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A Russian tank shot out our department of neurosurgery
Alina Buzunar, head of the department of telemedicine at the regional hospital
The arrow indicates the house where Alina lived with her son
On the 24th I woke up at 4 am because of two powerful explosions close to home. I figured that the war had started although it was hard to believe that. I packed documents and money into a backpack, grabbed my 14 year old son and the cat, and headed to work. For a few hours it was relatively quiet, but at 8:15 the shelling started again and did not stop since.

We lived and worked at the hospital and slept on chairs

At first we thought that it would be over soon and waited for the negotiations. Everyone remembered 2014 and hoped that the war would be over in a week or two. But the negotiations came to nothing, and on March 2nd the Internet, power, gas, water were all cut off. Sometimes someone would manage to get reception and hope would spring again: there would be another round of negotiations, and then another one. The battles were intensifying and getting closer. There were houses hit; many wounded civilians came in with shrapnel wounds — I worked in the emergency clinic since the first day. We stopped waiting for a miracle; also it was no longer possible to get out of the city: they were shooting on all roads. So we kept working at the hospital, and slept there on the chairs, in the hallway of the admin building. It seemed like the rule of two walls was followed, and the walls were load bearing. Some came with relatives, thinking that it was safer at the hospital.

And then an aviation bomb fell nearby and blew out all the windows. The shrapnel cut the car parked close by, and it exploded. That dispelled the “safety” myth, and we had to go down to the basement. The ambulances were still going, and some of the people managed to leave.


Photo courtesy of Alina Buzunar
On February 28 we got a complaint about a strong gas smell. But the hospital had no gas. We started looking for the source and found a gas pipe broken with a piece of shrapnel in the basement of the closest pharmacy. After that our hospital plumbers found the main and closed the valve.

There were many buildings like that in the city, so the gas was soon shut off. There wasn’t enough water either, but we got it from the heating radiators and used it as non-drinking water. There was a fire station close by, and they would sometimes bring us water. In a few days they started purposefully shelling that station and, finally, destroyed it.

There was no power, but the generator that supplied the surgery department was working. We put bags of sand around the generator, and we could charge phones there. There was no reception, so we used smartphones as flashlights. Although we did not go overboard: all the windows were facing the street, and there was a lot of gunfire there…

They started killing us beginning with the first days

How we ate? I started the kettle in the morning, put some buckwheat in a bowl, poured water over it, covered it with a plate and then wrapped it in a blanket. In a couple of hours buckwheat was ready with no need to boil it. Yes, it was not very delicious and kinda dull, but what can you do? I remember us sitting in the basement and I said: I would give anything for a bottle of Coca-Cola. And that same day the volunteers brought us Coca-Cola: I took a picture of my son sitting there, beaming.

It was so cold that we got leg pains. We had to get blankets from the hospital rooms; many people got sick. We huddled together for warmth and slept in winter clothes and hats… More than 30 people lived like that, nurses, staff, and we had staff from other hospitals stay over: those who couldn’t make it to their own jobs. Everyone got to the departments and worked. Also plumbers, electricians, volunteers, who just wanted to help. The elevators weren’t working. We quickly triaged the wounded people in the emergency room, did small surgeries, and then we had to manually get them up either to the main surgery block or to the departments.

From the first day there were more civilians than military folks among the wounded, about five to one. People had to leave their homes: they were looking for relatives, getting food, trying to escape. Mostly we saw people with shrapnel wounds, and there were a lot of children from the first days.
There is a well-known video from Mariupol where our anaesthesiologist Dr. Bilash resuscitates a little girl. This family, parents and 3.5 year old girl, decided to evacuate. They ended up under a shelling and were brought to our hospital. We tried to save them, but they died in the emergency room…

Alina's house after shelling
Photo courtesy of Alina Buzunar
They started killing us from the first days. They just came in their tanks and fired: houses were burning, wounded people were lying on the streets, many people were killed
It’s no secret that Mariupol was a fairly pro-Russian city, and if there was some kind of a referendum during peaceful times, I can’t rule out many people voting for joining Russia. But they started killing us from the first days. They just came in their tanks and fired: houses were burning, wounded people were lying on the streets, many people were killed. The opportunities to connect to the outside world ran out, and so did the medication supplies…

Mobilized people from the DNR and LNR with machine guns attacked doctors

Approximately on March 12-13, Russian soldiers burst in and started looking for Ukrainian soldiers, saying that they came to liberate us. We asked: from whom? And they said: you don’t understand anything; you are being terrorized.

So, it’s us who don’t understand anything? We had jobs, families, places to live. And you, the “liberators,” are killing us and destroying our houses. Why? We have orders: said the Russians.

Back then we did not know how they might act. We naively believed that the hospitals would not be touched: they are neutral; we helped everyone. And that’s what we told them: come on, you would need to have your wounded treated somewhere as well.

But soon a Russian tank came and opened fire on the hospital. We had three departments: incoming trauma, two floors of surgery, and ear-nose. And a tank opened fire: the beams collapsed, it was a miracle that some patients survived, but after that there were no windows, no walls. Patients in grave condition (it’s neurosurgery after all) ended up practically on the street. The Russians themselves took over the admin building, which of course was not touched, and their headquarters was at the blood transfusion station.

But the regular Russian army was just the first wave. Then came the mobilized soldiers from DNR and LNR. They were the ones “guarding” the hospital. They were truly something: they would keep getting drunk, immediately broke down all the doors, looted everything they could, attacked the doctors while holding machine guns. We tried to argue with them, said that it was not okay. Back then we did not understand who we were dealing with. A few times they threatened doctors with machine guns: if you try to leave the hospital, we will shoot you. Then it turned out that not only did they steal everything, they also opened our food storage and started giving away food to score points with the locals.

We naively believed that the hospitals would not be touched: they are neutral; we helped everyone. But soon a Russian tank came and opened fire on the hospital
And then they went through the houses and basements where people were hiding out and said that they were about to start a massive round of cleansing, looking for spies, Ukrainian soldiers etc, and then they sent everyone to the hospital. And people from all over the neighborhood started arriving: with children, pets, their things. The DNR soldiers ordered us to shelter and feed them. We were appalled: feed them with what?! You were the ones who gave away all our supplies. We couldn’t even take proper care of the patients.

Afterwards though they brought a field kitchen and fed the people from the basement twice a day.

According to their leader, they were ordered to fully capture Mariupol by March 20th. He said: and then it will all be okay; the new administration will arrive; they will build houses for you and give out compensation.

The DNR Minister of Health invited me to stay and work “with them”

On March 19th, they raised the Russian flag above the hospital, but the shellings were just as intense. That is to say, they did not capture the city by the deadline. They just kept telling us that Azov was hiding behind the civilians, but they were the ones in the hospital with weapons and grenade launchers. And next to them were patients and doctors, who were working.
Mariupol had Hospital #3, that’s the one that had the maternity ward that was bombed out, so all the wounded birthing women with children were brought to us; there was nowhere else to take them.

One day we discovered that you could get reception on the roof. It was dangerous: the snipers could get you, but there was a chance to reach someone. And we started going up to the seventh and eighth floors, calling people we knew, looking up news online, and found out that Facebook had volunteer contacts.

Approximately on March 20, some big Russian bureaucrats came, that’s what they said: we are from Moscow. The DNR representatives came running, the counselors to the head of the DNR, their assistants etc. Then came the Minister of Health for the DNR and with his supervisor: the head of the “republic.” Started thanking us for keeping the hospital, invited to stay and work with them, offered good salaries etc. We refused, but said that we would not abandon the hospital till they send over the new team of medics. That’s what we decided on, and since then the soldiers didn’t threaten to shoot us.

The hospital where Alina Buzunar worked
We have relatives in Moscow. Once they said, it’s okay, grandma survived the war, and grandpa survived as well; don’t worry, it will all be ok. And how do you answer that? That grandma survived the war with the fascists and you are now acting like fascists towards us?
The replacement crew should have arrived on Saturday, March 23rd. We arranged everything with the volunteers for the same day. They brought my son and I to Volodarsk. We spent the night on the street; they gave us canned meat, pasta… And then the buses started towards Zaporizhzhya the next day.

On the way we passed about fifteen DNR checkpoints: they led all men off the bus, checked the tattoos, blisters, phones. We were told to remove all photos with scenes of destruction, wounded, all chats with “suspicious” conversations etc. Usually it takes about 3-4 hours to get to Zaporizhzhya; this time we spent more than 30 hours on the road.

We had no destination point; we were trying to get away from here. My house was hit; the panels separated, the balcony was torn off, everything in the apartments was smashed too. And my parents’ house was hit too and there was a fire.

