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Inside a hospital in occupied town near Kyiv

by Anastasiia Lapatina April 1, 2022 12:27 AM 6 min read
Children's strollers are seen left on a destroyed bridge after families evacuated from Irpin and Bucha on March 10, in Irpin, Kyiv Oblast. After Russia's launched a full-scale war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, Irpin and Bucha became hot spots of Russian assault. (Getty Images)
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When the war began, Anton Dovgopol, the 36-year-old director of the Irpin City Polyclinic, got a phone call early in the morning. He learned that Ivankiv, a little village some 80 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, was under a Russian attack. He told his wife to get their go-bag ready, reached out to the mayor’s office, calling for an urgent meeting, and immediately went to work.

Irpin, Bucha, Vorzel, and Hostomel, developing suburbs on the outskirts of Kyiv, quickly became hot spots when Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24. Advancing through those towns was key for the Russian military to reach the nation’s capital. Irpin City Polyclinic, with branches in Bucha and Vorzel, found itself in the middle of war and occupation.

Dovgopol spoke with the Kyiv Independent about what it took the hospital to continue functioning through the battles that followed, until it no longer could.

“It looked like we would be in the epicenter (of fighting),” Dovgopol said during an interview over the phone, as he was taking his wife and two little sons into safety in western Ukraine. “It was just my intuition.”

Anton Dovgopol is the head doctor of the Irpin City Polyclinic, which has branches in Vorzel and Bucha, towns on the outskirts of Kyiv. Bucha was captured by Russian forces and remains occupied as of March 31. (Facebook/Anton Dovgopol)

When the war came, Dovgopol’s priority was to make each of the three branches of Irpin’s hospital autonomous. All had to be ready to carry out surgeries, deliver babies, and operate around the clock, in case transport lines or communication between them was disrupted.

It didn’t take long for that to happen. Only 24 hours later, food deliveries stopped. Electricity went off the day after, and eventually, so did the water and gas. The hospital secured extra generators and food, and continued operating. Dovgopol appointed members of his staff as supervisors in Irpin and Vorzel, and went to the nearby Bucha – a town that would soon become a hot spot of Russia’s war.

Just five kilometers away from Bucha was Antonov International Airport, which came under shelling and air attacks hours after Russia declared war. Russian forces badly needed the airport to disembark its airborne units close to Kyiv. After one day of heavy fighting, the first wounded Russian soldiers started coming into Dovgopol’s hospital in Bucha.

Two wounded and one dead, the soldiers were from Kemerovo, a Siberian city in Russia. One of them, a former police officer, told Dovgopol that they were supposed to be holding the ground after Kyiv was captured. The soldier was surprised that Ukrainians didn’t meet them as liberators.

When wounded Ukrainian soldiers came in, the hospital staff put them in civilian clothes, gave them fake name tags, and hid their IDs so they wouldn't become targets if Russians burst in.

A week into Russia’s war, logistics within Bucha and between cities were mostly shut – Russian checkpoints spread around the city, while roads and bridges were either destroyed or too dangerous.

In Vorzel, a neighboring town, locals were running out of food. Trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, Dovgopol made a decision to use an ambulance to get supplies to the town.

“This was when I first encountered the Russians,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “I got lucky – slowly, with my hands in the air, I drove up to the three soldiers who pointed their guns at me, and told them I was transporting food for pregnant women.” They let him pass.

The hospital’s branch in Vorzel had 10 pregnant women who were expected to give birth soon, and six women that had babies during the war. Dovgopol dropped off supplies that were enough for four days and went back to Bucha.

What ensued was sheer madness, he says.

Abandoned civilian clothes lay on the ground in Bucha, a city on the outskirts of Kyiv, on March 13. Since the beginning of Russia's assault, Bucha has seen some of the heaviest fighting, and has been occupied by Russian forces for at least 20 days. (Getty Images)

On March 3, the Ukrainian government announced that Bucha was liberated – a video of soldiers proudly putting up a Ukrainian flag circulated online. But that same night, Russian forces violently broke into Bucha and occupied the entire city, Dovgopol says. The fighting was constant, and reached the hospital’s territory.

“We put police members that guarded the hospital into white robes, otherwise they could be shot to death,” Dovgopol says. “Same with the territorial defense guys – we dressed them into civilian clothes and hid their weapons.”

Territorial defense units told the hospital’s staff that Russian forces were planning to seize the hospital and take their men who were injured. Russians raided the clinic a few days later.

They looked for their compatriots, but in vain – Dovgopol’s team gave all injured Russians to the SBU, and evacuated all Ukrainian soldiers to a military hospital nearby. After checking people’s documents, Russian soldiers left.

As enemy attacks intensified, dead bodies began appearing on Bucha’s streets, and continued shelling made it impossible to clear them out.

“We just had to start burying the bodies, as risky as it was, because it just became unbearable. There were bodies everywhere, dogs eating them…” Dovgopol recalls.

Reaching the cemetery was impossible, as the area was full of snipers. So on March 10, Dovgopol and his colleagues dug out a mass grave near a local church, burying 67 people.

They took photos and assigned numbers to every person, passing this information to the police. The hospital managed to identify 35 bodies, including three Ukrainian soldiers. The names of 32 people remained unknown.

A Ukrainian soldier talks to a woman in Bucha, a city north of Kyiv, on March 13, 2022. (Getty Images)

For the few days that followed, Dovgopol and his colleagues drove around Bucha with whatever food they had left, letting people know of upcoming evacuations. Russian forces in the city didn’t threaten their ambulance, but controlled their movement. Two Russian military vehicles followed them everywhere they went.

On March 11, Russian soldiers burst into the hospital and demanded to see its leaders.

“There is no government here,” Russians told Dovgopol.

Yet some local officials remained in the city, wearing white uniforms under the cover of hospital staff to avoid being a target.

“We want to collaborate with you,” Russian soldiers told Dovgopol. “And we want you to head the local interim administration. If you want to continue working here, you have to cooperate with us. If you try to leave, you will regret it,” Russians said.

They promised to come back at 11 a.m. the next day. The morning came, but the Russians never showed up.

The hospital’s team agreed to evacuate as soon as possible. There was no evacuation corridor. But as the fighting reignited in Bucha, it became clear that there may not be another chance to get out. Five hospital workers refused to leave – some had nowhere to go, some had old parents to look after.

Dovgopol and his team packed their most expensive medical equipment into vehicles and carefully left the hospital.

As a dozen cars moved through the city, headed by Dovgopol in an ambulance, around 200 civilian cars joined them. The column moved via the route the hospital’s director remembered from a few days ago, when the Red Cross escorted him to Kyiv to pick up extra supplies.

The roads were crowded with shot cars, and bodies of killed civilians in them. Hours later, Dovgopol’s column slowly reached the Ukraine-controlled outskirts of Kyiv, and civilian cars dispersed.

The remaining staff members soon abandoned the hospital, which Russian forces now occupy, Dovgopol said.

“If we stayed, they’d make us slaves of the Russian world,” he added.

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