The fear of the people with disabilities shows on their faces as they are lifted out of their wheelchairs to be laid on a stretcher. It’s not even about the ongoing war, but about the complete disruption of their daily routine. Ukrainian Red Cross volunteers and nurses try to reassure them as best they can, but nothing works.
Then, once lying on the stretcher and on the way to the ambulance, the inpatients look around bewildered as if they are being sent to the gallows. Nurses often run after the gurneys to deliver some forgotten personal effects and to bid a final farewell to those leaving; or the volunteers themselves go searching for hospital staff to be able to connect the patient with an ID, a name.
Evacuations of hospitals are commonplace in Ukrainian cities near the front, and Kherson is no exception. Not only for security reasons. On Dec. 4, for example, the maternity ward of one of the city hospitals was hit, but fortunately there were no casualties.
The main reason is that at the moment there is a lack of electricity, or, in the best case, continuous supply cannot be guaranteed. So there is not only a risk that medical devices will stop, but that a bombing could hit the area and also make evacuation impossible.
When that happens, with no power and no outside help, the death toll from a bombing increases exponentially.
That’s why rescuers are leaving very early in the morning to reach hospitals in the province, as they did on Dec. 4 in Komyshany, northwest of Kherson. The roads are bad, many bridges are broken, you have to take detours where the mud forces you to slow down and pay attention to every puddle if you don’t want to break the suspension and get bogged down.
When you arrive, there is little time, first because of the risk of an attack that would block the operation, and second because you have to reach the other health facilities in areas considered less at risk. Last week’s convoy, for example, first had to travel three hours to a town in the northern part of Mykolaiv, get off in Odessa, and then return toward Kherson.
It’s a full day’s journey from one hospital to another, to retrieve those who are no strangers to suffering and bring them somewhere safer. On these journeys, patients often cry, become agitated and scream, demanding explanations. But the Red Cross volunteers we have seen so far all have a special gift: they are able to convey calm.
At least that is what one can see in the face of Yelena, suffering from a severe syndrome, who for more than two hours has never let go of the hand of Sergey, a young man from Kherson who on February 28 just managed to escape the Russian occupation and has been volunteering ever since.
I thought they knew each other, judging by how tenderly Sergey was holding the girl’s hand, how he wiped the saliva under her chin from time to time and wiped away the tears of fear that welled up in the corners of her eyes again and again.
Yelena looked at me and my two colleagues, dressed in black bulletproof vests, standing close to her and trying hard to stay balanced and avoiding breaking our necks, and then turned to Sergey, who smiled at her soothingly, calming her down. But when I asked him how he knew her, Sergey denied it: “This is the first time I’ve seen her,” he told me.
As I looked at him, I wanted to pay him compliments, to tell him he was a wonderful person, a hero even. I wanted to say some words to express gratitude for what he was doing at that moment, on behalf of all humankind. Then another tear fell from Yelena’s eyes and that impulse seemed to make no sense anymore, giving way only to a great sense of inadequacy.
What’s the point of telling this story? Who’s interested in the news that a neuropsychiatric hospital near a city that has unwillingly become one of the symbols of this war has been evacuated, when there are thousands of civilians fleeing every day?
To tell the truth, the volunteers who had granted us permission to follow them had not specified what kind of health facility this was, otherwise I’m not even sure we would have been interested. Many of these people haven’t spoken a word their entire lives, so how do we get a story from that?
Anything can happen during evacuations: someone can try to board the relief vehicles to escape, civilian cars and minivans can queue up behind the “emergency transport” to get through the checkpoints quickly and smoothly, the convoys themselves can be attacked or an accident can block the route.
The Red Cross and most other organizations that provide medical care in war scenarios cannot allow civilians to come with them. It is against regulations, against safety rules, against government provisions – in short, it’s not possible unless you go through unofficial channels.
After all, even when it’s an organized operation, anything can happen. The day before, a few kilometers from Kherson, a convoy had passed through an artillery exchange and some shells fell just a few meters from the road. The drivers were forced to reverse course and return to town.
Last Sunday, on the other hand, everything went well, and once again one can think that there are those who are worse off. There are the Kyiv civilians in the subways, but all in all the capital has not been bombed as much; there is Zaporizhzhia, but Crimea was also hit Saturday and a Russian barracks burned for hours, leaving countless dead; there is Kherson, which now has to defend Mykolaiv, but Mykolaiv for months has been the designated martyr bearing the brunt of the defense of Odessa.
And then there are the civilians freezing, without water or food. Those in Bakhmut, who were hit again on Dec. 4, in a city nearly wiped off the face of the earth; and those in the Donbass, who have been used to it for eight years.
But when it comes to those who are completely defenseless, including physically, those who could not (even if they wanted to) put into practice that spirit of adaptation we have talked about so many times, what is left? Nothing more than a hand held tightly and a napkin wiping away tears and saliva.