Taking cover in a bunker under direct Russian missile fire, the staff of the maternity ward at Zhytomyr’s Pavlusenko hospital focused on the pregnant woman who had started giving birth on the floor of the bomb shelter after the shock of a nearby explosion sent her into labour.
Just moments earlier, air raid sirens had sounded in the Ukrainian city, sending dozens of patients scrambling underground.
Those who were too ill to move – including intubated Covid-19 patients – had to be left upstairs. Designated staff members risked their lives to stay with them.
Hospital officials told The Independent that an airstrike in Zhytomyr on Tuesday had struck a military base just 200 meters away from the facility, seriously damaging multiple wards. Among those worst hits was the maternity wing, where 45 women and 15 newborn babies were being cared for at the time.
“At 10.30pm [on Tuesday night] the sirens warned us that there was incoming fire, so we ran to the shelter,” Dr Olena Volodymyrivna, head of the maternity wing, said by phone from inside a bunker where she was taking cover in response to another air raid siren.
“It was horrible, all the building was trembling. I felt like the ground was being ripped from underneath our feet.”
“All the kids were crying, all of them, and mothers, many of whom had just given birth, were terrified.”
When the explosion sent one woman at full term into labor in the middle of the bombardment, the anaesthesiologists, neonatologists and midwives sprang into action, she said.
“It was the only place we could safely deliver her baby. She gave birth to a baby girl at 6am underground,” Dr Volodymyrivna said.
More than 2,000 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine seven days ago, according to the Ukrainian emergency services, although that number could not be independently verified.
The country’s emergency services also said that hundreds of structures, including transport facilities, hospitals, kindergartens and homes, had been destroyed since the war began.
The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. The United Nations refugee agency says more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine, and has warned that the number could ultimately hit 5 million if the situation keeps deteriorating.
In Zhytomyr, a city close to Kyiv, at least four people including a child were killed in Russia’s bombardment on Tuesday night, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister.
On his Telegram channel, he added that several residential buildings had been set ablaze by the attack, which he believed to have been aimed at the nearby base of the 95th Airborne Brigade.
Across the country, Russia has continued its ferocious onslaught on multiple cities, intensifying its bombardment of urban areas in what western allies fear is a shift of tactics towards indiscriminate targeting of civilians as the seven-day assault stalled.
On Tuesday, Russian forces bombed the main TV tower in Kyiv, killing five people and damaging the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial in the capital. Russia’s troops have also been bombarding Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv – where the death toll has risen to at least 34 – and a missile strike on central Freedom Square sparked worldwide revulsion and uproar.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that he was “deeply concerned” by reports of attacks on healthcare facilities.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the global body was working to verify the reports, and added that attacks on healthcare would be “in violation of international humanitarian law”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went one step further, for the first time explicitly accusing Vladimir Putin’s forces of committing war crimes – saying “horrific acts” were occurring on an almost hourly basis as population centers were targeted.
“What we have already seen from Vladimir Putin’s regime, in the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians, in my view already fully qualifies as a war crime,” Mr Johnson told British MPs on Wednesday.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday said the prosecutor would immediately open an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine, following requests to do so by 39 governments – an unprecedented number of the court’s member states.
In Zhytomyr, Dr Volodymyrivna said the maternity ward was no longer functional, and that all the women and babies had been evacuated to different cities in the region.
Vitalina Cherepanska, an emergency care doctor, said that of the 150 patients in her unit at the hospital, only 30 were still remaining because they were too sick to transfer.
“Those critically ill with Covid and on oxygen have been left in the small number of less damaged rooms that we can cram then in,” she told The Independent.
“Volunteers helped out to temporarily repair the windows with wood, to keep the cold out as it is minus temperatures.”
She said the outpouring of support was keeping her going.
“First I panicked, I was in despair,” she said. “But then when I saw the motivation, the willingness for everyone to help each other, I forgot the desperation.”