DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - In a Ukrainian city stalked by death, Tatyana Makarchuk, the director of Donetsk Maternity Hospital No. 3, is making sure that new life can survive.
She has fitted out a cellar underneath the hospital with baby cots and ventilators so newborns can be moved there when, as often happens, the shells start landing.
Donetsk is becoming a battle zone as government forces press an offensive intended to crush pro-Moscow separatists who have made the city in eastern Ukraine their main stronghold.
Ukraine’s Western-backed government denies shelling civilian areas, but ordinary people are being caught up in the fighting, including expectant mothers and babies.
Twice last week hospital administrators had to call staff, and patients - around 45 people in all - down into the cellar where Makarchuk has organized a makeshift ward.
“Once the windows start to shake then we know it’s time to go down to the cellar. We haven’t had a mortar hit our hospital area yet and hopefully one won’t, but you never know when the next one will hit,” she said.
Makarchuk, 63, has impeccably coiffed dyed-red hair and an easy smile. She wears a pristine white hospital gown and sits in her office surrounded by pictures of her grandchildren.
“We don’t care what side the people are on - those who come into our hospital to give birth. Most important is that the children born here will be happy and not have to hide in cellars,” said Makarchuk, her voice cracking as she looked away to hide welling tears.
The United Nations said this month that an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, had been killed in the four-month conflict. That figure nearly doubled since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and fighting started in urban areas.
Ukraine’s Western allies have made little public mention of civilian casualties resulting from Kiev’s offensive, giving the Ukrainian government the space to pursue its military campaign.
Russia, which has made common cause with the mainly Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine, accuses Kiev of deliberately targeting civilians and causing a humanitarian catastrophe in Donetsk and the nearby city of Luhansk.
Many people have fled Donetsk. Last week the hospital had six births, while in the same week a year ago it recorded 61 babies being born.
The mothers who come to give birth at the hospital say they were too frightened to make the hazardous journey out of the city, had nowhere else to go, or preferred to stay close to family in Donetsk.
In a basement room beneath the Donetsk hospital that is normally used for conferences, desks have been cleared away to make room for seven cots for infants, blankets already tucked in. Flip-charts used for conferences have been pushed to the walls in another room to make way for ventilators.
“Everything is switched on and running constantly, ready to go in case there’s another attack,” said Yelena Samoilenko, 50, who specializes in neonatal care.
The buzz of the bare light bulbs fixed on the ceiling echoes off the damp walls and brown linoleum floors.
“I never thought I would hear the sound of mortar shells. My work is different - to give life,” said Samoilenko, standing by an infant’s bed in the cellar with a stethoscope hanging around her neck.
However, staff consider the condition of some newborn babies in the intensive care unit of the maternity hospital too fragile to move them into the basement.
When the sound of artillery started booming around the city this week, Natalia Mukhina, who runs the unit, refused to go down to the cellar or allow other hospital workers to move the five infants who are currently on ventilators and other life-support systems.
She waited nearly a half-hour with another nurse, standing by the infants, some of whom twitched and jerked at the sounds of the explosions, until the bombing ended.
“These infants need oxygen constantly and even the brief period of time it would take to unplug them and take them downstairs would threaten their lives,” she said.
“It’s impossible for violence not to have a negative effect on infants this vulnerable,” she said, standing next to one she said weighed only 600 grams.
“They shouldn’t be going through this.”
Editing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood