For these expecting mothers in Kyiv, night is passed in a maternity ward bunker

A couple soon expecting a child shelter in the hallway of a makeshift underground maternity ward of the Isida clinic in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2. (Heidi Levine/FTWP)
6 min

KYIV, Ukraine — The clinic shuts off its lights at sundown.

Gynecologist and medical director Saar Yaniuta navigates the halls with her cellphone light. Her pregnant patients and the fathers-to-be trek to a basement, where they sleep in a shared hall. Nurses tend to newborns in a converted cafeteria underground.

This is a maternity ward in wartime: birth and joy amid horrific suffering.

More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded last week, but those who were pregnant were left with few good choices. To flee could mean giving birth on a train or road far from medical support. Staying could mean coming under bombardment.

Now, as cities across the country face near-constant Russian attack and several hospitals have been struck in recent days, doctors are going to extreme measures to keep their patients alive.

New and expecting mothers are sleeping in the basement at this clinic in Kyiv. Nurses care for newborns in the cafeteria. Doctors are working around the clock. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

That means moving them underground.

In the Isida clinic in western Kyiv, the narrow basement hallway where the patients stay each night offers no privacy and little comfort. There is no natural light. Patients waiting to go into labor lie on cots, and mattresses are lined up against the walls. A small hairless dog named Bonya, wearing a blue puffy vest decorated with skulls and crossbones, runs up and down the hall.

Bonya’s family, Helena and Vasyl, both 35, are awaiting a Caesarean section on Friday for their first child, a girl. The war meant they had to bring their dog along.

Helena has been diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition that can cause serious bleeding during delivery. The hospital has stocked up on enough blood to assist her. But concerns over the delivery — and bringing their daughter into the conflict — have left her very anxious.

“The main feeling is fear,” said Helena, who like her husband requested that only her first name be used for security reasons. “We don’t have a plan afterward and we don’t know where we might go.”

She sat on a cot at the far end of the hallway, hunched over in pink-striped pajamas and a blue bathrobe. A medical device beeped from a closet nearby. Bonya played with a toothbrush on the floor — her squeaky toy too loud for the many other patients in the hall.

The couple have weighed their options for after the baby’s birth. But they are limited. Vasyl is unable to leave Ukraine, like all men under age 60, who are covered under a general mobilization to fight. But he also does not want to join the territorial defense while trying to care for a newborn.

“My wife really needs me,” he said.

For now they are just trying to focus on the joy their daughter will bring them after years of hoping for a child. They are considering naming her Victoria — for victory.

As of Wednesday night, doctors at this clinic had delivered 22 babies since the invasion began — including one whose parents named her Una, a nickname for Ukraine.

Yaniuta, the medical director, spent more than a decade training to be an obstetrician-gynecologist. Nothing could have prepared her for this. “They’re scared, they’re stressed,” she said of her patients.

And so is she. Her husband moved to the hospital to help support her. Their cat, Richard, is with them, too.

In her small office on the main floor of the clinic, her husband sleeps on a green twin-size mattress on the floor. She sleeps on a blue fake leather couch nearby. Blissfully unaware of the world outside, Richard — a Scottish straight — reclines on her desk, his red and blue bowls on the floor.

The war has always felt closer to Yaniuta than to many other residents of Kyiv. She is from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Her family is still there. She wiped tears from her eyes as she described the surreal nature of the past week, during which she’s worked nearly nonstop.

The day the war started, she said, one patient who was six weeks pregnant called in a panic and asked for a medical abortion.

“I don’t know what will be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but now we do everything to help our patients,” Yaniuta said.

In the dimly lit hallway, Serhii and Maria Dubrovin sat curled up on a cot in the hall, their faces pressed close together. They are expecting their first child, a girl. Already two days past their due date on Wednesday, they said their friends are joking that the baby is just “waiting until the war is over,” Maria said.

Like Vasyl, Serhii is of fighting age. He cannot travel abroad, and many of his peers have picked up weapons to fight on the streets. He doesn’t plan to do the same.

“I thought about it and I think it’s my duty to be with my wife,” he said.

Off the main hallway, inside what once was a cafeteria, newborn babies in bassinets were lined up against the walls as medical staff passed through to check on them. Sitting nearby were Max Chiciuc and his wife, Iuliia Kuznietsova, who had recently welcomed their son, Bohdan.

The baby was due Feb. 23. Even as many of their relatives fled Kyiv in fear, the couple knew they had to stay to see through his birth.

They worried labor might begin at night, with the city under curfew, when it would be dangerous to drive. Or that they would fall victim to an attack before the delivery. At one point, a missile landed less than 300 meters from their apartment.

Luckily, when the time came, Kuznietsova went into labor around 1 p.m. and they were able to reach the clinic safely.

But like the other couples around them, they now have to consider even scarier prospects: what might come next.

They have no document for the baby beyond a paper from the clinic, and said it’s currently impossible to obtain a birth certificate. With Russian troops closing in on Kyiv, their plan is to leave the city quickly, move about 200 miles to the west and stay there until they can sort out their next steps.

Chiciuc’s grandmother used to recount stories from World War II. “I couldn’t really feel her words,” he said. “But now I think I know what it means.”

“You can lose, you can die, basically in every moment,” he said.

His ex-wife and daughter left Kyiv to flee the fighting and probably will move to Poland, Chiciuc said. Seeing the distance grow between him and his daughter is painful.

Still, bringing a new life into the world at a time like this is something worth being celebrated.

“Babies are born. Life continues,” Chiciuc said. “But it will never be the same as it was before the war.”