Leave Us Alone

“They seemed completely indifferent, the Russians. They didn’t even care that the car was burning, that there might be someone still inside. I said to them ‘Help me put it out, at least!’ They just stood there.”

In Mykolaiv

Ukrainian soldiers
Украинские военные. Фото: Елена Костюченко / «Новая газета»

This is Elena Kostyuchenko’s third report on the war in Ukraine, following dispatches from the refugee route and Odessa earlier this month. This is the uncensored version of a piece originally published in Novaya Gazeta on March 12 and has been translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse.

Mykolaiv spreads out around the silver mirror of the Southern Bug River. The bridge over the Bug is raised, lowered, and raised again. Every day, buses full of women and children depart for Odessa, which remains safe for now, though some flee further still, to Moldova, or to those parts of Ukraine not subsumed by war.

They are shelling the outskirts of town. There are Russian divisions twenty kilometers to the north and east.

Vitaly Kim, the city’s military governor, has become a new social media star, with 650,000 followers on Telegram. He takes videos of himself on his mobile phone, beginning each clip with the words “WE’RE UKRAINIANS!” He is a native Russian speaker and is also half-Korean, which has given rise to endless local jokes about “Nazis overrunning Ukraine,” a cliché of Russian state TV.

Mykolaiv operates in blackout mode, with no lights allowed after nightfall. The city administration has warned that a single individual’s failure to comply will result in electricity getting cut off for their whole building. Only the grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. Schools and nurseries have been on break since the war began; no one wants to separate the children from the adults. Many of the bus routes have been canceled, with some of the buses requisitioned by the army and others deployed in the evacuation.

There are heaps of car tires sitting at the city’s intersections, to be ignited when Russian troops enter the city. Some still bear traces of paint; they once served as decorative borders for municipal flowerbeds. “One useful thing about this war,” quipped the mayor, “at least we’ll get rid of the rubber swans now.”

The lines for humanitarian aid packages are orderly: grains, tinned food, butter.

Air-raid sirens slice through everyday life. The trauma center has been converted into a field hospital. Patients are evacuated as soon as their surgeries are completed and their wounds patched up. Beds are then quickly cleared for incoming patients. The medical staff lives onsite and have done so for the past two weeks, since the war began.

Humanitarian aid is supplied from Odessa. The bigger city is watching Mykolaiv with awe: Odessans believe that Mykolaiv is the only reason Odessa has not yet been besieged.

“Mykolaiv is partially surrounded,” says Yaroslav Chepurnoi, press officer of the 79th brigade.

“There are seventeen Russian battalion tactical groups ranged around the town,” he says. ”Say each consists of approximately a thousand men, which means seventeen thousand soldiers, and 1,500 units of military tech–weapons, equipment, vehicles. We don’t know their command center’s plans, obviously—we can only assume that some of these BTGs will go north, possibly to Kryvyi Rih. But some of them will stay and storm the city. We know that the Russian command has been ordered to take Mykolaiv, that it’s been ordered to take Odessa, and probably also to punch a land corridor to Pridnestrovie. So we are building up our defenses. Each day that goes by while they wait to attack Mykolaiv, we use to build up our defenses.”

“They’re in the east, and in the north too . . . They’re already attempting to land troops upstream from the city. Trying to set up a crossing, it looks like, across the Southern Bug. The river is narrower up by the New Odessa region, but here at Mykolaiv the Southern Bug widens out so much that after the Varvarovsky Bridge it actually becomes the Dnieper-Bug Estuary. It’s incredibly wide. If we were to blow up the bridges it would be very hard for them to cross. This side of the riverbank is steep. We assume that they’ll try for a pontoon bridge somewhere to the north, up by New Odessa. Especially since we know from our intelligence that that they are hauling pontoons and speedboats, just the things you need to put up pontoon-bridge crossings.

“The Russian troops attacked a few times already. Four times, I think. The first three were just to gather intelligence. They came in small lots, we repelled them, blew up their vehicles . . . But March 7 was a proper attack, with rockets and tornado missiles at first, and then they threw two BTGs at us.

“Now here’s something interesting. They had plenty of weapons and carriers, but all it took for them to turn back and retreat was our blowing up a couple of tanks, a couple of armored vehicles. As soon as they took a bit of damage, insignificant damage, they turned around and retreated. It took us by surprise, frankly. When you launch an attack with tanks and armored vehicles, you expect to lose a few of them in the course of the fighting. That shouldn’t prevent you from pushing on. Sometimes intelligence arrives on the scene at this point. And goes back again.

“According to the official count, there are three thousand captured soldiers across Ukraine, and I trust those numbers. Even here, there are dozens and dozens. A couple days ago we had twelve people surrender after some fighting. The fighting was over, even.

“They’re shelling the city with Grads and Hurricanes and Tornadoes. Grads may be only 122mm, but Hurricanes are 240mm and Tornadoes are 320mm: these are all multiple rocket launchers. At first they targeted military installations. On February 24 they shelled our military airbase at Kulbakino, and they hit it, but our planes were already gone, so no dice. On the evening of the 4th they went at the railway station, and the fuel storage tanks. Then the bread factory, I mean, who knows why . . . And then, on the 6th and 7th especially, they started heavy shelling of the military units, but also just residential areas. They’d already hit the water treatment plants on the outskirts of the city a few times, so we figure they’re trying to mess up the water supply for the civilians. They’ve stationed their artillery in towns and villages between Mykolaiv and Kherson, and that’s where they’re launching from.”

Shells rain down on Khersonskaya Street. This is Balabanovka, the southernmost tip of Korabelnyi (Ship’s) District. The buildings are so wrecked that they look half-finished. Slate tiles blown off the side of a fence, roofs sliding down into cratered holes. The streets between the houses are paved with the smashed detritus of quotidian life. A brick fence has disassembled into bricks, though a little sign with the building number—22—survived. There’s no glass left in the windows, which makes the buildings look abandoned. A crumpled GAZelle van sits stowed behind a green gate.

Beyond the gate, a vegetable garden, the earth recently turned over. A cherry tree, strafed to the ground; the branches scattered across the warm earth. There are three gaping holes in the attic roof.

Sasha is up on a ladder, clearing the shattered slate tiles from the roof. He seems not to notice the tears running down his own face.

“First it was the shelling. There was a big whooshing sound over the wheat, all the windows blew out. Then it seemed to get quiet. My wife was on the porch, I was in the kitchen. She sits down. I take a look out the window and see these two airplanes from who knows where, black like the Stealth ones. My wife fell over and then it all went off. Ra-a-tat tat! Some kind of white smoke. I threw myself over my wife and we started crawling. I’ve been picking up all the shards. Look how sharp they are, you can cut a person in half with that.”

His wife Nadya sits with her palms on her knees:

“This is where I sat down. I was sitting right here. I’m sitting here, and there’s no sound at all. No sound for me to be afraid of. These two airplanes, they were scary, black or dark gray, but I didn’t even move from where I was sitting. I thought, they’re not going to bomb civilians. And right then they started in on the ceiling . . . I can’t tell you the horror of it . . . Look at the gate, the holes. Another second, it would have been me. I’m still in shock, I still can’t feel my legs. You know, I’m terrified. Because the idea of leaving is terrifying, too. You still have to get there. This family I saw on the news, they were fleeing and got caught in an air raid. The children died, and the parents, everyone.”

The Mykolaiv orphanage was evacuated immediately after the war began. There were ninety-three children living there, age 3 to 18, all “social orphans” with living parents who cannot look after them. The children were taken to Antonovka, a village sixty-seven kilometers away, toward Kropyvnytskyi, formerly Kirovograd. Five days ago, Russian troops massed next to the village. On March 8, at 9:20 AM, a car driving orphanage staff down the Kirovograd Highway was fired on by Russian troops. Three women were killed.

Anatoly Geraschenko was the driver. He shifts anxiously from foot to foot. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his right leg. “The surgeon said they’ll operate if it starts to rot,” but for now they left it alone. Masha stays close to her father. One of her eyes is blue, the other brown. “I’ve got three sons and two daughters,” Anatoly says proudly. He’s visibly shaking now: “It’s cold,” he says.

