There is no mistaking the Adonis Maternity Hospital. The five-storey building is flanked with signs depicting mothers kissing babies and billboard-sized text identifying it as an obstetrics clinic.
So when Russian forces began their assault on Ukraine, pregnant women fled Kyiv and other cities to take shelter here, 35 kilometres west of the capital.
“They told us it was the safest place on Earth,” said one of the women who arrived in late February. With private rooms and manicured gardens with a small pond, the clinic was built as a haven in Buzova, a village surrounded by cropland.
Instead, it became an early example of Russian attacks on some of Ukraine’s most vulnerable. The shelling of the Buzova clinic occurred weeks before the March 9 bombardment of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Images of that attack, with bloodied late-term women on stretchers, caused a global outcry.
What happened in Buzova adds to evidence that Russian forces have taken lethal aim at women and children since the outset of the invasion.
The Globe and Mail interviewed two women who were at the clinic when it came under attack, which was confirmed by local authorities and Adonis, the company that owns the clinic. The Globe is not disclosing the identities of the women because both are surrogate mothers bound by strict confidentiality contracts.
But they described in detail an atmosphere of fear, panic and black humour as Russian forces approached, launching an attack that left gaping holes in the walls, bullets lying on its floors and charred debris in the rooms.
At times, the people in the clinic were reduced to mirth, like when a priest pulled a print of a religious icon from the clinic’s lobby and carried it from woman to woman, beseeching each to kiss it. The show of religiosity was exaggerated to the point of satire. “It was surreal,” the first woman said.
At other times, certain death seemed so close that there was no thought of escape.
“When you are saying goodbye to your life multiple times a day, you no longer have a will to think about your own safety,” the woman said.
Buzova’s location alongside a key highway made it a key objective for Russian troops descending from Belarus in a bid to encircle Kyiv.
An initial attack failed, but on Feb. 26, the electricity cut out. Clinic staff decided not to use generators to avoid drawing the attention of Russian troops.
Women delivered babies under cellphone lights. The women interviewed by The Globe recalled at least five births in the first four days of the war. One appeared to be a premature delivery induced by stress.
A notebook left at the clinic revealed that on Feb. 27, its residents included 11 pregnant women and 14 children. The next day, Russian heavy armour arrived, stopping 300 metres from the clinic but plainly visible from the upper floors.
Little could be done to protect the facility. Without access to sand, staff stuffed insulation into bags and placed them in front of a main-floor window.
But the upper floors remained largely unprotected save for the wardrobes staff moved to block shrapnel and flying glass.
On Feb. 28, the day the attack began in earnest, the women and staff moved to the basement at 10:30 a.m.
They could hear the scream of fighter jets overhead. They began to differentiate different types of munitions by sound.
“We just were lying down, covering our ears and opening our mouths” in the hope of reducing the possibility of barotrauma from the shock wave of a shell exploding nearby, the woman said. “We were lying in this position for hours.”
Local residents had set up a highway checkpoint not far from the clinic. But Russian troops were “shooting chaotically at everything in front of them,” said Andrii Valchuk, a former Soviet soldier who was at the checkpoint.
A drone revealed a military convoy with roughly 40 pieces of Russian equipment. “The shooting was so intense that the concrete blocks on the road were jumping up and down because of the shock waves,” Mr. Valchuk said. He and the other guards were equipped only with a few hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails.
“When they started to shoot the checkpoint, we pulled back,” he said.
The Kremlin has said its troops have not taken aim at civilians or civil infrastructure.
But it strains belief that anyone could have failed to notice this was a maternity clinic, Adonis chief executive Vitaliy Girin said in a written response to Globe questions. Its signs are visible for kilometres.
“All medical infrastructure facilities throughout the country are marked, both on maps and with external identification,” he said. “It is impossible not to know about their location or ‘fail to notice’ the warning signs. Unfortunately, the shelling of medical institutions has no purpose: it is a senseless and bloody act of violence, like the entire war itself.”
As the attack continued, the women remained in the basement, playing on their phones to distract themselves and telling jokes to keep up spirits. “All I could think was: Do not give birth under these circumstances,” the second woman said.
The first woman likened the day of shelling to contractions, coming first at long intervals, then arriving in ever more rapid succession. “Panic started. Everybody started to scream, ‘We are done here. We are definitely done here,’” she remembered.
Then, as they lay in the darkness, they heard voices. Men had arrived, offering to take them to safety. The women were skeptical. They had read accounts of Russian soldiers laying traps by offering opportunities to evacuate. They told the men to leave. But when the men returned, they quizzed them, trying to ascertain whether they were Russian by asking them to pronounce certain words in Ukrainian and sing the national anthem.
Among the men who arrived to take the women to safety was Svyatoslav Alexandrovich, a local timber trader. He drove his cargo van to the clinic with shells flying overhead. “I wouldn’t describe it as fear. It was adrenalin – and an understanding that I needed to be there,” he said.
He got close enough to the clinic entrance that the women could come out. The first woman paused at the door, so seized by fear that her muscles would not carry her forward. The nighttime sky was orange with fiery explosions.
But she and the others escaped, delivered to a bomb shelter near a local kindergarten. The entire clinic was evacuated.
Weeks later, it stood as a fractured testament to the violence it had endured. Door frames lay in hallways. One round ripped through both an outer wall and an inner wall before partly gouging the other side of the building.
Grievous atrocities have emerged elsewhere in Buzova. Local authorities reported the discovery of dozens of bodies along the nearby highway. The body of a man was found in a basement, his hands tied behind his back. Dozens of homes were destroyed.
“They are just trying to kill us as a nation. That’s the only thing I know,” said Ludmyla Zakabaluk, a local councillor. But the women from the clinic survived. Had they not been evacuated, “they would have died,” she said. “One hundred per cent.”
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