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Victoria Zubchencko and her 18-year-old daughter Diana, who lost an eye when the next-door building was hit by a rocket Show caption Victoria Zubchencko and her 18-year-old daughter Diana, who lost an eye when the next-door building was hit by a rocket. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian
Ukraine

Shelling is so intense that doctors and nurses at one hospital have lived there for 29 days, as casualties including many young children are brought in under fire

  • Russia-Ukraine war: latest updates

Sat 26 Mar 2022 08.00 GMT

There had been many long hours of rocket strikes and shelling before the attack that upended their lives, but always with grim warning, the explosions creeping closer to Diana Zubchencko’s ninth-floor home in Kharkiv.

Then, 10 days into the war, with no notice, their home was ripped apart and its contents hurled on top of the family. One minute they were cooking dinner, the next Diana was sprawled on the ground, bleeding so much from a head injury that her mother, Victoria, feared the 18-year-old was slipping away.

A rocket had slammed into the neighbouring high-rise, and the force of the blast had lifted a door off its hinges and slammed it into the side of Diana’s head. When an ambulance rushed her to hospital – emergency services are braving shelling to pick up the injured – doctors were able to save her life, but not her left eye.

Tetiana Pidbutska, a senior nurse on the neurosurgery ward, with Diana in hospital Tetiana Pidbutska, a senior nurse on the neurosurgery ward, with Diana in hospital. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

“It is very difficult for me to talk about that time because she was dying,” Victoria said from her daughter’s bedside as the thud of artillery echoed in the background. “I’ve got used to the bombing now, it’s not scary after what I’ve lived through. I watched my child almost die.

“I’m just very happy she is alive, she lived, and she understands everything. Her brain could have been damaged. It is a miracle.”

Scores of people are thought to have been killed and thousands injured by Russian attacks in Kharkiv, scene of some of the worst devastation of the war outside besieged Mariupol.

Just about 25 miles from the Russian border, locals say the city is being is being punished for its resilience after it held off Russian forces in the first days of the invasion.

Because it cannot rout Ukraine’s soldiers there, Moscow has turned its long-range artillery on civilians such as Diana, who now are filling Kharkiv’s hospital beds or the corridors of its morgues.

Here, the war is in the heart of the city, every day. A missile ripped into city hall, rockets punch gaping holes in the elegant central streets, and the outlying residential neighbourhoods bear the deadliest toll.

Russian shells hit civilians queuing for aid in Kharkiv – video

On Thursday six civilians were killed by a rocket while they were queueing for humanitarian aid outside a post office. One had been sleeping in the metro station for safety and had come up for some fresh air, witnesses said. On Friday another four people died when a shell landed near a clinic.

Many, like the Zubchenckos, are hit in their homes where they have stayed to care for others too old or sick to move. Diana had refused to leave her 93-year-old grandfather, a double amputee.

Victoria Zubchencko shows a picture of her daughter, Diana, and Diana’s father, Petro, before Diana was injured. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

“Life has changed completely, everything is divided between before and after the war. I have not left the hospital for 29 days,” said Oleksandr Dukhovsky, a paediatric neurosurgeon who was treating Diana. He had tended to more than 50 other children brought in with shelling, gunshot and other conflict injuries since the war began.

“My mum brought me up as a cynic, but this is very hard. It has brought me to tears,” he said of the terrible influx of young bodies battered by munitions. And that is only the toll in one department in one of the city’s many hospitals.

Authorities are reluctant to talk about how many people have been killed in Kharkiv. The regional governor, Oleh Synyehubov, put the official civilian death toll at more than 100, but said that 30 bodies had been retrieved from the wreckage of city hall alone and the actual total would be significantly higher.

“There are more,” he said in an interview. “We have the official data from hospitals, but there are places – homes, apartments – where firefighters have gone to put out fires after an attack, but they have not been able to retrieve bodies because the shelling is ongoing.”

