December 14, 2022
By Alena Grom
At 5 a.m. on February 24, Maryna Ganitskaya heard the boom of distant explosions and realized a full-scale invasion had begun. The director of a hospital for patients with psychological and physical conditions in Borodyanka, 50 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, drove immediately to the facility.
In her own words, here is what happened next:
Through weeks of rising tensions and reports of an impending Russian invasion in early 2022, I had decided already that I would stay with the patients if the unthinkable were to happen, and so it came to pass.
The hospital served as a home for around 350 vulnerable people. I had only worked there for six weeks, but I had become close with the staff and patients, many of whom required around-the-clock care.
From our 250 employees only 10 remained: My deputy, one accountant, a cash-desk worker, several cooks and orderlies, but no doctors. Many of the staff were trapped in towns and villages that were already active war zones.
One of the workers who showed up left her husband alone with four children. Another employee couldn’t reach her 15-year-old daughter who was trapped in an occupied town nearby. These were heroic people who made the decision to stay and help our patients — people with wounded bodies and souls.
Everyone did what they were capable of doing, but different people handle the stress of war differently. Not everyone can pull themselves together enough to do everyday things like cook porridge, light a fire, or change diapers.
The war affected Borodyanka immediately. On the first day, the Russians bombed a private house right next to the hospital. The explosion was so powerful that nothing was left of the place. Six people died in that blast. Then early in March, the Russians bombed several high-rise buildings in the town center. The noise and smells were like madness itself.
At the beginning of the invasion, locals and people from nearby villages sought help and shelter inside the hospital. On some days there were up to 800 people here. Among them were people who had lost their relatives and their homes. Some people brought their wounded and dying.
On February 25, the head doctor of a nearby psychiatric hospital called and asked me to take in her patients. Late that evening, 80 acutely ill people were brought in. Among them were 14
autistic kids. Children with this diagnosis are very sensitive and vulnerable, and they were enduring unbearable trials. This was the most upsetting part of the whole occupation. We had to reassure the children and promise them that everything was going to be OK.
On March 4, we heard on the radio that safe passage would be arranged for civilians to evacuate, but this humanitarian corridor never happened. Despite this, many locals of Borodyanka wrapped themselves in white sheets and left the city at their own risk.
On the road that runs next to the hospital, columns of Russian equipment were rushing back and forth. Sometimes as many as 500 vehicles: fuel trucks, Buk missile systems, Tornado rocket artillery vehicles, tanks, etc.
It was painful for me to watch the night sky glowing in the distance from fires around Bucha and Makarov. I had relatives living in those towns. During the day, there was smoke and fire, the noise of shelling. Everything rattled. It was scary. It’s one thing to try to survive yourself, it’s quite another thing to be responsible for other people. Patients grabbed the hands of their carers, asking, “Are we already dead? Is it over already? Will [the Ukrainian military] save us?”
In the hospital, there was a weak radio connection with the outside world. We listened to the news until the batteries ran out. It was occasionally possible to call relatives using our cell phones. We learned how to charge phones from car batteries.
Sometimes the Ukrainian military administration called me, saying, “Don’t worry. We are doing everything possible to get you out. We are negotiating.” I told this to the patients to reassure them; they lived in hope. When there was a cellular connection I tried to keep a page active on social media, just to be visible and describe what situation the wards were in. Then the Russians turned on communication jammers and the connection was lost.
Before the invasion, violent psychiatric patients were kept on the top floor of the hospital in isolated rooms under constant supervision. After February 24, there simply weren’t enough orderlies, so those patients were left unattended. They broke down doors and wandered around the hospital.
During heavy shelling, everyone went into the basement. It was cramped, but everyone fit. We sat, lay, and stood pressed against each other. Some cried, some mourned.
Those patients who were more capable than the rest were appointed to look after their fellow patients. Some people ran away from the hospital. They hid, then eventually returned. They said they got scared during the explosions. One of our patients was killed by shelling. He ran away the first day, then after the Russians left Borodyanka he was found dead. Two patients are still missing.
