‘We don’t know how to survive here’: Ukrainian children’s cancer unit under siege | Ukraine

In the oncology ward of Chernihiv Children’s Hospital, patients are battling cancer, their town is surrounded by Russian forces, and now they are running out of painkillers and stockpiling food.

“We don’t know how long we have,” said Serhiy Zosimenko, a charity worker supporting the 11 patients, their doctors and parents. “Actually, we don’t know how to survive here, it’s unreal. We have no more resources.

Hospitals in Poland and Slovakia have agreed to continue treatment, waiving all costs, but for now the children – aged 2 to 15 – cannot travel there, as the city is effectively under siege . The only way out would be by helicopter.

“The problem is that we cannot evacuate the children from the ground, we can only evacuate them by air,” Zosimenko said. “All routes to our city are mined.”

4-year-old Varya Tishchenko sleeps in the oncology ward and rushes to every air raid. Photography: Serhiy Zosimenk

Chernihiv is about 90 miles northeast of Kiev, on a road leading to the Belarusian border. It was surrounded a few days ago by Russian forces, who shelled civilian areas, including houses, a kindergarten and a market.

All entry and exit roads were laid with explosives to defend the city, the head of the regional administration Viacheslav Chaus said in a Facebook post.

A Russian rocket landed just before the cancer patients. “Two days ago a shell hit 200 meters from our hospital – it was a rocket,” Zosimenko said. He spent the day collecting building materials to upgrade the basement bomb shelter, medicine from pharmacies, and food.

The community spirit keeps them going, with pharmacies and other stores donating to meet the hospital’s needs for free. But some things are already missing, especially painkillers.

“When people have cancer, they need a lot of painkillers, and we have a problem with morphine and other drugs,” Zosimenko said. “For example, Chernikov Oncology Hospital, they only have eight ampoules of morphine or other painkillers.”

The hospital was not properly prepared for war, with shelter in such terrible condition that people were getting sick sleeping there, and haunted by the prospect of Covid adding to their problems.

So they slept on the first floor and ran down every time there was an air raid. “Everyone is tired, especially the medical staff, they didn’t sleep normally last week, just two or three hours,” Zosimenko said.

Doctors and nurses are under additional pressure as some staff are staying home with their families, which others understand.

For those who stayed, and for the patients, they are trying to improve conditions in the basement, plastering the walls, installing flooring, lighting and beds.

Vyacheslav Krot watches his <a class=6-year-old son Vlad eat his meal in the oncology ward.” src=”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/edc6d3100906d18653cc9a821823f662520b069f/0_0_4000_2667/master/4000.jpg?width=445&quality=45&auto=format&fit=max&dpr=2&s=82c98f8c0262cfddd9d00405c70583a8″ height=”2667″ width=”4000″ loading=”lazy” class=”dcr-1989ovb”/>
Vyacheslav Krot watches his 6-year-old son Vlad eat his meal in the oncology ward. Photography: Sergey Zosimenko via Anton Skyba

He was moved by the incredible community spirit at a time of intense pressure; every time he went to get supplies, in construction sites and in pharmacies or supermarkets, everything was free. “Take care of those kids,” say business owners.

“I understand that I live in the most wonderful country in the world – 40 million people who care about people they don’t know,” he said.

“If Russia can take control of our country, it will only be one way, that it decides to kill 40 million people, because this country has 40 million people ready to protect it.”

He works for a charity, Evum, this supports the pediatric oncology department. Before the war, this involved the work of “white collar workers” to obtain supplies. Now he’s scouring stores for food and asking for international help to get children out of the war zone and preparing – if necessary – to fight.

He brought his own rifle to the hospital and, together with some of the children’s fathers, set up an informal protection unit.

“We are here with our own weapons, some of the fathers of these children are bringing something so they can also protect them,” he said. “We are ready to give our own life but we do not want to give the life of these children.”

“I work with children, because they are architects, only those who can build the future. We can just help them survive, so they can do what they need to do.

He has no regrets, despite the turmoil of the past week, and a growing belief that many who prepare to defend their city may not live long enough to see Russia defeated.

“Every time I have come here to this cabinet and see the rifle, it reminds me of what has happened here for the past six days, I feel a certain stress inside me. I still remember someone started the war in my country,” he said. “If I don’t die here in the next two weeks, it will be a miracle.”

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