This was his third trip to Antonovka. He didn’t accept any money, only enough to cover the gas. He had stuck a red cross made of packing tape onto the windshield. The bodies were immolated together with his van, a Mercedes Sprinter.

“We made it past all the checkpoints, showing our passports every time. I had six women with me, and two in the back. At one of the checkpoints they said something had gone down in the night. So they shouldn’t have let us through!”

“There was no oncoming traffic, just empty lanes. We made it about twenty-five kilometers. My vision’s not great, but 250 meters out, the women spotted something, and they tell me there’s something up ahead, something military. I said, ‘Ladies, what do we want to do?’ I slowed down. Then came the automatic rifle fire, but I never heard it or saw a thing. I only saw the gravel spraying out. Now I know why that was.

“I can’t remember exactly how they shot at us. I’d either stopped completely by then, or maybe the van was still rolling a little. I didn’t see the blast, I only felt something shredding, dropping off the van. A burst of light by my feet. I got out of the van, they run over to me with their rifles. I’m lying face-down on the asphalt, screaming: ‘There are women inside! Women inside!’

“The Russians opened the rear door—there were still four more sitting back there. The women came out into the field. They ran over to them shouting ‘Drop your phones!’ The women, four of them, all tossed their phones on the ground by the soldiers’ feet. I threw mine into the grass. I had a mini one on me, in my pocket. My smartphone was still in the car, on the dashboard.

“When I go back to the van it’s gone. I start looking for it. There’s a woman sitting by the door—she has no face left. Just her guts and everything. Her finger was lying on the running board. Her face was gone! It was gone! And the woman sitting right behind me was dead too, but her I didn’t see.

“The Russians are saying: ‘We warned you! We gave you a warning round.’ But I’m no soldier! Warning rounds aren’t the kind of thing I see every day. One of the women was wounded in the shoulder. They lifted her up onto her feet. One of the soldiers, a Yakut, or maybe he was a Buryat, bandaged her wound. The other one was young, a kid really. He had the same sunglasses as me. I remember his face. My leg was bleeding from all the shrapnel. This kid, he drew back when he saw me. Maybe he got scared or something. I said to him, ‘How do we get out of here?’ He says, ‘Go across the fields. All the road signs have been taken down.’ I said, ‘We’re going to walk on the road. If any of yours are up ahead, you tell them.’ They said, ‘We’ve informed them already.’

“They seemed completely indifferent, the Russians. They didn’t even care that the car was burning, that there might be someone still inside. I said to them ‘Help me put it out, at least!’ They just stood there.

“I saw someone in the back lying there, when the van first stared to burn. I got inside. It was this woman, her husband had seen her off,  kissed her goodbye. I pulled her out of there—another woman helped me. We laid her out on the road and her back was all bare. I’d been dragging her by her jacket. Her back was shredded with shrapnel. I didn’t check her pulse or anything. Her husband called today. I told him, ‘She didn’t burn, I pulled her out . . . she’s still lying there.’

“There were two bodies left inside, they burned with the van. That car really burned. My birthday is November 11. And now, March 8.”

The three women killed in the blast were Natalia Mikhailova, Elena Batygina, and Valentina Vidyuschenko. The director of the orphanage, Svetlana Kluyko, tells me something about each one of them:

“Natalia Mikhailova, she was with us since 2014, as a teacher. She’d worked at a special-needs school at one point, so she was very experienced. She was the best sort of human being, kindness personified. If only there were more like her. She loved children, she was so wise, so good with her hands. All my staff are excellent, but she in particular found a way with everyone. It was the older boys she looked after. She would have been 50 on May 4. We were going to throw her a party. Elena Batygina took care of the little ones: dressing and changing them. Her children were always dressed so nicely. She had a big stock of different outfits, and party dresses. The children loved her too. She was so kind. Twenty years with the orphanage. She was 64. Valentina Vidyuschenko, she hadn’t been with us long. It was her second year with us, as a teacher’s assistant. She was working with the new intakes of children, one of the hardest groups, you know . . . When the children first come to us they’re in tears . . . Well, they’ve been dropped off somewhere strange, it’s so stressful for them. She was one of the first people they would meet. She helped them wash, dressed them, changed them, talked to them, made them feel better. So there. That’s the sort of people they killed. The children were inconsolable. They had been waiting for the teachers to come, we’d told them they were on their way. The children screamed and screamed and wouldn’t stop.”