In the first days of the war, there was still electricity in the city, but the workers from the heating plant fled and so the heating went out. We had a couple of cylinders of gas for the stove, but that was only enough for a few days.
It was so cold inside that everything froze solid; steam came out of your mouth and your legs could never get warm. Sometimes we cooked porridge, borscht, meat. We had our own chickens,
but no one was able to get more bread. There were moments when a piece of bread was torn into pieces and handed out. Patients gathered up the crumbs and licked them from their palms. It was so hard. I didn’t know how to feed people more and how long we would last.
At first, water was collected from a well in the hospital grounds. Then Russian soldiers began to arrive and they pumped out water for their own needs until it was gone. We were saved by the lake behind the fence, which we took water from. We boiled it but many people got intestinal infections. We were lucky we had the right medicines.
Water was needed for toilets, hygiene, and care of bedridden patients. The water was heated to wash them, and bottles of hot water were placed in patients’ beds to warm them at least a little.
There was a farm on the territory of the hospital: 30 cows, a horse, a goat, rabbits, chickens. Contact with animals has a positive effect on the psychology of patients. We fed and took care of the animals and milked the cows.
On March 5, there were 450 people in the hospital and Russian soldiers broke through the gates with an SUV. They were more than 60 “Kadyrovites” from Chechnya, and they were aggressive. They ran around the hospital, kicked down the doors, burst into the rooms of bedridden patients. They told me if they found a soldier or a weapon they would cut me to pieces.
At gunpoint, the patients were taken to the courtyard of the hospital. I was ordered into the middle, and I had a weapon pointed at me as one of the soldiers filmed. I was asked, “Are you a Nazi?”
I told them: “I am Ukrainian! If you want to know if I am a patriot, then yes. I love my country.”
The Chechen continued: “We didn’t come to kill you! We came to free you from Nazi power. Now pensioners will be able to go to the World War II victory parade, wear St. George ribbons, and there will be no more Nazism in your country.”
Then the soldiers demanded I thank Russian President Vladimir Putin on camera for my “release from Nazism.” I saw the red dots of laser gunsights sliding over the patients; some of them were crying from fear.
The Kadyrovites banned people leaving the territory of the hospital, saying, “If you go out, we will shoot,” and they mined the area around. There was military equipment like mortars and snipers all around us. I begged them to at least let the children out, but they refused. Patients served as human shields.
During the occupation, 13 people died on the hospital grounds. Among them were local residents and our patients. Mostly they were people weakened by the difficult conditions. We created handmade crosses to mark who was buried where. My assistant and I wrapped the bodies of our patients and buried them in the frozen ground. I’ll remember that day forever.
On March 13, I looked out the window and saw yellow buses driving along the road outside. An evacuation had begun! Before leaving, I untied all the animals so that they could find food.
The Russians lined up and watched as the sick were loaded onto the buses. Two seriously ill patients died in the chaos of the evacuation, while the rest were taken to different regions of Ukraine — either to overcrowded hospitals or to their families.
Once I reached safety, I contacted my family and found out that my village was still under occupation and my house had been damaged. My parents were hiding in the cellar from shelling, and my husband and son had fled by swimming down the icy river to escape.
“When are you picking us up?” That was the question I heard most from my patients after the evacuation. Many did not deal well with being away from Borodyanka. They started calling me from 5 in the morning on. They were worried that the hospital would never be restored. More than 20 patients were unable to settle into a new place and died.
Having lost the battle for Kyiv, Russian troops retreated at the end of March. After the de-occupation, I returned to the boarding school and saw mountains of garbage and looted rooms. A goat roamed the corridors of the hospital, and our horse cantered in the yard.
In the summer, the patients returned to their psychiatric home. Now they sometimes ask anxiously if the Russians will return. Many hold on to the idea that they need to stock up on bread. They hide it in their nightstands.
Text and photos by Alena Grom in Borodyanka, with contribution from Amos Chapple in Prague
Alena Grom is a photographer from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine who has been documenting in text and images stories of what happened in cities like Bucha under Russian occupation.