Half a year of war in Ukraine: the Russians could capture Mariupol only by destroying it
Interview with Elizar Grankov, a doctor who was at a hospital in Mariupol. Interviewer: Zoriana Varenia.
ZORIANA VARENIA: I know that you are originally from Donetsk and that you moved to Mariupol in 2014. When we speak of February 24th and what began then, did you have the same feeling as back in 2014 or was it different?
ELIZAR GRANKOV: Very different. Back then in 2014 it wasn’t clear what was happening, what Russia wanted. There were riots, Crimea, war in some towns, but not at this scale. This year it is a different feeling. Before the war the tensions were very, very high.
Does this mean that you felt there would be a war? Did you believe in the information passed on by western intelligence?
I was certain during the last eight years that war would break out at some point, but I didn’t want to believe it. I was hoping that Putin would die. I had no idea that people in Russia would turn into Nazis and monsters.
What took place on the 24th? How did you come to understand that it was war?
I had a clear understanding that the war had started. I had a shift in the hospital and I’m not sure exactly when it was, but early in the morning – 5 or 5:30 – I heard explosions. I got up and began to read the news about what had happened and saw what the president of the Russian Federation was saying. Half an hour later ambulances were arriving and we continued our work – saving people.
Did the ambulances arrive with soldiers or civilians?
During the first day it was civilians. Almost no soldiers.
So the bombing had started and the ambulances were coming to you already in the first hour of the war?
The Russians were targeting all kinds of military targets on the 24th, but not always hitting them. They would also strike and injure civilians in their own homes.
What can you tell us about the hospital?
I am an anesthesiologist who has worked in a few hospitals in Mariupol. One municipal hospital and one regional. The hospital in the city had been fully refurbished with new equipment. There are photos of how it looked. It was a modern hospital and it was completely destroyed in March and April. I spent three weeks of the war in the regional hospital working around the clock. I was home just a few times. That hospital was yellow and blue. It now has no windows and some of the wards are destroyed. The building is still standing.
Where did the majority of the victims come from?
From the entire city. During the three weeks I was in Mariupol they destroyed the entire city. This is the reason why people from the whole city would keep coming to us, transporting people, even crawling.
Do you remember the occupation of Mariupol in 2014, how did the city change since then?
Mariupol was never occupied in 2014 in the way it is now. Different groups of separatists attempted to take over the city together with the Russian army. That is when the Azov Regiment was formed and other Ukrainian units simply liberated the city after a month. Only a few buildings were damaged and the city was whole. When I moved to Mariupol eight years ago the place looked like any post-Soviet town. It was being reconstructed with parks, roads and all the hospitals were renovated. Many playgrounds were built for the children. Mariupol was slowly becoming one of the best places to live. Interestingly, there was a large percentage of people who supported the Russians in 2014. After eight years it was only individual cases. You couldn’t find many who would support them. Ukraine showed how Mariupol could look like. Donetsk is just 100 km away and it has stagnated since 2014. We had developed and Donetsk had gone the other way. When I look at what is going on there I see that the city is collapsing even without the intervention of the military. It is simply going under.
What do you feel now that Mariupol has been destroyed? When you look at the pictures do you feel mercy, hate, anger or nostalgia?
I have mixed feelings. All of the ones you mentioned, but also regret. The most intense feeling is the hate towards everything the Russians have done to our lives. We were prospering, living, travelling, earning money, simply living positively. We had what we had. But what we had was improving. Now all of that is gone, just taken away from us.
Do you understand why they did this?
Yes, I do. There are two main issues – Putin and power, and those who surround him. They do not think of Mariupol as a city just as they don’t think of any other cities. They want territory, more land on the map to consolidate their empire – that’s all. The average Russians are… I don’t want to insult them, but they are like dumb cattle. The intellectuals have left Russia, leaving a stupid biomass behind staring at the TV dreaming of the greatness of their people. This is the same propaganda that was shown in Germany in the 1930s, with the same methods influencing the minds of Russians.
Returning to February 24th. Were you in shock that it was happening?
Everyone was shocked that it was happening. I am used to sudden events as a doctor so I forgot about being shocked and started to help people who experienced a real shock after injury. Later there were a few times when we could have died. We were in a state of permanent shock.
Were you surprised by the number of injured?
I am a well-trained anesthesiologist who has completed many different courses, including military ones. I have a lot of military friends whom I have taught some elements of my practice. I was ready, but on the other hand it wasn’t a day or two, but constant. Everyday we had dozens of operations, I’m not even sure how many, no one was counting. Nobody could be prepared for such a large number of injured.
How long were you there for?
From February 24th to March 15th. From the 12th to the 15th I was in Russian captivity, from which we escaped with a few colleagues.
How were you caught?
The Russians were coming at us from all sides, but our hospital was at the edge of town. When we were attacked they had already destroyed all the buildings surrounding ours. All the residential houses where people lived were simply demolished. I was in the centre of the district which was being completely levelled. They kept firing mortars, Grad missiles and rockets from planes and everywhere. I could see nine-storey buildings burning from the window of my hospital. They were destroying everything around our hospital. They left our hospital relatively untouched on purpose, because they also needed treatment. When everything had been destroyed and our sector became indefensible, the Ukrainian army withdrew deeper into the city. The Russians entered with tanks trying to get further in, but our army would destroy their tanks. Then they just took over the burnt out area surrounding us.
Did the Russians force you to treat their soldiers?
We had Russian soldiers who had lost their limbs and received all types of injuries. Doctors should treat all people irregardless of their race, nationality or anything else. I did not deal with anyone personally. That is my point of view, how I think. Others did.
Were you not afraid that you would be forced? Were you afraid to die?
If they had aimed a machine gun at me I would have done my job – what can I say. Fear of death… I think I am afraid of dying now that I have lived a few months in relative peace. Yes, there are rockets and sirens, but not that kind of hell. I began to worry about myself and my family, just as all my colleagues. We lost the sense of fear when everything around us kept exploding and we had no idea where the next one would happen or if a rocket will drop straight on us. Death could be the result of a coincidence. Someone could be hiding in an apartment or in a basement and die, while someone else could be walking down the street. It was very cold when we went to bed, as there were no windows. I would go to sleep for a few hours and when I shut my eyes I thought about how good it would be if a Russian missile hit me while asleep, because I would die unaware. Then I wake up and realise that I am alive and that I must continue with the work of saving people. New feelings of indifference emerge during war.
What were the Russian soldiers like? Were they professional or so-called “cannon fodder” from conscription?
They would mostly wait at the edges of town and then they were sent to take over buildings. Us doctors were captured by professional Russian forces. It could be heard from their accents and seen in the way they dress. When they left we could see the “cannon fodder”. They were recruited in other towns, given weapons and pointed in a general direction. If you don’t go, we’ll shoot you. Many were terrified. I could see the emptiness in their eyes. There were also many who went on killing with joy. They also said that Ukraine had been bombing Donbas for the last eight years, but those are fairy tales for Russians from Siberia, or maybe Moscow. I did have a short conversation, with an officer most likely, after our hospital was taken over. He controlled the whole hospital, walking around looking at everyone so that he could remember them. I asked if I could go home, because I have a small child there and no water there. He smiled and told me that of course I could leave, but then you must understand that Azov could kill you. He gave us a clear hint that we will be killed if we leave. But there was no Azov there, just Russians. So, in reality, they told us they would kill us.
Did you try to talk to the soldiers that captured you?
Yes, I did. Why not? Most of them didn’t want to say anything, and the ones who did would say that Ukraine has been killing them for eight years and that Ukraine isn’t a country but part of Russia. These were the standard exchanges. They are really like zombies.
Did you have a chance to escape?
From Mariupol? On February 24th everyone could move freely in any direction.
I mean after the 24th, when the war broke out?
One could still leave in the days after the 24th. We didn’t leave because it was my job as a doctor to help. Frankly speaking, I didn’t even have an idea of what to do, as no one thought they would destroy a city of half a million people. We didn’t think that war would mean the destruction of everything. They came and demolished it. Even before the war I would say that Mariupol could only be taken if destroyed, but I wouldn’t believe they would really go through with it.