It was not possible to collect the bodies—or rather, what is left of the bodies: “We can’t get to them.” They remain there, twenty-five kilometers from the nearest Ukrainian checkpoint.

The wounded are in the Mykolaiv hospital: Anna Smetana, another teaching assistant, and Elena Belanova, a psychologist. The surviving teachers, Galina Lytkina and Natalia Vedeneeva, have also been hospitalized, with “severe psychological trauma.”

Ninety-three children and ten teachers await evacuation further into Ukraine in a village encircled by Russian troops.

All the dead pass through the office of the regional medical examiner. According to Olga Deryugina, its head, since the start of the war they have processed over sixty bodies of Ukrainian soldiers and more than thirty civilians. When I ask for the exact numbers, she replies: “What’s the point? New ones arrive every day.” Each body is examined by a team of investigators preparing to file documents with the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

“We’ve never had so many bodies at once. Shrapnel, bullet wounds, bomb blasts . . . Shrapnel, mostly. We had two corpses with unexploded munitions twice now, so the bomb disposal technicians had to come out each time to defuse the bodies.”

“That’s right, there was an unexploded munition, I removed it myself,” says Yuri Aleksandrovich Zolotarev, one of the medical examiners. “It hadn’t gone off because the fuse was damaged. I pulled the casing out, to give to the bomb disposal experts so they could study it. I told the women to stand back . . . These had been soldiers . . . I pulled it out very carefully and handed it over to the bomb disposal technician. The fins were up inside his ribcage, but the fuse was inside the stomach—it hadn’t blown up because the stomach walls are soft. That was when they were shelling Ochakovo—these were mostly bodies from Ochakovo . . . the other guy, it was only part of a munition. When the women came to identify them, the wives, they howled the street down. I hadn’t heard anything like that in twenty years on the job. I was in the Bosnian war—I never saw such savagery. There were two of our soldiers I autopsied—it wasn’t enough that they finished them off with bullets, they had to knife them in the back too . . . On March 6, two young guys went over to the aircraft repair facility, to try and burn the place out with Molotov cocktails . . . The soldiers caught them, tied them up, shot them in the head and then finished them off by stabbing them in the back. They had knife wounds, dagger wounds under the shoulder blade. It’s barbaric, to take wounded prisoners and finish them off like that.”

“First they shot them, then finished them off?”

“I’ve been a medical examiner for twenty years! I know which of those wounds came first.”

The bodies are piled up in two sections of the refrigerator. But there isn’t enough room in the fridge, so the ones that have already been autopsied are stacked outside in the street, beside the wall. Eight of them, in black body bags. An outbuilding used as a shed before the war is full of bodies, too—two rooms, each of them twenty meters across. There are bodies all over the floor. Five Russian soldiers lie in a corner. “We’re keeping them while it’s cold outside. Nobody knows who we should hand them over to, or how.”

“These are all war fatalities, the burn victims, already body-bagged . . . Step across here, don’t be scared. I’ve got some others over here, see. Once we’ve worked them over we have to pack them in these black plastic bags, because, to be honest, there’s nowhere to put the autopsied bodies, you’ve seen the state of the rooms . . .”

There are bare feet, and feet still wearing shoes. Here is a scorched, blackened young guy on his back, arms spread wide, a charred black mess for a face. There, half of a human body, flesh fused with grass, a jacket covering the head and a man’s hand hanging down beneath the jacket. A naked man, wrapped in a floral-patterned sheet. A Russian soldier with his hands behind his head; his camo jacket is riding up and you can see a clean vest and the yellow strip of his belly.

The bodies in the fridge are stacked in layers. Two girls lie one on top of the other. They are sisters. The older one is 17: all I can see in the heap of bodies is her hand, her slim long fingers with neat pink nail polish. The younger girl is 3 years old and lies on top of her sister. She is fair-haired. Her jaw has been tied shut with gauze, her hands tied together to rest on her stomach. She is covered with red entry wounds, from shrapnel. The little girl looks alive.

“Arina Butym and Veronica Birykova. Same mother, different fathers. They came in on the March 5, at 17:00. They’re from the Meshkovo-Pogorelove village, Shevchenko Street.” Nikolai Chan-Chumila is a medic here. He looks past me when he speaks. “I’m their godfather . . . I did their baptisms. We’re old friends. They brought the girls in during my shift. Of course I recognized them straightaway. I can’t describe to you what I went through when I saw them.”

Dmitry Butym is the girls’ father. He is waiting on the other side of the fence to take their bodies home. Deep red folds rim his eyes. “Vera was heating up some food in the kitchen. Arina had gone outside to the yard. They didn’t have a chance, either of them. The little one died instantly, a piece of shrapnel through the heart. The older one, they got her heart going artificially for two minutes, but it wouldn’t start by itself. Their mother is in the Dubki hospital, she has shrapnel in her thigh—it damaged things as it went through. You must excuse me. I can’t think of anything right now except burying my children.”

There’s a new body being brought in. The attendants are unwinding a striped bedsheet. It’s a man, the breathing tube still in his throat and his body flayed. Someone tried to save him, couldn’t. He is left to lie in the yard.

Four men with dark roses are waiting for their colleague to be released to them. Igor was a security guard, a civilian. “That goddamn Tornado comes down, and that’s it.”

A body in camo trousers is carried out from the shed. The body is purple, with a wide gash where a face should be. Two men from the investigations unit bend over the man. They take down a description of his clothes, remove his trousers, take a DNA sample by dipping a piece of gauze in his blood. One of them pokes his fingers into the crushed mess of the man’s mouth—they need to establish which of the skull-bones are broken.

A light-haired woman wrapped in a black headscarf speaks:

“My mother lived on the fifth floor. She couldn’t get down to the bomb shelter in the cellar. She had neighbors next door, and they helped her, they were like a family. It was morning when she died, peacefully. As much as you can call it peaceful—on the bathroom floor, hiding from all this horror. The next day, exactly at the same time, a rocket hit the building next door and blew out all her windows. But she was gone from her apartment by then. I think it was some kind of miracle, that she died peacefully on the Sunday. The next day she would have died in a state of terror. She was 77. I have a photo of the apartment, what was left of it, from the neighbors. This is the view from her window, the building next door that was hit. It was the next day, she wouldn’t have survived it. She died on Forgiveness Sunday. And on the 7th all the windows burst. She would have been so frightened. If it had to happen, I’m glad it was the 6th and not the 7th. I’m so grateful. My mother was called Svetlana Nikolayevna. She was half-Russian. Her husband, my dad, he was born in Krasnoyarsk, He was stationed here, that’s how they met. My maternal grandfather was from Kursk. We were a Russian-speaking family. We’re going to the cemetery now. My son is in Kyiv. My name is Oksana.”

Army Base A0224 is one of the two military installations at Mykolaiv that were hit by artillery fire. On March 7, 5:15 AM, the barracks were hit by a Caliber rocket. Nine dead, including five conscripts that had not yet seen fighting. Fourteen wounded. Two of the conscripts at first presumed missing in action were found several hours later—they had fled and hidden.

A chunk of a three-story building is now rubble. There’s a bunk bed still sitting on an intact bit of floor. Emergency responders dig through the rubble by hand. They work together with the military personnel, passing pieces up a human chain. They are searching for the body of the last missing man. His name was Stas. He was a native of Western Ukraine and had been drafted eight months earlier.

Yaroslav, the press officer, had had a lucky escape that night. He is squinting at the sun, his hands never not on his rifle. “They sounded the alarm at about 5:15. I shot up and shouted ‘Boys, everybody out, now!’ We were the first ones out of the barracks, we didn’t even put our boots on . . .There were guys standing outside, so I told them they should get inside, God forbid something drops down, the shrapnel would go everywhere . . . Then I started back inside. I was running, then on the second floor, maybe seven meters from where I was, I saw the walls and floor heaving, buckling, then a flash—it was fire. I saw fire. By 5:17 they were firing straight at us.”

