“The target is the civilian population "
The war in Donbass has attracted thousands of volunteers from many countries around the world, although all of them have not gone to eastern Ukraine in order to join the battle. In the case of humanitarian volunteers and health workers, whose visibility is lower, but whose work is essential at a time when the shortage of qualified staff endangers the population.
The Spanish doctor Javier Benitez, who travelled to Donbass after graduation, is one of those volunteers. After passing through the front, as physician in the area controlled by the brigade Prizrak first and the Donetsk airport area after ,we speak now of his work in one of the hospital complex in the capital of the People's Republic of Donetsk.
Since Medic in Donbass, Benitez gives, every day, his personal views on the conflict, his work as a doctor and his humanitarian work. Slavyangrad been able to talk with him from Donetsk to hear his views on the day of the war, the suffering of civilians after months of bombing and of a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the Ukrainian blockade and the almost exclusive dependence on Russian humanitarian aid.
*How you pass from University to the war in Donbass in a few months?*
I graduated and had been following everything that happened in Ukraine. It is a rather complicated conflict, but it is not very difficult to take a position if it is simplified and leave aside the geopolitical issues. There is a side that indiscriminately bombed civilians and are also forming battalions of punishment, which is directing death squads in the style of “Los Contras” de El Salvador. I think they want to make this as a counterrevolutionary Central America, as spent some time ago there. Although there are more interests, I have this position clear.
While I have been always growing I have seen on TV like NATO and the United States are going to bomb countries. I do not know how many I've seen a lot of bombing on television: Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan with drones. A lot of shelling. Sure, I've seen all through the TV. I think I was isolated in my world, but that having ideals, those ideals have to take shape in reality. And I decided to come here, not only for political reasons but for humanitarian reasons.
*As a doctor, you have direct contact with the most vulnerable population. How is the civil population now?*
The civilian population is going deficiencies. It is a little better than the beginning of the conflict, but they suffered a lot of lacking. Especially when there are problems to stock up of basic goods like can be fruit, vegetables, that sort of things. Myself, about a month ago, I had health problems because not as fresh produce of any kind, everything is canned. I had problems with electrolytes and that affected my heart. I guess that also happens to civilians in general: access to fresh produce is hard enough. And besides, even taking money, accessibility is difficult because they are very expensive. However much money you have, it's very expensive.
*Is it the Ukrainian blockade that closed the passage of products and you depend almost entirely on what comes from Russia?*
We rely heavily on what comes from Russia, but obviously there are things here. It is assumed that Ukraine has good farmland. But what happens is that prices are astronomical and here people are not just money. And it is difficult to access them even if they are in the supermarket. In the supermarket not much and how little there is very expensive, so it relies heavily for support, especially from Russia, and also some former Soviet republics and some political parties.
*I guess with the banking blockade get money is even more complicated. These days we are seeing as a playpen drama in Greece, which can be removed only € 60 a day, but in Donbass people can not access their money since November.*
I had not thought about this comparison, but it's pretty good. it's complicated. Recently some banks operate, but only to give pension money. I can not take money from banks, or my current account or anything. I do not have access to any kind of money from abroad. However, it does pensioners may receive their pensions banks here in rubles. For the rest of the people, if you want to get money, if you have in your account, you normally have to go to Rostov.
Some civilians have, and knowing these people I guess it's true, for example when pensioners crossing enemy lines to pick up their money controlled by Ukrainian area, often when they come back the Ukrainians of the block post stolen them. That's something I have not seen in first person, of course, but I've been in block posts on our side. I've been in blockposts Novorrusia side and obviously the civilian population is treated well. Even offering cigars, they offer cookies. Money never is stolen. To me they have offered me money and obviously not money of that people are caught. But those who come across, have suffered thefts and sometimes even physical abuse.
*It's a very complicated situation so is normal for the population to leave if you have any choice. Have you noticed that in the hospital, there is shortage of doctors and health professionals?*
Everyone who can, goes. Right now there is enough deficit of doctors and nurses. In fact, if I remember correctly, yesterday a fellow here, a fellow who was a doctor, who had finished the University and went to Russia because Russia has more prospects that here. Yes, there is a lack of personnel. It is also difficult to maintain the facility because it is difficult to find products, cleaning and disinfection of all kinds. As for drugs, there are drugs in this hospital. They are all humanitarian aid. There are medications and products from Italy, Spain and Russia, especially.