What was the beginning of Russian occupation like? Did you witness any war crimes? Did you see shot-up cars with “children” written on them?
Yes, I saw this. I have shared everything with the prosecutor’s office, the UN, Human Rights Watch and other organisations. I have given a statement to the relevant authorities describing what the Russians did. Just a few examples: on March 12th at ten in the morning on Matrosova Street, I saw how the Russians fired at three cars from the sixth floor. As a result, at least a few people died and some others were injured. We would later save those people on the operating table. I described in detail the mark of the cars and anything else I witnessed. A lot of things. This is so you can understand the cruelty of the Russians when they took over our hospital. We received pregnant women from the maternity hospital that was destroyed in Mariupol and some of them gave birth. We also tried to save a newborn that wasn’t born yet, but died inside its mother’s womb. We tried to save a child that hadn’t even inhaled a single breath in its life before it died. I am saying this so that you understand! They knew we had women, children and a number of patients. This didn’t stop them from turning our hospital into a shooting position. They shot from tanks and fired Grads from the area of our hospital in the direction of the city. They hid behind our hospital, opened fire and returned to the backyard of the building. There were always armed personnel carriers, tanks and other equipment there. The Ukrainian army never returned fire towards our hospital. This clearly shows who is who.
You mentioned pregnant women that came to you from the maternity hospital. How many were there?
Around ten. Over three days we had ten women in labour.
And how did the hospital look like? You mentioned that it was March and there were no windows. How was hospital life when it was minus ten degrees?
Our hospital had a generator that ran on oil. When the whole city was without electricity, we still had it. We could function. We had to operate on people and we had machinery to sustain them on life support. We kept the whole ward operational thanks to that generator. As we had no windows, we had to cover them with paperboards, mattresses and anything else we could find. It was still very, very cold. It was cold to the extent that we would wear three or four pairs of trousers on top of each other, a few shirts, pullovers and jackets. On top of that we wore our COVID-19 suits. After that we were able to warm ourselves.
The main hospital is an eight-storey tall building with a separate wing for surgery connected by corridors. This is a normal layout, but we didn’t have enough space in the operating block. While we would perform surgery on one patient, another would arrive and we wouldn’t know where to place them. We had to carry people to different floors. We would carry them wherever we could, as the hospital was filled with all kinds of people. In addition to that the windows were gone, making it really cold. Almost everyone lived in these corridors.
Your hospital was fired upon. Were the floors destroyed? Did the Russians also shoot at it?
Yes, this happened in early March. I’m not sure exactly when. I was in the intensive care unit picking up patients. There were intense barrages and Grad strikes or something like that was falling around us. They were aiming at the hospital and the windows were broken, walls collapsed and a few floors were destroyed within the hospital. After the fourth and fifth round only a hole was left.
How did you manage to organise food and medicine?
During the first days of war, we managed to buy quite a lot of food together with the other doctors. They were still working and you could still buy things with your card. Many people would come to us with medicines. Some pharmacists would simply show up with medicines, and we would go to the pharmacies nearby collecting whatever we could find and anything we needed. When I escaped from the city and the hospital, nothing was left.
How was your relationship with the other doctors who were there. Did you talk to each other and discuss how to run away? Were some of them pro-Russian?
Although I do know pro-Russian doctors, none were at the hospital during the fighting. We lived like a family with the other doctors not knowing if we could get from point A to point B in the hospital without getting killed. During this time we all supported Ukraine and had one thing to tell the Russians: fuck off.
What about the last days of the hospital before the Russians arrived?
With regards to water and food, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers would bring both together with medicines up until March 10th. Later on, when our area was being pounded, no one would come. We would syphon water from the heating system and pipes, saving every drop we could, as it was the most important thing. I even found four five litre bottles of water that were for watering the flowers in one of the rooms. The water wasn’t too fresh, but possible to drink. When it comes to food we found an expired chicken on the floor and cooked it somehow. We simmered it and ate it, as we had to eat at least once a day. We would lose a lot of energy. When I came out of captivity I had lost ten kilograms, some ten per cent of my weight.