“I was knocked back by the blast. I covered my head with my arms. There was glass raining down on top of me. I try to turn on my . . . fifteen seconds pass and I flick my flashlight on and I’m crawling. I can hear people screaming, a woman was screaming. I’m crawling and crawling, but I can feel there’s nothing beneath me anymore. There’s no ground. I hear the sergeant shouting, ‘Everyone outside!’ I managed to get myself back, started to run outside. I had my rifle with me. Everyone I saw, whoever was left, whoever [unclear] I said: ‘Guys, we have to get down to the shelter.’ And that’s how we made it down. Taras, Danila, some of the other guys, they were buried under the rubble. There were twenty-nine of us in the sleeping quarters.

“I don’t want to start cursing . . . But I’m not taking prisoners, not after this. And I don’t care about their parents and their wives. I don’t feel any pity. I’m 20 years old, I was training to be a vet, and now I don’t have any pity for anybody.”

Yaroslav is flanked by Anthony. Anthony is Black. He was born in Moscow and then lived for eleven years in Luhansk with his grandmother. He left for America before the war. “I came back to Ukraine eight months ago to start a new life,” he says. “I knew I’d get drafted, but I figured, I’m 23 years old, I’ll do my time in the army and start my new life. Hadn’t counted on a war starting. But I’ll serve my tour, make some money in America, buy an apartment in Ukraine, find myself a wife. Now I know for sure that what I want is to live in this country, and that’s what I’ll do.”

Somewhere up at the frontlines the Ukrainians have shot up a Tiger tank. Its Russian crew, four strong, has surrendered. At HQ they think that the Russians were gathering combat intelligence, but those who were actually there think the tank was probably just lost.

Arthur has a black bandanna over his face. In his former life he was a cybernetics economist:

“There was a car driving up from the direction of Kherson. When it got here I saw that it was armored. They rolled down a window. I look inside; Russians, all in uniform. I said, surrender. I used some swear words too. The guy rolls the window back up before I could shoot inside. I started shooting out their tires. The car rolled for maybe another twenty seconds. Someone threw a grenade and the car burst into flame. They didn’t want to come out at first. We smashed the windows in, and then they started to surrender.”

“Did you talk to them?”

“We tried not to. These terrifying warriors. All our guys were laughing their faces off. It was the usual bullshit, they thought they were on military exercises, all that crap. ‘I don’t even know where I am.’ Total bullshit, of course they know.”

They handed the prisoners over to the Security Service.

Someone has graffitied Death to our enemies on the dividing line in the middle of the road. The soldiers are warming up by the wood-burning stove. “Those Russians fucked up our spring.”

“I heard that it came from those towers,” says a soldier whose nickname is The Artist. “A sniper or a machine gunner, I don’t know for sure. One bullet hit forty centimeters from my foot. After the third bullet I clocked that they’re aiming right at me.”

“Are you waiting for the attack on the city?”

“I’m waiting for all this fuckery to fuck back off to you know where. And I hope the residents of the occupied territories are making many Molotov cocktails. And I wish for happiness for my daughter. She’s 3. I named her Maria.”

“My family stayed. My brother’s house is a little bigger than mine. We all live in the same village—my brother, our mother, me. My brother is the older one, so he’s the head of the family, you know how it goes. His job is to protect the women and children, my job is to be here. I was in Varvarovka when they shelled the Kulbakino airbase, working at factory no. 61 [the Mykolaiv shipyard]. We were building ships up there. My uncle woke me up at 6:30 and we could hear the airbase being shelled. I was at the central recruiting office by 8:20. They gave me my draft papers and said to come back at 6 AM the next morning, all packed. I only told my wife after I got back. She knew, though—she knew, that I would do that.”

“Where should we evacuate to? This is our land,” says another soldier. “My family is in Odessa. They won’t touch Odessa while Mykolaiv is standing. So that’s why I’m here.”

“We keep saying: Russians, go home! Just go home, that’s it. We didn’t ask you to come here. You don’t have to die here.”