*I read the other day that said that the European Union has allocated over 223 million euros to the population affected by the war. There do you know that some official EU aid has arrived?*
Official not. Official I have not seen anything of the European Union. I would say yes, but I have not seen anything official. I've seen things PCPE, if I'm not mistaken; I've seen things of Italy, but by way of NGOs or private organizations or of Russia´s communists and from Russia as a state.
*And international and humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders help?*
The Red Cross, every time I step ... there's a hotel here in Donetsk.
*Where is the OSCE as well?*
Yes, almost every time I step out there are a lot of cars and lots of OSCE Red Cross cars standing there. Every time I go is the parking almost full, so they do not have to move much. Yes I have seen the Red Cross, but only once, delivering aid in Kirovsk, at the front of Alchevsk. But I don´t see much more.
In fact, for example, Doctors Without Borders, I do not I get into whether it is true or not, the population sees them as Westerners, including some see them as spies. Red Cross I can not say much because only saw once handing things.
*Do you feel a bit abandoned?*
Yes, totally abandoned. The aid is negligible. From West at institutional level, nothing. Then yes, there are people and organizations who command things which are usually leftists. That people does help. But the West, at the level of states or organizations like the European Union, we are totally abandoned.
*How do the people feel being so isolated?*
They see that there are people who care about them, such as international volunteers. And leftist organizations, all who are against NATO and Western imperialism. These do know that we are with them. But, those who send more aid are Russia and the former Soviet republics. The rest is not much. And comparatively, I have no official information, but I guess it's a pretty low percentage.
*How is the work of a doctor in the war? In what situations have you been?*
I have been on the front. And as personal experiences, beyond work, it has been quite hard. Bullets and bombs, I thought that it would be the scariest going to give me, but eventually gave me the same. The worst has passed me was cold. The cold and hunger. The bullets and bombs, the fear that I felt that's just anecdotal. The worst thing is the cold and hunger.
As for my work, I have been in total over a month at the front. I've been in front of Alchevsk, I've been in Kirovsk, a few kilometers from Debaltsevo. The experience is very complicated ... everything. Lack of everything. Also keep in mind that I came here straight after college, so it was difficult to gain experience, take practice. But I've felt that I've helped. I have not saved all the lives I've wanted to save, but I've done something.
*You have been in front of Debaltsevo after the battle?*
It was after the battle, shortly after the battle
*During the ceasefire, then. Was there really ceasefire someday?*
Roughly they bombed daily. I guess it would not be so intense, but more or less bombarded daily. There was a day when bombarded with Grad, which is supposedly prohibited. I was in a post block and the information they gave us the people who came from the Ukrainian area is that they were not retreating artillery as the Minsk agreement said.
*What do people think Minsk agreement? Do you see it going somewhere?*
No, that is not going anywhere. People see that this is going to take a while to finish, say 2 or 3 years. It is what people usually say.
*So they can hold 2 or 3 years?*
No, people are tired of this. But also due to the war as a geostrategic struggle between the West and Russia, BRICS, even while having the capacity to attack and win, just for political reasons, from this side it´s not done. And I suppose it's like from the other side. So right now is absurd, war remains frozen.
Still attacks, still battles, but no major breakthroughs. So there is a steady trickle of death. In fact, a few days ago, Spartak, a village next to the airport were more than 10 dead on our side. There is a steady trickle of deaths and some days there is more.
*And in such a complicated situation, when you arrived ,you were an inexperienced doctor. Have you been a novice doctor or you had to take very quick experience?*
In Alchevsk, I have been attending physician upon arrival. When I arrived, there was a doctor. Well, there were two doctors, one thirty-something and the other fifty-something. And those two were one week. And when they left, I I was responsible for the health of 200 people, more or less. That yes, I had to learn very fast. And I had to catch up on all Russian medicines, how they are used and all. But as far as it goes, I was fine. There was no death. There was a small epidemic of pneumonia, pneumonia, cuts, bruises, a shrapnel wound. But I had no problems.
