‘There were more than fifty bullets in the body of a friend’
Children psychologist Vitaliy Stepanenko had been helping pro bono at a hospital in Dymer throughout 36 days of occupation. He said he saw everything — dismembered limbs, dead people.
My name is Vitaliy, I am 22 years old, a resident of Dymer township, Vyshhorod district of Kyiv region. I am working as a children's psychologist, and have a degree in psychology. Also, I’m a TV production cameraman. Originally, I am from Donetsk, and moved here as a kid in 2017. I was 17 back then, and I left everything behind, packed my stuff, papers from school and got hired here. I was curated here by Iryna Sazonova, she was the summer camp’s head. She took the tutorship over me, and since then I’m on my own here. My parents stayed there with my sister. I used to live 35 kilometers away from Donetsk, Maryinka district, Maksymilyanivka village. At that moment, it was war there. Well, it’s war now, but it’s the second wave now. Back then, it was the first wave, and it was extremely dangerous there. Nothing was open there, except for school. No extracurricular groups, no self-growth. All the factories, all the opportunities to earn some money — everything was shutting down. Only little shops and booths where you could buy alcohol and drugs. I got tired of that and realized that I ought to change something. So mum comes back from work and says there is a free two-week trip to Kyiv. I say - let’s try. I came to the “Lisova Zastava” (Forest outpost — ed.) summer camp, it was pretty close to Dymer, and I loved it. I returned home and in a week went to the camp again for the second shift. After that, I came back home, telling mum that I would move to Kyiv. I told, if she wouldn’t let me go, I would have gone by myself. I had nothing to do there, no self-growth. All the friends started drinking, using drugs. We had eight kilometers to the fighting. I mean, Maryinka is 8 kilometers away from the village, and there are constant hostilities. We were shelled, it fell down at the parents’ backyard a few times. There were such huge craters. “DPR” have been breaching to us a couple of times. They would’ve entered our backyard emplacing their howitzers, and would have shot the Ukrainian army positions from our backyard. It was in 2015 approximately. I moved in 2017, finished gymnasium and entered university in 2018. I have a job already.
— Did you think that the full-scale invasion would take place?
— Yes, I really thought this way, I just did not guess the date. I thought it would be in the end of March, but I missed it for a month. We were still visiting our godfather on February 22 and we once talked to them: will there be a war? godfather says: I think so.
We had such a conversation, and I was preparing for it, but… On February 24, Olya, my wife, wakes up at five o'clock in the morning because of a million messages in Telegram channels. She wakes me up: the war has begun! I say: what a war, what are you talking about, go to bed! She was sitting on the phone, reading the news, then went downstairs and heard an explosion. I hear someone crying from on the ground floor, she goes upstairs, I say: Olya, calm down there is nothing, it just seems to you! She goes to bed and we hear an arrival. Boom! Well, just such an explosion! I jump up, sit down and think to myself: God, why did it get to me again. I left the war and it started again. We immediately went to the gas station and stood in a queue for three hours to refuel. Olya went to the ATM to withdraw money because the queues were a kilometer long. Everyone is panicking. They do not understand what to do, where to go, what is happening. We also went to the store, bought some products, then sat at home and read the news — we still had electricity then. And just the next day, at five in the morning, we woke up because of a huge convoy of Russian vehicles. It started here in Dymer and ended in Fenevychi, that is, it is literally thirty kilometers. Feelings… I don't know, the emotional part was turned off… I had a plan in my head, no emotions. That is, I thought: the Russians are coming, so we need to pack our backpacks, put them in the car, the car is refueled, be ready, to be able to go somewhere at once in case of something. But on the 25th, all our bridges were blown up, the Demydivsky Bridge, the dam in Kozarovychi was blown up, it was no longer possible to get to Hostomel, because there was already a ruin there and the bridges were blown up there as well. That is, we found ourselves in such a ditch. There is nowhere to go, nothing can be done. That is, you will not leave by car, so we will go on foot. But we sat and talked, where to go? My mother is here, a grandmother lives in a village nearby. My grandmother is 83 years old. Have I to leave her? Well, where to leave? We were one for two villages, I moved, drove, took my grandmother's medicine. Well, something like that.
