“Hey, try to bring in some positive story as well.” This is a catchphrase that some colleagues throw at us every time one of us who is part of the MSF communication team goes out to the projects. It is also a classic for journalists from time to time. Above all, at Christmas and summer, when the information is supposed to be fresh and light, as if reality also went on vacation.
Positive stories, of improvement, with a happy ending. Search for and collect them from the Yemen war, the fighting in Cabo Delgado (Mozambique) or from the deadly route of the Darién, between Colombia and Panama, where every week hundreds of migrants risk their lives skirting cliffs and facing flooding rivers, it is not an easy task. “But there have to be, of course there have to be,” you tell yourself. He told me, in this case, at the end of February, when I entered the Ukraine from Slovakia, a year after the escalation of the war.
After several days of traveling by road, we arrived in the southeast of the country. From there, goWe visited Liubomyrivka, a small enclave in the Mykolaiv region, close to the city of Kherson, to assess the medical and humanitarian needs of the few who had remained. We were received by its mayoress, Nadiya Heorhivna. “Come, so you will understand the magnitude of my sadness.”
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He took us to the school. Or what was left of her. She had been hit by the attacks a few months ago and only a part of the building was still standing. Fortunately, it was early morning and there were no children or anyone inside. But now the little ones have nowhere to meet or play. The only bunker was also there.
Liubomyrivka is one of the many towns and cities that were crossed by the war front. In these places, those who could fled, especially the youngest. Others, especially the older ones, stayed, either because they had no way or where to flee, or because they refused to leave the place where they had lived all their lives. A show of resistance halfway between tenacity and unconsciousness.
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Neighbors and family members disappeared, as well as those who worked in the fields and those who worked at the store counters.. The toilets also left. Pharmacies and medical centers closed. Some of these were even attacked, damaged and destroyed. As we recently collected in one of our reports, in the areas of the Kherson region retaken by Ukrainian forces, such as Liubomyrivka, 89 medical structures suffered damage that prevents their operation today, leaving more than 163,000 people without medical attention.
No one was left in Lyubomyrivka. From 600 inhabitants they became only around fifty. Now, with the fighting shifting to areas under Russian control, those who left are beginning to return. It is still good news; but Nadiya is aware that the needs are great. Homes need to be rebuilt and materials are in short supply. And the worst: there is no one who cultivates the field. Not because there are no hands: with those who have returned there are already about 200 residents. But the fields are mined and it is not safe to go out and work them.
I finally ask him if, in this fateful year, there was something to rescue: some little story that would make him smile, perhaps a hint of joy among so much misery. “The way things are…”, she says before twisting her face into a reproachful grimace. we fall silent He hands me a box of cookies and chocolates for the umpteenth time and, taking it back, looks past his office window.
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“A joy? A joy is to see people return. There was a time when I was afraid that nobody would do it and the town would end up disappearing. I’ve lived here all my life, you know. And I want this place to thrive. It’s what I’m seeing now with the returning neighbors, how we help each other. It’s beautiful, and it’s precisely these kinds of things that have always made me happy.”
“Of course there are,” I said to myself as I said goodbye. Of course there are.
Shrapnel in the hospital
Doctor Viktoria Baranyuk shows a fragment of shrapnel in the palm of her hand. Barely two sinister and dark centimeters that twist together forming extremely sharp edges. Viktoria says she picked it up from the floor of her office at the Novyi Buh hospital in Mykolaiv one morning in May last year. The combats thundered nearby and that splinter was not the only one. Shelling, shells and wounded arriving from Kyiv, Irpin and Bucha, hundreds of kilometers from there. Highways blocked and entire families corseted between artillery fire and homes turned into rubble and shreds of cloth.
The most serious consequences of those days, says the doctor, are not the damage or the injured, but what is not seen. Our teams also corroborate it when they access places like Novyi Buh. Pictures of anxiety, depression, mourning, insomnia, post-traumatic stress… Many of our patients admit that they didn’t think this war would last that long. Others assume that they may not return to where they came from. And if they do, they don’t know what they’re going to find there. Will my house still stand? Will my father still be alive? Will my mother, my brother…?
Victoria is optimistic. She smiles through much of the conversation, even as she recounts the hardest days at the hospital. He says that it did not stop working for a single moment, against the clock, yes, but they treated both injured and pregnant women. For a second he concedes that there was someone who quickly got out of there (of course). But it was only a few people, he says, and most of them returned shortly, to pitch in like no other. “This has united us, we have worked together and we have helped each other like never before. When the war ends, because this will end, we will be better than before, we will have grown, we will be better”.
Of course there are.
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Dima is a big guy, with a bushy beard and clear eyes. She gives some handshakes that leave the bones on the verge of breaking and some impromptu hugs that are hopelessly comforting. He’s a good guy and no one would say that behind that frank smile is the memory of the terrible attacks on Kramatorsk. He and his wife left there a few months ago, almost the same time he has been working with us as a radio operator. But his parents remained, already older. Dima says that they talk frequently, they from the bunker and he from our base in Kropyvnytskyi, in the center of the country. “They don’t want to leave there, they say it’s their land. They say that they know they can die, of course, but they insist that that is their home and that they are not leaving there. And he, Dima, says yes, of course he understands them, but it’s not easy, no.
What we can offer you, beyond all help, is hope.
Dima is also a grateful man. “This work is fantastic,” he says. He says that day-to-day life in cities and towns like Kropyvnytskyi can disconnect you from reality, but as soon as you go out with the teams to a settlement for displaced persons or a hospital, you quickly understand the situation this country is going through. “People need to talk, they need psychological help. They have seen family members die… And they themselves have spent months not living, but trying not to die. In this sense, what we can offer you, beyond all help, is hope. I look at the white color of our vests and think about that, about something that shines in the midst of so much darkness”.
And hope is what Dima has left over. Often, she thinks about when this is all over and she can return to her land and put into practice everything she is learning this year. She also wants to find a home and, above all, to form a bigger family: she dreams of having a little one. “I was a bit of a junk, so, yes, better a girl.”
Of course there are. There always are.
MEDIA MANAGER OF DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS
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