Letter to Anna from Tetyana Sokolova (UKRAINE)

On behalf of the midwives and health workers who continue to save and give life under fire in the war in Ukraine

for the 16th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder

7 October 2022

Dear Anna!

I know you only virtually. I have read your books and articles, your reports from Chechnya, they are so clear and so relevant again. Despicable war came to my country, to my city, to my life. You are a legend, a woman-warrior, and I admire and bow my head to your courage, your intrepid character, your desire to save and help people. Even after they tried to poison you during a flight, you survived, you didn’t break down, you didn’t stop. It was the only thing you could do. You continued to fight, your voice was heard by the whole world, it did not leave freedom-loving people indifferent, and kept the masterminds of war and terror in fear. You were murdered in an underhand way, but you live on in the memory and in the hearts of people. You will always stay in my heart.

I really want to tell you about the war that came into my life. There is no greater evil invented by man on earth than war. Mariupol, maternity hospital number two, it was very popular among the women of the city. Probably one third of Mariupol’s population of half a million people was born there. Women from all corners of the city came here to be treated and give birth. I loved my job very much. There was always a lot of joy associated with labour and childbirth. Every day happy relatives, new fathers, very noisy and full of joy, appeared on the doorstep of the maternity clinic with flowers and balloons. The entire pavement in front of the windows was painted with “Darling, thank you for our son!”, “Thank you for our daughter”, “I love you”.

How has the war changed all that. Mariupol was ablaze with round-the-clock bombing and shelling. When I close my eyes I hear the rumble of planes carrying death and destruction. Bombs exploding, shells roaring, screams and crying. Death is all around, it is very close, it peeks into my eyes and makes my soul cold, fills my heart with fear and tears it to pieces. Fleeing from the bombing, people streamed into the basement of our maternity hospital. Beds, mattresses, pillows and blankets were brought down from all the wards of the four-storey building. The beds were very densely packed to accommodate more people. But people kept coming. Most of the inhabitants of the cellar were women and children. They were women who had given birth at our place but could not go home because of the bombing. They were given a corner in the basement without windows, fenced off with sheets. There were women with babies and older children and their families. The staff of the maternity hospital also lived here. There weren’t many employees, but the maternity hospital continued to work, because the war had not abolished childbirth. The city was surrounded. There was no way out of it, shelling and bombing went on for 24 hours a day. At one point we made a vow: we would work, we would carry on until the end, as long as our help was needed by those who came to us for help. One evening we held a meeting and promised each other that none of us, the four remaining women health workers, would run away. We had no idea at the time what huge challenges lay ahead.

Once again, my memory transports me to the basement. It is very cold. There is no heating, no water, no electricity, it’s minus ten outside. The generator is turned on once a day for 1 hour and only during labour, or rather only to receive the baby and examine the birth canal. Katya’s contractions have started. Katya was one of three women who had been brought to us from the wrecked Maternity Hospital Number Three with a big white flag with a red cross flying on its roof. In spite of this, bombs were dropped on it, killing mothers and newborn babies. Katya found herself in the midst of it. For another two weeks she lived in our basement waiting to give birth. Her bed was by the door, and as I passed it, I saw her lying curled up in a ball, staring in front of her. She was withdrawn, she told us nothing of her experiences, and we never questioned her. On the night of Katya’s labour, there was a very heavy bombardment. Bombs were falling very close. It felt like our building was bouncing, glass was falling from the upper floors, there was a smell of dust and burning. Every time a plane rumbled, Katya put a pillow over her head, covering her ears, and screamed in fear. The plane would fly away, she would go quiet, and then it would happen again. She screamed and screamed and screamed. At one point, I leaned towards her, hugging her tightly. I remember how she clung to me, sobbing, and fell silent. Just like a little girl. Just in the same way, many years ago, I held my little son in my arms to comfort him. He would snuggle up to me and fall silent. We sat in each other’s arms for a very long time, cuddling, not knowing how this bombardment would end for us. Sometimes I could feel Katya’s baby moving in her belly, pushing me and reminding me of myself. At dawn Katya gave birth to a boy, weighing 3.9 kg. The planes flew away, silence fell. The baby, with a loud cry, announced his birth. The inhabitants of our basement greeted his arrival with thunderous applause. I look into Katya’s eyes; they were tired and immensely happy. She cuddled the baby; gave him her breast and he accepted it with pleasure. At that moment the war slipped into the background, only Katya and her small son remained. A great motherly love has come into her life, that will live in her heart until the last beat, it is bigger than the war. I rejoiced and wept. 

On that terrible day another woman in labour was brought to us from the wrecked maternity hospital, in very serious condition, with multiple shrapnel wounds to her arms and legs and a small wound to the abdomen. After examining her, our gynaecologist uttered the dreadful diagnosis: intrauterine foetal death, internal haemorrhage. We didn’t know how many internal organs were damaged by the shrapnel. We needed a surgeon but had none, we needed to save her, to perform an operation. The decision was made to perform a caesarean section, the baby was dead, but the mother could still be saved. Our anaesthesiologist adjusted the equipment, which was brought from the operating room to the basement and administered anaesthesia. We all prayed, washed, and laid out our instruments. The work begins, heavy shelling resumes all around us. The crew works fast, in a precise, concentrated way. It is very cold. Svetlana extracts the dead boy, hands him over to the paediatrician, sews up the damaged tissue, says the uterus can be saved and that is good news. The lights go out, the generator runs out of diesel, we stitch up the skin under the light of our telephone torches. The delivery room empties out, Vika is taken to her bed, and she is surrounded by hot-water bottles. Water is heated over a campfire. It is very dark and very cold. On a table, in a pan, lies the dead baby. I can’t imagine who will have to inform the mother tomorrow of her baby’s death. The woman who, at the age of thirty-nine, became pregnant for the first time, having been treated in hospital three times during her pregnancy. It was there in the hospital that shrapnel from the aerial bomb found her. I quietly approach the baby; I think he is very cold. I tell him he is a hero; he has saved his mother by taking the shrapnel instead. I ask him to forgive the adults for this war. I look at him in the light of my torch, he is very beautiful. He appears to be asleep. I wrap him in a sheet, quietly walk out, close the door behind me. Lord, save my mind! War, I hate you!

I am writing this letter to you, Anna, and I am crying… I really want to tell you and the whole world how in the basement of the ruined maternity hospital in Mariupol 27 babies were born, under bombardment, shelling, Grad rocket blasts, thanks to the courage and steadfastness of their mothers. I want to mention our small medical team of 4 women who remained true to themselves, who stayed there in the basement to help women in childbirth so that good could triumph over evil, so that new life could spring up amidst death and destruction.

Our work may not be on the same scale as your struggle, Anna, but I really want to believe that these 27 new-borns will grow into journalists and writers, radiant and courageous people, bringing light and goodness to this world, that still has so much evil in it. 

I am lucky to have survived and to be able to tell people about this war, urging them to love and not to kill.

With love, 

Tetyana Sokolova