Residents salvage what they can from their destroyed apartments. Photograph: Seth Sidney Berry/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock

One central morgue has run out of room indoors for victims – and coffins to hold their remains. Dozens of bodies were lined up in a courtyard, some tied in plastic bags, others wrapped in blankets, and on a sunny afternoon this week vans carrying new bodies arrived about every five minutes.

Even as hospitals in the city try to staunch the loss, they fear becoming part of it, after attacks on more than 40 healthcare facilities around the country, including the Mariupol maternity hospital. Many hospitals declined interviews, fearing it would expose their patients to greater risks.

At Dukhovsky’s hospital, which the Guardian is not naming, the windows were covered in blackout blinds, many of the patients were in corridors rather than on wards, the sound of artillery was constant, and there had been a gun battle nearby last week.

The strict city curfew – from 6pm to 6am – and the intensity of Russian attacks mean most of the doctors and nurses treating Diana and her fellow patients have been living at the hospital since the war began, their ordinary lives suspended overnight.

Lydmila Ivanova, a senior nurse on the neurosurgery ward. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

“It’s too hard to find words to describe what is happening in this city,” said Lydmila Ivanova, 68, a senior nurse on the trauma ward. “Who was the church bothering, who was the zoo bothering? It was such a beautiful place, who would attack it in this way?”

Her years of experience dealing with car accidents and violence had not prepared her for the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s bombardment. “It is very difficult to bear with the small children coming in,” she said.

The ward had only about one-third of its normal staff; some were trapped behind enemy lines, others had decided to leave Kharkiv. So, in addition to nursing, they were all pitching in with cleaning and cooking.

“We have a shower here, and a place to wash clothes, and my children have brought me some supplies,” she said. Hospital staff see their work as part of the war effort, they say, and are kept going in part by the gratitude of patients and relatives who have also moved in to help with care.

Diana with her dog Archibald.

“I bow down on my knees to the doctors and the nurses for not leaving and not going home, and dedicating themselves to saving lives,” said Victoria, Diana’s mother. “The Russians can’t defeat this country. You can see, everyone is doing everything for us.”

She was confident that with their help her girl, a sporty, generous student who gave her allowance to charity and doted on their dog Archibald, would make a full recovery.

Natalia Velichko, an anaesthetic doctor, watches over Volodymyr, seven, who was injured when Ukrainian soldiers shot at the car his mother was driving on 28 February. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

On the next floor down, Volodymyr, seven, was just coming round from brain surgery. His mumbled, fitful words sounded like a call for his mama. He had not yet been told that she was dead, killed in the first week of the war by the round of bullets that shattered his skull.

“He needs to be strong to make a full recovery so he can live a full life,” said his father, Stanislav Baclanov, 34. “If I tell him his mother has been killed, it will destroy his desire [to recover]. He must feel well, and after that I will tell him, and we will go to the cemetery together so I can show him her grave.”

Baclanov was stranded outside the country on a business trip when the war began, and when shelling intensified in their neighbourhood his wife, Darya, decided to take the children to a different part of the city.

Stanislav Baclanov is shown pictures of his son’s latest operation by the neurosurgeon Oleksandr Dukhovsky. Photograph: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

He realised something was wrong when she stopped checking in, and his brother called to break the terrible news that the family had been gunned down near a checkpoint.

“Darya was like an angel in all her behaviour and love,” he said, his face gaunt and drawn with grief as he waited for his son to come out of surgery. “I can talk about my wife for a long time. She was a loving, open, intelligent, honest, bright person, my closest friend, a gentle flower. She was my sun.”

The Baclanov family before the war. Photograph: Handout

Volodymyr had major neurosurgery after the attack. This week Dukhovsky removed bone fragments and installed two titanium plates put in to protect his brain where the bone is missing, but he is expected to make a full recovery with proper medical care.

His father believes it was Ukrainians who opened fire by mistake, and wants the shooting investigated when the country is not consumed by war, he but said that whoever pulled the trigger, his wife’s death – and the family’s unbearable loss – should be counted as part of Russia’s toll in Kharkiv.

“It is the most terrible thing that my sons don’t have a mother,” he said. “If the Russians hadn’t come to our land, this wouldn’t have happened.”

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