“We fired on your people, and they died. Why don’t they get shipped back to their own homeland?”

“Why won’t they collect their corpses? They’re just fertilizer for our fields. So sorry, but your son will come over here and you’ll never see him again, no neat little grave for you to visit. Something happens to me, though, my mom will grieve for me and bury me herself.”

“People who were once our brothers, they’re our enemies now, because they attacked us—that’s not what brothers do. We have to defend our land, we have to stand our ground. We didn’t want this war, we didn’t see it coming.”

“I’m from Mykolaiv myself. Am I supposed to sit at home, waiting? I went down to the recruiting office on the first day.”

“We don’t want to wage war against Russia. So don’t you come and wage war against us.”

“They think Ukraine is weak. No. Ukraine is beautiful. We know every hole and every burrow here. This is our land you’ve come to.”

“We don’t want war. We want you to leave us alone.”

So far twenty-two babies have been born at the Mykolaiv maternity hospital during the war, two of them in the makeshift bomb shelter in the basement. All the babies survived.

There are almost no C-sections anymore, because the stitches need rest, peace, and quiet, and there’s no peace now, not with the air raid sirens. A maternity ward has been set up in the basement, but the operating theaters are still on the third floor—and this is very dangerous. A siren blares. Expectant mothers walk down to the basement, step by step, holding on to the walls, their descent slow and ponderous. The midwives carry the babies down.

Lena Sylvestrova lies on a metal gurney, under a woolen blanket. Her husband Aleksei is trying to calm her down. The palm of his hand is on her neck. Lena gave birth at 4:30 AM, by C-section. She had tried for a natural birth, which went on for almost twenty-four hours. She is 28 and her husband is 26. This is their first child. She went into labor early in the morning, after curfew began. Aleksei drove her to the hospital himself.

“Just as the war started, that was my due date. I was so worried, waiting for it all to kick off. I was constantly on edge, waiting. Worrying we’d get caught in an air raid or shelling in town. I was lucky—they managed to do my C-section between two air raid sirens. Imagine, you’re in labor and you just want a bit of peace and quiet for your baby, but what you get is your city being endlessly bombed!”

Aleksei strokes her cheek.

“I’d love to remember what it’s like, walking the street without worrying that you could get shot.”

The light in the basement is dim, and the women sit along the walls. The head physician takes Aleksei to the archive department and quietly opens the door. Inside is a midwife sitting atop some mattresses and holding a white bundle. She holds the bundle out toward Aleksei. “Don’t give it to me, I’m too nervous,” he tells her.

“Better get used to it. Don’t be scared now, nothing to be scared of.”

Aleksei holds Masha in his arms. It’s his first time. The midwife gently adjusts his palms.

“She’s so tiny,” Aleksei says. He falls silent, his face dipping ever closer to his daughter’s. “My little girl. Hello there! Are you sticking your tongue out at me? Really, Masha? We’re going to be together every day, every single day, deal?”

“We only want peace. Please could you write that?” says a woman in a white lab coat. “My name is Nadezhda Sherstova. I’m a senior anesthesiology nurse. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. You know, since the war started, whenever a baby is born there’s no joy in the parents’ eyes. You worry about the mothers, their milk coming in. That’s what scares me. There’s no joy for the parents.”

“She was a real pain,” Aleksei is telling the head physician. “Constantly kicking. She’d hear my voice and start in on her dancing in there. Wouldn’t let her mom sleep at night. She’s kicking a little right now. I thought she would look like me. When we did the scan, they said she looked like me, but look how pretty she is.”

The next shelling of Mykolaiv began at 8 PM on March 11 and lasted most of the night, with short pauses. According to Mayor Aleksandr Senkievich’s official statement, more that 167 residential buildings sustained damage, as did City Hospital #3 (which was filled with wounded civilians), a food factory, eleven schools and nurseries, and the orphanage. Eleven private homes were completely destroyed. The barrage of flying shrapnel that fell on the yard of the cancer ward and the accident and emergency department killed Kuzya, the beloved hospital guard dog. They covered him up with a towel. The cemetery was shelled too. Fires have broken out all over the city.

—Translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

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