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UKRAINE – Medical directors don’t generally carry loaded pistols at work, but it’s an unfortunate necessity at the Kherson Region Clinical Hospital in southern Ukraine.
“Sabotage groups [loyal to Russia] are targeting heads of hospitals,” said director Viktor Korolenko, who, together with his senior staff, refused to cooperate with Russian forces that seized Kherson in early March 2022, a week after the initial invasion.
It started with demands that they register as Russian employees and pledge allegiance to Moscow. “They took members of my staff to basements and beat and tortured them, but people still refused,” said Korolenko.
Three months into the nine-month occupation, Russian officials finally came to his office and gave him a stark choice: fully cooperate and run the health service for the entire Kherson region – or be jailed for 18 years.
“They gave me a day to think about it,” Korolenko said, recalling the painful decision to relocate to Ukrainian-controlled territory hastily. “I left that night in an armored ambulance.”
After working in Kyiv in the intervening months, Korolenko returned to Kherson a day after Ukrainian forces liberated the city on November 11. While some of his staff had also left and remained in the EU, his pre-war team is mostly back at the hospital, working hard to restore comprehensive health services.
The task was challenging enough amid the city’s power outages, supply shortages and heavy shelling. But the detonation of the Kakhovka Dam on June 6 caused widespread flooding and a further rapid breakdown in care systems. Both sides blamed the other for triggering the catastrophe.
With huge areas still waterlogged and water sources heavily polluted with oil and other contaminants, an epidemic of water-borne illness is now “inevitable,” said Korolenko. “But we are ready, the hospital is prepared, and we now have enough antibiotics.”
HUMANITARIAN NGOs RAMP UP FLOOD RESPONSE
Ukrainian and international organizations, including Direct Relief and its local partners, are scaling up operations to replenish medical stocks at local hospitals. On June 13, the Chernivtsy-based NGO Hromada Hub delivered two truckloads of medicines, hygiene products and 20,000 liters of bottled water to Korolenko’s hospital. Another 20,000 liters were trucked to Nikopol, 100 miles (160km) up the Dnieper River, after the city also lost its primary potable water source due to the Kakhovka Dam collapse.
Having first consulted with the hospital about its needs, Hromada Hub delivered a range of medicines, including more than 900lbs (400kg) of Moxifloxacin hydrochloride, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections.
Other Direct Relief-supported organizations in Ukraine also dispatched truckloads of medical products to Kherson. Since the dam collapse, Humanitarian Hub Zhytomyr, located in the eponymous western Ukrainian city, sent five tons of medicines and supplies. It also delivered gasoline-powered water pumps.
In the central city of Uman, the Ukrainian charity Modern Villages and Town sent a truck full of Direct Relief medicines, disinfectants and bottles of water. The organization has also been responding to the aftermath of Russian missile strikes in Uman on April 28 and June 8 that killed 23 people and injured dozens more.
In Ukraine’s east-central Poltava region, Direct Relief’s French partner Association Іnternationale de Сoopération Médicale (AICM) is coordinating a large planned delivery to Kherson with the local health authorities, given the looming threat of diseases like cholera.
“Only 200 beds are opened for CD (communicable diseases) in Kherson hospitals, and 20 cases have already arrived,” said AICM regional director Dr. Christian Carrer. “The tests of water are very bad, and the temperature is rising, so the next days will be very difficult, and [this concerns] 360,000 people not only in Kherson but also in Mykolaiv and Dnipro [regions].”
The most acute medical crisis can arise ten or more days after flooding, especially for people who are elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions and are already vulnerable.
“This is why we are working closely with the emergency services to assess the needs correctly,” Carrer added. “We are preparing a large donation with many different types of aid – medicines, food, hygiene, cisterns, disinfection kits, water pumps, pipes, generators – and we will give also a 20-ton truck to the emergency services to replace the one destroyed.”
However, the deteriorating security situation hampered AICM’s hopes to join UN agencies and access badly affected parts of the Dnieper’s Russian-held left bank. Around 70 percent of the Kherson region remains Russian-controlled, complicating efforts to assist the civilian population there.
“Yesterday [on June 12], our police and military spontaneously used boats to evacuate 120 civilians stranded on the left bank,” said Oleksandr Samoilenko, head of the Kherson Regional Council. “Russian soldiers opened intense fire on them with automatic weapons, killing two police officers and a 74-year-old man who died while shielding two women.”
Family homes devastated
More than 3,000 people have evacuated from the flooded areas on the Ukrainian-held side of the river, with 1,700 coming from Kherson city’s Karabel district, according to Samoilenko. Many also chose to remain, camping as close to their submerged homes as possible and waiting for the waters to drop, regardless of the danger. “They got used to the constant shelling and still believe that everything will be OK,” he said.
However, as the waters subside, houses will likely remain inhabitable, he noted, as many sustained too much damage to their foundations and walls. Since Friday, the water level has fallen more than six feet (2 meters), and people in many areas could start assessing the damage.
In the village of Fedorivka, located on the broken banks of the Ingulets River about 12 miles (20 km) from Kherson, Iryna and her husband and three children have little hope of moving back into their home any time soon. While the now drained house appears structurally sound, its contents were ruined by the waters that swelled high above the foundation on June 6.
“By 5 p.m. that day, our garden was flooded, and at midnight, we had to leave the house,” said Iryna, whose family is staying at a friend’s house further up in the village. “We came back the next morning to find the house was mostly under water. We couldn’t save anything. It’s easier now to just throw everything away. But what’s done is done.”
A total of 63 houses in Fedorivka were inundated, and residents are doubtful they will receive adequate help from the local authorities. However, material assistance in the form of food, clothing, and bedding is gradually reaching this and other villages thanks to a growing force of volunteers and NGOs working in the area. In Kherson, truckloads of supplies keep arriving from around Ukraine and neighboring countries to restore some normality despite the Russian harassment.
The hospital director Korolenko can attest to the power of life carrying on in the most extreme of circumstances. In early March 2022, a week after the occupation, two of his staff insisted on getting married according to Ukrainian practices. Under Ukrainian law, he, as hospital director, had the right to conduct a wedding ceremony during a state emergency.
So he did – “just like a ship’s captain,” Korolenko said, showing photos of the extraordinary event on his phone. “We did it with Ukrainian colors and symbols on the table in front of us. I thought the Russians would take me out and shoot me, but they didn’t interfere – they were probably too busy,” he laughed.
Editor’s note: Since the war began, Direct Relief has deployed more than 271 million defined daily doses and $930 million in material aid and $32 million in financial assistance to Ukraine.