When it comes to children. Well, the first child I saw was during my most difficult days. They arrived on February 28th. We tried to resuscitate, save her. Nothing worked. The wounds were too terrible to comply with life. Then up until March 15th, there were many children. I was there at the operating table with more than a dozen children. There were times when dead bodies would arrive. The mothers would bring them. They brought two dead children at the same time. One was two years old and the other eight months. One child died after a bomb landed right next to us. A lot of glass broke, nearly cutting the child in half. It was a small child. Even doctors struggle in such situations: a murdered child and a mother pleading for help. No one could help her. At the same time, another mother runs into the room with something bloody covered by a cloth. I see a separated shoulder of a child, its ribs, and I know that the child is deceased, nothing is there. But she begs: please do something, doctor. There is nothing you can do.
When you discuss fear, in that moment, as a person, a man, a doctor, the father of my child, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I even threw the cigarette I was smoking straight into the face of a Russian occupier. I didn’t care if he would shoot me. Nothing mattered then. If I would be shot, I would be shot. If not, then not. Let it be.
How did you escape captivity?
I have shared this a few times already. It is an interesting story. At first, I was at the hospital. I hadn’t seen my family for a week, there was no mobile service. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go home and my brother came to pick me up. When we were about to leave it was too late, as Russian tanks had arrived. We remained there and my brother also began to help out. Later on my mother arrived, as both her sons had just left and disappeared. She also didn’t care about herself any longer and just wanted to find us. She did. We were all captives. My brother had been a soldier in the army once. We would look through the window together and look at the scene. There were some people cooking outdoors, some kind of life alongside us. We were in some separate world unable to leave the hospital. We would be shot if we did. We knew there were some people somewhere out there and when we came downstairs we noticed that the Russians had brought food for the first time in three days. At the time there were hundreds or thousands of people there. I have no idea how many exactly. Everyone ran towards the truck because they were hungry. The crowd grew larger and became difficult to contain. That is when I understood that I had to collect myself and leave. I took a five litre bottle of water, my colleague, brother and mother and calmly left the premises of the hospital. We passed a dozen Russian soldiers with machine guns along the way. We just put one foot in front of the other. We had discarded our medical wear, as they would never let us pass dressed in such a way. We would walk around the city looking at how everything was destroyed. We saw dead people and burnt out Russian equipment. Then we returned home for a bit. After that we left towards Berdiansk. Many were heading that direction leaving the city, as the Russians had agreed to a humanitarian corridor. We managed to get to Zaporizhzhia.
Would you be able to save Russian soldiers after what has happened?
I have two personalities. One is that of a medical practitioner. When I am on the clock in the hospital, I have to do my work saving people. If a Russian soldier arrives, I will save him. What happens after that is none of my business, be it captivity, exchange or execution. The second personality is that of a Ukrainian. I won’t save them… Quite the opposite. I am ready to do anything, ready to kill.
The city is destroyed. Walking through its streets you saw many killed, flattened houses. Do you think that life is possible there? Can it be rebuilt? Is it just a dead city now?
These are philosophical questions. To me personally, the Mariupol I knew and lived in will never exist again. It cannot be resuscitated. If Mariupol is reconstructed, it will be another city. I really liked the city with the only drawback being the factories, while the rest… Well, the Azov Sea maybe isn’t the best, but it is nice to go and look at it, sit down there or swim if you’d like. I have no such opportunity living in Kyiv. I would move there if I heard that the city is being reconstructed, as a new city. I would live in it, but the streets would be different, they would not exist as they were. The state it is in now, it shouldn’t be rebuilt, but constructed from scratch.
Do you believe it will be reconstructed?
I do believe so. But before it is rebuilt it has to be liberated. Then we can think of it as something new. As a doctor I can believe in many things, but if I have a patient, I have to treat them. I believe that they will survive, but belief is one thing and doing something to survive is a whole other matter.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Elizar Grankov is an anaesthesiologist now based in Kyiv
Zoriana Varenia is based in Warsaw and works at the office of Marek Biernacki, a Polish MP for Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform)
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.