In Ukrainian towns and villages that fall in the hands of the Russian army, the top priority right now is to evacuate the living, especially the injured, so they can be treated. The dead can wait. Vasil, 63, has managed to save his life, but not his right leg. He says that on the night of March 16 to 17, invading soldiers ordered a group of men to line up quickly outside the house where they’d been sheltering, and that he was shot in cold blood in the shinbone because he was too slow. It was two days before he was transferred from Bohdanivka to the hospital in Brovary, east of Kyiv, even though it is a mere 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
“I’ve been in the profession for over 20 years and I had not seen the kind of damage I have seen in recent days,” says Volodimir Andriiets, 44, the deputy director of the medical center. Time seems to have stood still inside this building, which is decorated with plants, furniture, crocheted tabletops and telephones that seem right out of a museum. Medical equipment, however, is nowhere to be seen. Even so, some of the interviewees, including Vasil, admit that being brought here has given them a new lease on life, even if in his case it means walking with a pair of crutches that are now resting against his bed.
This hospital is currently caring for 28 wounded civilians who were brought in from various locations around Brovary. The east bank of the Dnipro, a river that flows through a large portion of Ukraine’s territory, is these days the site of fighting between the Ukrainian and Russian armies for control of the capital.
Zina, 62, has nursing experience and it is she who is making sure that her husband gets his medication through the drip before feeding him some soup. Vasil’s story is very similar to that of other people who have managed to flee these villages outside Kyiv, but is is somehow unsettling to see him talk about it so matter-of-factly, his leg stump resting on the bed.
It was one hour after midnight when it happened. Around 20 local residents were hiding together inside a house. “They came to the house and an officer said the men had 10 seconds to line up in front of him. I was late and he shot me in the leg. He also wanted to shoot me in the other leg, and I said: ‘Well shoot, then.’ But they left,” recalls Vasil.
“We put on the bandages. We had antibiotics and painkillers, and we applied a tourniquet. We were not able to save the leg, but we saved his life,” she says, sitting on the bed next to his. Zina says that even the Russian soldiers who were there “understood that their officer was not right in the head” and allowed them to leave for a nearby village. Aleksandr, Vasil’s son-in-law, was also forced to flee with his wife and children. He says that in his neighborhood alone they’ve already buried two residents whose bodies were lying on the street, and that there are three more corpses waiting to be collected.
Bohdanivka, located around 50 kilometers from the center of Kyiv, had been under Russian control for days, but the troops were having trouble advancing towards the capital and they were low on supplies. Residents who fled for Brovary recount scenes of looting and abuse. Vasil, a retired construction worker, remembers it as though it were a movie that he experienced in the first person: “Near each house there was a tank or two, armored vehicles to transport personnel and equipment. We were very scared. They had occupied all our homes and they were keeping their equipment in our yards. They were breaking things, destroying things, stealing things. They stole all the men’s clothes and the women’s as well. They took the appliances.” Zina adds that the Russian soldiers took all the gold they could find and all the food in the refrigerators. “They took the children’s bicycles, the scooters,” she recalls.
The Russian troops took the children’s bicyclesVasil, a retired construction worker
There are no chaotic scenes at the hospital. The wounded are brought in regularly, but there is no wild racing around. The deputy director notes that in recent days, coinciding with the retreat of Russian troops, they’ve been getting no more than four or five civilian patients a day.
Yuri, 47, is recovering inside another room. He was part of a civilian defense group in the town of Dimerka. He points to his leg and belly, which were hit by fragments from a cluster bomb, a type of weapon that’s been banned by over 100 countries but not Russia. Yuri was injured on March 8 and underwent surgery as soon as he arrived at the hospital in Brovary.
“I was running from my house to the shelter, and was hit by a fragment of the projectile on my way there,” he explains. “The cluster bomb swept through the entire village and fell on one of the houses, which burned down. But the fragments flew out and exploded in all directions. At first I didn’t realize I was hurt. I felt something, but I thought it might have been the shock wave. Later I felt ill and saw there was a hole in my belly.”
Zina, Vasil’s wife – who is also undergoing treatment for a colon condition – says everyone wants the Russians to go away. “We want them to leave, for the very last one of them to leave,” she says angrily. “I want all of Europe to know what kind of army they are. It’s not an army, they’re a bunch of tramps. And they dress worse than tramps: they haven’t showered for two months, they are dirty and greasy and they have no clothes of their own, they are wearing our clothes.”