Translated from Ukrainian by Svitlana Bregman
This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay inside Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/Rozstaje.art thanks to a co-financing by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through a grant by the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.
“My husband and son-in-law were making sugar water for me to drink when I go into labor. I remember from when I was a child: when a cow is calving, you give her sweetened water to drink,” said Anna Alieva. She had previously given birth to four other children, so she knew well what to expect.
In addition to the children, her husband, son-in-law, and father-in-law lived in the house in the Ukrainian northern Chernihiv region. Anna had to routinely hide them because, from the first days of the occupation in February and early March 2022, people would see Russian troops “taking the men somewhere” to a place no one returned from. The woman said: “I don’t need any heroics here. My job is to make sure everyone stays alive.”
One day, Anna saw a group of 12 Russian soldiers raiding houses. She went out first to meet them and started talking nonstop, trying to remember each one. When asked if there were any men in the house, she answered with a question: “Don’t you have enough of your own?” With the occupiers, Anna made jokes, annoyed them with her conversation, and fooled them in every possible way. According to the story, her husband, Sashko, was allegedly away in England for work, to save up some money to build a new house.
Whenever Russian soldiers were around, inside, Anna had the three men quietly hide indoors behind furniture, piles of clothes, and other household junk. She also kept her older daughters, barely in their 20's, hidden as well, forbidding them to go out in the village. “Thank goodness, we knew nothing of Bucha [and the massacre and widespread sexual assault that occurred there] back then. Fear attracts misfortune,” recalls the woman.
The shelling happened almost every day. In those moments, the entire family would hide behind two walls in a tiny closet under the staircase, about 1.5 by 2 meters. One time, an Uragan missile landed near their house, but it did not explode.
Anna is a rural nurse practitioner. When enemy vehicles entered their village, she only had a vial of painkillers and a pair of sterile gloves. One day, some fellow residents of the village came to see Anna: during a breakthrough attack, Russians wounded a 25-year-old woman who had two bullets lodged in her abdomen. Even a professional surgeon would hardly be able to help her. To ease the wounded woman's pain, Anna gave her the painkillers. The following day, she went into labor.
“It was sunny, a nice quiet day,” recalls the woman. She barricaded the windows and started preparing for childbirth. To warm up the room, the older daughter brought in bricks heated in the fire outside. When the younger son stepped outside, the shelling started.
I ran up to him because the kid just froze. I dragged him in. And then I realized that my water broke.
Anna took the boy inside and hid in the bathroom: “I started shivering.”
It was then that her neighbor came over, a Crimean Tatar woman named Ayshe. In 1944, during Stalin’s deportation of Tatars, her family was displaced from Crimea. Ayshe returned home a year after Ukraine regained independence. After Putin’s annexation, however, she had to flee again and came to the Chernihiv region. Later, Ayshe would not be able to bear the daily pillaging and threats from the Russians, and would flee again. But on that day, despite the bombardment and the shelling, she came to visit a pregnant Anna and found her in the bathroom, having a panic attack.
Ayshe started telling Anna that she and her sister were born in the mountains, and their father assisted during delivery: “You, too, will manage.” The pregnant woman gradually felt calm again. After all, she had successfully delivered four children. In a way, she was repeating the story of her mother, who also had five children.
Feeling encouraged, Anna left the bathroom. She asked her husband to put on a woman's coat and a headscarf. She knew where the nettles grew in the garden; these could be used to stop bleeding. The husband dug out the roots and they made a brew. (Later, the children would laugh at their dad and call him “Granny Shura.”) “Everyone knew what their responsibility would be,” says Anna. They warmed some water, soaked a thick thread that would be used to tie the umbilical cord in the brilliant green disinfectant, and prepared a bed, a bath, and some rags.
The contractions lasted for a long time, and the pain became unbearable. The anxious men were walking around the house while bombs rumbled outside. Considerable time passed, and everyone grew tired of the tension. At some point, the pain started fading away, but it was not a good sign. The baby was not coming out. The pain went away altogether and with it, all the other sensations. Anna was desperate, but she hung on.
Around midnight, the men fell asleep, despite the loud strikes outside: “The house was shaking so hard, it was as if we were on a train.” The neighbor Olena, who was assisting the birth, also fell asleep. All of a sudden, it all went silent. Anna started to whisper to her baby: “Help me, little girl.” All of a sudden, the baby started moving, propping her little legs against the upper part of the belly and pushing with her little head: “I felt this crackling, a crackling of tendons and cartilage.”
The men woke up, worried that Anna had fainted:
They shook me until I came out of that state and said: ‘It's okay.’ That’s when the pain engulfed me again: the baby was fighting for her life. I thought I would pass out. I bit my son-in-law, I pulled out some of my husband’s hair.
That was the moment that Olena from next door arrived. Anna was worried that the men would be frightened by the sight of the newborn, so the plan was for Olena to catch the baby and take her into her arms.
“And when there was this big bang outside and a flash of red fire, I brought her forth.” Anna laughs as she tells the story, but then, suddenly, she turns serious: “But that silence. You know, that kind of silence is terrifying.”
I stepped over the umbilical cord with one foot, picked up the baby and started cleaning the mucus from her mouth and nose. Then, I flipped the baby over and tapped her on the bottom, to trigger the pain reflex.
The baby started to breathe.
Then, there was a complication: the placenta would not come out. “It could have killed me.” Usually, in a hospital, doctors can give the new mother anesthesia and care for her adequately. Here, Anna had to help herself.
The day was breaking. The kids woke up and were happy to welcome a new sister, the men relaxed. But Anna’s stomach started to get bigger. “Postpartum hemorrhage is the worst,” says the woman. “The new mother can lose blood extremely fast. Knowing this was disturbing.” She sighs.
I realized that if I gave in, it would be easy, because it’s not hard to leave your body. But how would the baby manage without me? How are they going to feed her?
The son-in-law helped Anna get up. She put on the sterile glove. Olena, the neighbor, realized what she was about to do: “Are you serious?” Anna nodded: “I need to live.” Anna put her hand inside and started massaging the walls of the uterus with her fist to induce contractions. If the placenta comes out while the uterus is relaxed, it can cause heavy bleeding. But Anna made it through.
Anna’s youngest son would later say that they were protected by something like a dome: “It was like an upside-down bowl, built by the angels.”
Anna didn't have any baby clothes, diapers, or food. “Word spread around the village that I had a baby. People started coming out of their cellars and visiting me.” Before that, they were mostly hiding, since going outside could be fatal. “They kept knocking on my door and knocking and knocking. They brought whatever they could, saying: ‘Thank you for the baby.'” People cried, and hope appeared on their exhausted, haggard faces. Starving, sick, tired, terrified, and focused only on physical survival, these people regained their feeling of humanity. Anna says:
I would have never experienced such strong and overwhelming feelings otherwise. There was so much unconditional love, unconditional support, and unconditional gratitude.
When the mother first went outside, she came across a neighbor with her son. When the woman saw Anna, she suddenly bowed. Anna walked down the street and felt an intensifying tremor. Even today, when re-living the moment, she feels the same trembling. She walked through the village, and the passers-by would bow to her, grateful to be able to witness the miracle.
One day, a Russian officer saw Anna in the street and asked her: “Are you the one who had a baby?” and complimented her: “Great job!” And then, stained with someone else's blood, he looked at the mother with her baby daughter and started crying.
The baby is named Myroslava, which means peace. She was born on March 17, 2022, at 4:11 am. Fifteen days later, Ukrainian troops liberated the village. When phone communications were re-established, Anna learned that her brother, Oleh, who lived across the river, was killed on the first day of shelling. He was 35 and had a 13-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.