— What were you doing during the occupation?
— On the third day, I was waiting in a queue at the pharmacy in the hospital (our pharmacy was still open at the time) to buy my grandmother's medicine. She has diabetes. One man leaves the queue and asks: “Are there any doctors? We have a lot of wounded people in the hospital, we need help. " I'm not a doctor, I came home and told it to Olya and her mother: the situation is this way, we have to go to the hospital, because there are many wounded. We got together and went there. And all the thirty-six days we were on duty there, stayed on shifts, I was present at all operations. I saw everything in those 36 days. Severed limbs, dead people, well, just everything that happened here. They were only civilians, we did not have military personnel, because the military did not come here. It was very dangerous here. Russians were almost in every inch of the city. They were standing in every house, near every house. There was a huge amount of equipment. Our soldiers were standing at point zero, it's behind the Demydov Bridge right away. They had a stronghold there.
— Did the occupiers commit crimes against the civilian population?
— Well, look: here you can divide people into two types — those who suffered for no reason and those who got drunk, approached the occupiers and told how to live their lives. That is, I can say that 60-70 percent are victims who provoked the occupiers, molested them. And half of the victims are real victims. For example, there was a girl named Dasha. She was going with her family through Katyuzhanka to Dimera in the evening and they were shot. That is, the car was shot, the father and stepmother were killed in the car, the grandfather saved Dasha by covering her, that is, he pushed her out of the car. She's 12 or 13 years old, I don't remember exactly. He covered her with himself, pushed her out of the car and said: ‘Crawl, get out of here.’ The grandfather had time to get out of the car, he was not noticed, and Dasha, she crawled and the Russians just shouted: target, target! — And shot her. She had a bullet wound in her leg and in her arm. She was still in Katyuzhanka for a day or two, and then she was brought by a priest from Katyuzhanka. She was rewound there, she was in hospital for two days, she already had huge bruises, swollen arms and legs, she was very hurt, but we had a very good doctor here who helped her to be back her feet in two weeks, the girl was already running. The Red Cross arrived and we sent her to Kyiv for treatment. Because here we have a corridor compartment, so to speak. There was nothing special. We sent her away and in fifteen minutes her grandfather arrived. He didn't know what happened to her. I didn't know if she was alive. We said: 'Well, you're 15 minutes late’. And he said 'I didn't know what happened to her. I was very worried about her. I was just crazy and I just took a bicycle, whatever it is, and they’ll shoot me, but at least I’ll see my granddaughter! Well, thank God she's alive!’
We also have a comrade. Approximately on the fifth day of the occupation, they went to the crossing to the point of zero, to transship bread. They drove up to the bridge, Mykhailo just opened the door, stuck out his leg, almost got out of the car when a bullet flew from his back. They were shot. They're alive, only he got hurt. He was taken to the hospital. The guy was just lucky, the bullet hit from behind, hit the rib, did not harm any organ, neither the liver nor the spleen, nothing at all and stuck on the other side of the skin. He was lucky!
— Did many people die?
— There were three dead. One was a woman. On the second day of occupation, when they set up a check point on the dam in Kozarovychi, one guy was going there. He was picking up his mother and her friend from Kozarovychi. He talked his way through the first checkpoint, same with the second one, and when they were going back, they passed the first one okay, but on the second one they came under the fire. One woman got shot through the lungs, and another got shot in the arm, with the bullet ricocheting into the back of her head. The woman who got shot in the lungs has died. Medics couldn't save her simply because they didn't have the equipment and many medical supplies. This was the first victim. The second one was also our friend. He was a businessman, had a few stores here and during the occupation he did everything to help people. His store had car parts, he would bring people anything they needed. Anything they asked for. Car batteries, spark plugs, what people needed, he would bring. And one fine evening... No, of course that's wrong! It was a terrible evening... He was visiting his friend, and was like: so-and-so, the looters opened the grid on one of the windows, I have to go and put it back on, there is still lots of stuff left in the store, it would be a pity. And his friend told him not to go there, because it was four or five in the evening. He said: okay, I'll go in the morning. He never came back home. His family waited until the morning, then drove in the direction of the store, saw the car, but they weren't allowed to come near. They talked with those Orks, asking to go there, to pick up the body. His wife begged one Ork for a really long time. An hour or two. In the end, they got the body. They went to the hospital, found my mother. Mom told me: go outside, we need help unloading something from the car. I thought that maybe it was boxed with humanitarian aid. I went out, and asked: Guys, what do you need unloading? They opened the trunk and it's Dmytro there. I was in shock, I've talked to him last evening, made plans to buy some spark plugs. I got scared. I just saw him, and now he is shot. He was gunned down, there were more than 50 bullets in the body. They poured out of him. When we were undressing him, the bullets rained down from him. There was virtually nothing left of the car. It was completely gunned down. All the bullets they had, they used on him. Why was he shot down, why was he there at that moment, no one knows that.
