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Ukraine: Women giving birth in basements and bunkers

March 9, 2022

Russia has been continuing its assault on Ukrainian cities. Hospitals and maternity wards have been in the firing line. Many expectant mothers have been forced to give birth in cellars and air raid shelters.

A woman holds her baby girl in the basement of a Kyiv maternity hospital
Pregnant woman and young mothers are particularly vulnerable in warImage: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo/picture alliance

It was late February when Kyiv local Svetlana Lukash started going into labor. Despite air raid sirens blaring, and a city-wide curfew, Lukash was taken to a maternity ward. The pregnant woman, in danger of experiencing complications during childbirth, did not want to take any unnecessary risks.

"You cannot give birth at home, on your sofa, when there could be complications," she told DW. "Once we arrived at hospital, we were taken to the basement."

Russia's war on Ukraine has seen it launch scores of rockets and drop countless bombs on cities, forcing pregnant woman to seek shelter and give birth in hospital basements. While unsuited for such purposes, such places are much safer than delivery rooms that could be hit by Russian fire.

Destroyed maternity wards

Many Ukrainian hospitals have been damaged or destroyed since Russia launched its assault on the country. One Russian attack on March 2 laid waste to Zhytomyr maternity ward. Not long after that, hospitals in Mariupol and Vasylivka were also attacked and destroyed. Three locals were killed in that last attack.

"Neither medical personnel nor patients were harmed; in fact, a baby was born during the attack," according to Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Lyashko. He added that "life goes on, the screams of newborn Ukrainians will defeat the heavy aerial bombings of the terrorists."

A woman holds her newborn at Okhmadet children's hospital, Kyiv
Many women had to give birth in bunkers or at homeImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/picture alliance

"The world must know that Ukrainian women are giving birth while under attack, we are calling for them to be evacuated," former Ukrainian parliamentarian Anna Hopko told DW. Her friend recently had a baby while sheltering in an air raid bunker.

Hopko is calling for the Red Cross and other relief agencies to come to the country and tend to Ukrainians. But for that to happen, Russia must halt its assault on Ukraine's cities. "We need a no-fly-zone over Ukraine," stresses Hopko.

Kyiv taking constant fire

Maria Shostak started going into labor on February 24, the day Russia began its assault on neighboring Ukraine. She and other Kyiv women were brought to a storage basement for safety reasons.

"We were then asked to move to another cellar with access to electricity," Shostak recalled. "It was cold, but we were told pregnant women could stay there." She says moving in and out of cellars was exhausting for them, so most stayed put, resting on chairs. Finally, she remembers, the cellar was decked out with mattresses, blankets and pillows for the mothers-to-be.

During a lull in fighting, Maria was able to give birth in the delivery room. "If the air raid siren had sounded, I would have given birth in the basement."

She tells DW how several doctors entered the ward, telling them an evacuation was underway and that they should relocate to the basement. "But I was feeling nauseous and told them I wanted to stay at my own risk," she told DW. Maria had a c-section; other women had the same procedure in the basement.

Life in occupied Kherson

Giving birth in the city of Kherson, which has been under Russian control, has not been any easier. Yuriy Herman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the local hospital, told DW women are also forced to give birth while sheltering in basements.

A nurse takes notes in the cellar of Okhmadet children's hospital
Doctors warn that it's often not safe to give birth in the bunkersImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/picture alliance

"These cold basements are suitable for waiting out arial attacks, nothing else," says Herman. "Now, they are used by pregnant women and mothers with their babies to stay out of harm's way; giving birth is anything but safe under such conditions." He says if emergency surgery becomes necessary, expectant mothers need to be brought to the operating theater, which presents a grave danger.

The hospital basement had not been prepared for a situation like this. Nobody in Kherson believed war would break out, says Herman. He says despite the grim circumstances, four babies had been born in the basement since fighting began.

Herman says circumstances have forced some women to give birth at home, with Russian forces blocking ambulances. Expectant mothers had phoned the hospital for step-by-step instructions on giving birth and how to cut the umbilical cords. The medical expert says that Russian troops now no longer obstruct ambulances.

Pregnant women living just outside of the occupied city face even greater challenges, he explains. They cannot reach the town hospital, as Russia has sealed off the city. "They don't have the kind of maternity wards we have, many women who want to come to Kherson cannot; pregnant women expecting complications usually came to our ward."

Chernihiv under attack

The situation in the city Chernihiv is even more dire. It has been under constant Russian missile fire. The municipal hospital took a direct hit on March 2, causing severe structural damage. Fortunately, Chernihiv maternity ward remains intact and operational. Expectant mothers and doctors, however, are forced to constantly shelter in its basement.

"We have a large, recently refurbished air raid bunker with proper ventilation, a separate power generator, toilets and even an operating theater," says chief physician Vasyl Husak. "We stocked food and medicine — I expected a Russian attack."

Since the war broke out, there had been over 40 childbirths, Husak told DW. Two mothers gave birth to triplets, which is very rare. "The last time we had triplets was three years ago," Husak said. This time, one mother gave birth to three girls. Another had two girls and one boy.

"All children are healthy," Husak told DW, adding that he regarded these births as a good omen that the war will end soon.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer