I’m getting better. When I came here I was a goner. Now I can move my hand, the pain is not as excruciating. Three weeks after it happened, I even manage to smile now.”
Svetlana is from Debaltseve, a city of 25,000 people in Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The edge of the city hugs the frontline in the ongoing conflict between Ukrainian and rebel forces. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed on 5 September, people living on the outskirts of the city continue to experience shelling on an almost daily basis. Svetlana is receiving counselling from an MSF psychologist.
“I was in the yard with my husband when the shelling came. We had heard shelling before, but never this close. An artillery shell hit very close by. My husband was very badly wounded. Some shrapnel went into my legs and my chest. I still have a piece of metal lodged between my ribs. I called for an ambulance, but they said it was too dangerous. They never came. My husband was a firefighter so I called the fire brigade. We waited two hours and eventually they arrived. But it was too late for my husband, he died in the yard.
I’ve been staying at this hospital in Svitlodarsk for two months with my five-year-old daughter because we have nowhere else to go. I’m too afraid to go back to Debaltseve. Where would I go? There is still shelling. The houses have no windows. My biggest struggle is finances. If I had some money I would leave here.
Now I hear explosions when there aren’t any. When my daughter hears an explosion, she asks “is that a grad or a shell?”. Is that normal for a five year old? I haven’t told her yet that her father has died. I tell her he is away saving lives. I just want everything to be fair. But here, you can’t find fairness.”
Andrey & Ilya
Andrey is from Donetsk, one of the most heavily contested cities in eastern Ukraine. He left his home with his wife and son four months ago as the fighting intensified and they took refuge at a sanatorium in Svyatogorsk, 150 km away. His son, Ilya, 14, has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. He’s receiving counselling from an MSF psychologist once a week to support him through this very difficult period.
“We decided not to sit and wait in Donetsk until the fighting became too ‘hot’. Ilya is in a wheelchair so we couldn’t take him down to the basement if there was shelling. We had no other option than to come here.
We left at the beginning of summer and didn’t know how long we would be leaving for. We haven’t been back since. The main reason for staying here is my son. But I never considered going back to Donetsk because as a man, I could be expected to fight. I don’t see any sense to be on either side.
My parents are still in Donetsk. I try to speak with them every day, as long as the phone network works. They live very close to the frontline. It's one thing to hear about the shelling on the phone and another thing to see it on TV, but then when you know these people…..
Ilya needs to take medicine regularly and MSF helped us by providing it. The biggest difficulty for him is that he can’t do the physical exercises he needs to do here. We need special equipment, but we had to leave everything at home, including the walking frame. And there’s nothing like that here.
I lost my job in May because of the conflict so the only income we have is Ilya’s disability benefit. No one here has received the government benefit for displaced people, although many people have applied.
We won't go back to Donetsk until they stop shelling, until the end of the conflict. But eventually we want to return because our home is there. Everything is undecided for now.”
Reva is a nurse at a hospital in Debaltseve, a city of 25,000 people in Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The hospital is on the edge of the city, around three kilometres from the frontline, and has come under bombardment and been heavily damaged. MSF has been supporting the hospital with urgently needed medical supplies and recently delivered hundreds of warm blankets for patients ahead of the harsh winter.
“I’ve been a nurse at this hospital for 26 years. In July, the hospital was shelled. We were evacuated on 24 July and returned ten days later to find the hospital in a terrible condition. It was destroyed, completely ruined, there was broken glass everywhere. A shell had come through the roof directly into the operating theatre and completely destroyed it. It’s still being repaired. We tried to clean the hospital up; we covered the window panes with plastic first and then later with plywood. We won’t repair the windows properly, first because glass is too expensive, and second because we know the shelling will come again and we’ll just have to replace everything again.
Without windows, it’s extremely cold, unbearably cold. We can’t work in these conditions. We can’t even examine patients properly because they can’t take their clothes off. People come to the hospital now only if it’s an emergency, only in extreme cases. There are very few admissions as many people have left the city. Our lab is not fully functional so we can’t do all the lab work. We’re working half-days because of the military activities, particularly the bombardment that continues nearby.
People are afraid of going out. They leave their apartments only if it’s urgent. The immediate future holds nothing for us, no prospects. People just leave. They leave everything behind – jobs, apartments. They go to nowhere.
I have no intention to leave because I have nowhere to go. I’ve lived in Debaltseve all my life. This is my home. If you want to leave, you need money and somebody to go to. I don’t have any money, or relatives abroad. My only sister lives in an area that is under heavy bombardment. So I’m staying, despite the appalling conditions.”
Dr Ganich is a surgeon at a hospital in Svitlodarsk in Donetsk region. The hospital received more than a hundred wounded patients during the conflict, the majority of whom came from the nearby town of Debaltseve, 20 kilometres away on the frontline. MSF has been supporting the hospital with urgently needed medical supplies for treating wounded patients. MSF psychologists are also providing counselling to patients who have suffered traumatic events and are also running a psychological training program for the doctors and nurses in the hospital.
“We have only two surgeons and one anaethetist here. When the heavy bombardment started in Debaltseve [20kms away], us doctors were uncomfortable because we had to treat patients with war injuries - gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Before the conflict, it was peaceful here, so we never had reason to treat these types of injuries before. So of course we were a bit inexperienced, but we have developed a lot.
MSF provided us with the supplies that we really needed to treat wounded patients. It was really helpful and there were many people who were treated successfully and discharged. The biggest difficulty we faced was treating very badly injured people, particularly children. We didn’t manage to save everyone.
Yesterday on my night shift I heard explosions. The shelling was coming closer and closer. People are talking about coming attacks. I think they will come. We are tense and afraid. I think there is no end in sight.
We are always on guard, we’re ready to receive more wounded. It’s all unpredictable and the fighting can start again at any time. It’s difficult, but we manage. Now, we have all the medicine we need, we’re ready to help.”