— Why did you decide to help at the hospital?
— I'm the kind of person that can't just sit and do nothing. During the occupation, I drove around as much as I could, like, we blew up tanks using hexamine fuel tablet, because we had to do something. And Olia told me: well, you better come with me, so you won't get into trouble. Otherwise, woe be mine! So I went with her and worked as a nurse there. I carried bodies, was present during the surgeries, and, one could say, helped to stitch up wounds. That's to say, that anything that needed to be done, I did. Because there was a shortage of medical personnel. When safe routes from the city were opened, they left everything here, and so there was a lack of manpower.
— Did you have to communicate with the occupiers personally?
— We met them every day as there was their security checkpoint next to the hospital. We’d go to the hospital every day. Firstly, there were working electric generators, so we could charge our mobile phones. There was no electricity supply for 56 days. It was cut off in the first days. We used to talk with “orcs” every day. We used to drive in the first two weeks or so. Firstly, it’s faster - the hospital is three kilometers away from the center of Dymer. Secondly, it was still cold then. We used to drive in the first two weeks, then… Our car wasn’t new, it was old, in some places even rusted, but still it could be used to drive. And at some wonderful moment, they had their eye on my car. I realized that. When we came home, I put the car in the yard, had the tyres flat, took out the car battery and the terminals, so that they couldn’t start the car, - and left it at home. The next day we walked to the hospital and when we came up to the checkpoint, they were like “Where are the wheels?” And I am like: Who? And they: “The wheels!” I said: “Do you mean “the car”?”, “Yeah, where’s the car?” I said: ”First, I’ve run out of petrol. Secondly, it’s broken down.”, “Uh, broken down, and we…” It was already clear that they wanted to take it from me. Actually, they are really stupid. Firstly, they’re stupid, secondly, they’ve gathered such people who are alcoholics, if simply put. So here he is, without teeth, with an RPG, waving and telling me: I’ve come to get you off your knees. Of course, you’ve come to get me off my knees because you have weapons! So I told him: “We felt great being on our knees! I could go to Kyiv without any problems, I could go abroad twice or three times a year. And now you’ve deprived me of my job, I can’t go to Kyiv, I can’t earn money, I’m sitting here now because you’re here.” “It has nothing to do with us, it’s your Zelenskyy!” I said: “Hang on, Zelenskyy is another question, you’re standing here now and I can’t just go past you. I have to show my documents, tell you who I am and where I’m from. I felt great on my knees, I felt perfect!” Of course, I treated them in the most aggressive way in the first 10 days. We just exchanged words with them rudely, because they had come to our land telling us how to live! I even told them: “Guys, get out of here! Nobody is waiting for you here! Get out of here till you’re safe and sound.” I don’t know how I wasn’t taken to the “basement” after such words. They did nothing to me, I don’t know. At that moment I believed in God, that he existed, that he was really guarding me. When we were still driving, they also threatened us that they would fire an RPG into our car - somebody told them that we were giving away their positions, that we did some adjustment of fire. We did do it, but if…That was obvious! Every dog here would give away where they were staying! Even one grandma, a pensioner, who is in her nineties, said she had given away some “orcs”. She would call her grandchildren and tell them: they are standing here, you can fire there.
— What kind of “basement” did the russians use?