We sent the kid to Israel and the grandma to Russia

Back in winter we thought about NAALE program (getting high school diploma in Israel): my son looked through promotional materials, watched video clips, and then once we left Mariupol, we read in the Jewish Agency's chat about the Kdam NAALE program for teens under 16. We boarded the evacuation train to Lviv: our compartment had 12 people and a cat. Each compartment had 2-3 pets and we took turns bringing them to kids and adults to pet; it is really powerful therapy.

Then we went to Budapest for the consulate check, and that was where problems started. The consul demanded an official extracted record from my husband’s birth certificate, and you can only get it in a civil registration office in Ukraine. So, I left my son with friends and returned to Ukraine to get the record. And you know what I was told at the civil registration office in Uzhgorod? “Why do you need the extracted record if you have the original, and it takes precedence?” In other words, I spent my last money on a trip to get a strange document, and to be honest it looked like mockery, especially when you are so low physically and morally. But thank god, it was not for nothing: Sasha was accepted into the program and is waiting for his flight!

So we sent the kid to Israel, and our grandma went to Russia; we have relatives in Moscow and Moscow region. I can’t communicate with these relatives since the beginning of the war. Questions like “How are you doing?” seem out of place, to say the least. Once they said, it’s okay, grandma survived the war, and grandpa survived as well; don’t worry, it will all be ok. And how do you answer that? That grandma survived the war with the fascists and you are now acting like fascists towards us?

Now we are finding out that many people died. My parents’ friends, for example. Mom went to visit them, got to the fourth floor and saw that the apartment suffered a direct hit. They burned there. No way to extract them, or bury them
Instead of a post scriptum. Three months after

I settled in Lviv, found a relatively inexpensive place, and am teaching English online. During the time of crisis our bodies activate, and a few months after things start going wrong. There are illnesses coming up, kidney issues because of the cold.

I don’t want to leave Ukraine: my parents are still in Mariupol. Sometimes I manage to send them medications and some items with the volunteers. It gets funny sometimes: I wanted to send them matches, but all matchboxes have Ukrainian flags on top…. It’s hard to understand what is going on there currently: the folks who stayed say that everything is fine. Here is a specific example. The apartment of a family I know, who were in the basement, got hit and everything burned out: documents, money, phones, everything they had. And they stayed to live in the basement. They can’t get jobs because they have no documents. They can’t get aid for the same reason. But they refuse any offers to leave: we are fine. In the basement, during the winter. And there are many like that.

For us this is unthinkable: children’s performances on a giant cemetery

My parents are more than eighty years old. It’s scary for them to move, not to mention that their apartment would be looted the moment they live. The house has all windows blasted out, and the new government replaced only the ones that face the street. My parents’ apartment faces the inner yard: they also had everything torn, the balcony has been torn apart, but nobody is rushing to fix it, since you can’t see it from the street.

And many are happy: they are fixing up the theater etc. For us it’s unthinkable: children’s performances on top of a giant cemetery, but they are glad. The kids started school; they sit at the Russian patriotism lessons. And you think, how are we going to live with this afterward? We are not going to send these people to Russia, and we won’t tell Russia to take them with them, but it makes me uneasy…

And coming back is an economics question too. If the refugees have no money to rend a place to live in mainland Ukraine, and the conditions in Europe can be really tough, as I know from some people, folks return, even to Mariupol.
Now we are finding out that many people died. My parents’ friends, for example. Mom went to visit them, got to the fourth floor and saw that the apartment suffered a direct hit. They burned there. No way to extract them, or bury them.

My son’s classmate lost his father: direct hit to the apartment. The kid and the mom survived; the boy was evacuated and took part in a meeting with Zelensky: they were on TV.

We know a family from the next neighborhood; they have a 17 year old girl. The head of the family was also killed. And many people are just hard to contact. We look for each other in chats, but not everyone responds. We don’t know for sure that they are dead, but there is less and less hope.

Sasha is studying in Israel; he lives in a youth village by Netanya. He is into sports now. I am very grateful to the administration: they care for the kids, entertain them, distract them, try to counteract the negative experience of war and evacuation.

I blocked the Moscow relatives: what can they say to me? How everything will be great for us? It won’t. What can I wish for them? To have their husbands sent to war? Why get on each other’s nerves?

The testimony was chronicled on April 17, 2022

Translation: Dr. Mariya Gyendina