— Well, there were a lot of basements, ours was in “Viknoland” plant, prisoners were kept there. They were tortured there. They (russians) did what they wanted. There was a guy they, who is an engineer. I am not sure what his job is called, he is an engine specializinging in dams, all kinds of mechanisms, such as sluices etc. So he was captured during the first days. Every day they broke his fingers, one by one, to force him to tell them how to turn on the pumps on the dam. He was shot in the foot, he was shot in the knee, that is , he was tortured severely to make him provide information. But he kept saying, “Listen, guys, in order to turn on the pumps, first , you need to turn on the electricity!” They were saying, “Is there any other way?” He was saying, “I don’t know any other ways, you can’t do it without electricity!” He had stayed imprisoned for twenty-three days, there were a lot of people. There were about twenty-eight people. All ages, all sexes - grannies, women… There didn’t seem to be any children, but there were young people, aged sixteen. There were two sixteen-year-old boys. They were all allowed to leave. It was also destiny, , when our military were shelling them at the “Viknoland” plant, because there also was an ammunition warehouse there. There were shelled hard and they were getting out of there like rats. Jumping out of windows. The prisoners were saved by a guard from “Viknoland”, he just tore off the lock and let out the guys who had been staying inside. This engineer got limping to the hospital and received first aid, then we sent him to Kyiv with the Red Cross. His fingers have all been broken, one foot has been shot, one knee has been shot.
— Why did people get to the basement?
— For any reason. Literally any reason. You could have looked the wrong way, said something they didn’t like, you could be walking along the street, then a car would stop, they would grab you, throw in the car and take to the basement. Phones were checked. My phone was taken from me a few times. It was being checked for about thirty minutes. They checked the information, people I had texted, photos; thank God, I had cleared everything. Although, there was evidence. All these Telegram channels, Whatever I could do to help our army, I did. I informed about enemy positions, wrote the coordinates, I took photos, but then I cleared everything. Because this was dangerous. If they had seen me with a photo, I would probably have been dead. Most of the time, they stopped people, checked their phones, if they found anything, even some photo…We had this mate, who just took a photo of the dam. They saw this photo and he was taken to the basement. “What were you doing there? Who are you?” And they started to check the ID, against some kind of database of theirs.
— Did the invaders visit your house?
— "They didn't enter our house. My mother went outside and started talking to them. She introduced herself as who she was, said she was a doctor. And they said: Well, you are a doctor, we will not enter your place. That is, they did not enter our yard. But they did enter the neighbors’ one. They rummaged through absolutely everything, went down into the basement, rummaged through all the cabinets, looking for military uniforms. They took away all the SIM cards. From everyone to whom they went home, they took away SIM cards. So that no one has a connection. Although at that time, no one already had a connection. It was impossible to get through or send an SMS. I saw them looting. They broke into shops, broke out windows, climbed in, put everything into their cars, and then came back a few days later and gave it all as their humanitarian aid.
— What are your plans for the future?
— Survive all this, take the Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk back. Right away go to the Crimea. Work so that everything here is good with work first of all. Work so that everything here is good with work first of all. We had three factories in Dimer. "Viknoland", "Liteyka" and the company that transported products to Europe. They were almost all in one place and when our forces were firing to destroy the ammunition depot, of course, all this was damaged. We don't have any workplaces right now. More than one and a half thousand people are out of work now. At the moment, I also don't work at my main job. A shell flew there, all the machinery burned down, all the equipment burned down.
— Has the attitude towards Russians changed?
—"Of course! Wish they burned as the "Moscow" flagship! If you compare the year of 2014 and nowadays, at that time I was still young, and immature, I didn't really understand anything. For me then, everything didn't seem quite real. Well, there were arrivals. I probably didn't realize until recently that if it arrives, it kills people. Now, of course, I understand that this is a disaster. They are killing a million people. They rape, and it's all very disgusting. I feel very sorry for people. And the infrastructure is being destroyed. Globally – this is a disaster! Now I understand that this is trouble. This is very sad. All Russians are to blame. If you were born Russian, you can bury yourself right away, because this is a stigma for more than one decade and more than one century. After what they are doing now and how the whole world supports us, I think the Russians will definitely be oppressed for a couple of hundred years. Because the German fascists are still remembered. How long has it been? 75 years. And now, the same thing will happen to the Russians. I'm sure it will be even worse.
Translation by the Center for Civil Liberties.