*It´s lot of pressure for someone who has just arrived and has little experience to be responsible for so many people.*
Yes, in the beginning itself. But once I've learned about the treatment of pneumonia and all that with the Russians drugs, and had no problem. But I spent a few days studying hard and with a lot of pressure.
On the front I was lucky, there were few things to do. There was a guy he just shot himself in the hand and had to heal. And breathing problems and that sort of thing. And a partner, in a position before ours, exploded a mine and he lost both feet.
The second time I was in front was near the airport. And I was very lucky, were little things. There was no victims in my group. Then I was in another position, which was not far from the airport. In fact, we received quite strong attacks. But there was no regret any loss. They were little things.
Also why I have come now to the hospital. As it is not really having many wounds, the people I was going to the front, but have not received strong attacks, so I have come to the hospital for further learning. I do not know what I'll do in the future, I guess back to the front sooner or later.
*How it is working in a hospital in the capital of a city at war?*
In Spain doctors usually they not taught to make intravenous injections or put catheters or anything like that, because it is assumed that this is a task of nurses. But I'm not in front nurses, so I have to do everything myself. So I'm learning right now that, to put catheters, intravenous injections. And what I do is, in a small room in which we are, we priests, especially shrapnel. All I've seen is shrapnel and some burned.
*What are your plans for the future?*
My life is a mess because not depends of me. It depends on a lot of external factors. I for now I will stay here, because I can not go anywhere. Even if I wanted I could not leave. My visa for Russia expired, so if I go to Russia now ... Obviously, it depends on how it's done. If I go with a paper justifying my stay here, I've been aid, supposedly would have many problems. But there can be problems. And once I get to Russia and inside Russia I can move from Russia to somewhere, I do not know where to go. In my country I do not know if would go to jail. It depends.
*Do you think you would have legal problems in Spain although they are there as a doctor?*
Hm. It is that simply by having a mere suspicion, and does not compensate me go. Because obviously I can not risk having impeached and want me get ten years in prison. The price you pay is very high. Then, until the situation is not entirely clear, I can not go back. Right now, to tell you the truth, I do not know what would happen to me. I'm in this ambiguity, I do not know. I have photos of uniform, but can not go ahead otherwise.
In front I can not go with anything that attracts attention because there are snipers. I saw Polish mercenaries, European mercenaries, American mercenaries, in addition to the people here. Obviously, these people pass the Geneva Conventions where they pass it, so it would be a moving target. I do not know if you saw the photo where I go out with an ambulance that is bored.
*Is it something recent or there is no material to fix these things?*
They do odd jobs. Many shoddy become. The holes that you see in the ambulance are supposedly what they have done is to weld a bit and that's it. Many shoddy become. I can not tell you the exact date, but it was a little over a month, I think. In fact, among physicians there was a decline by a sniper in January or February. A sniper eliminated a doctor here. So I can not go with a white coat.
*What shortcomings there right now in hospitals?*
Missing a bit of everything. In fact, I'm hoping they give me a list of everything that is needed so that it can post and that people can send what you can. Antibiotics are few, there are many doctors either. I do not know, Betadine. Betadine was not yesterday, I had to pick one I brought I of Spain. That kind of things.
*And people with chronic diseases, which needs constant treatment?*
This is fatal. It is fatal for them. In Alchevsk I treated people with chronic diseases. There was one who had epilepsy and epilepsy have to carry a fully regularized treatment and take it ever, if not, seizures may return. And this person was wearing three months without taking it because there not was. I got lucky and found what I needed and I could give back. But I gave him two boxes. That will last a while and then will end. Then you have to look for it and do not know whether or not find.
People with problems of tension, that people have to take their medication every day. And in this situation you do not know whether to get a convoy with medicine or not you arrive. And you go to the pharmacy and are empty shelves and people with chronic illnesses have many problems. Especially older people, who are the most chronic diseases have, yes it is quite black. Recently I was with an older woman, who is not in the hospital, but one next door, which had leukemia. I do not remember what kind it was, but there was not the drugs that she need, so she will die.
Such diseases, that need medication every day for the rest of life ... those are the people who are going to have more problems. Because It depends on who has a constant supply of that medication, which currently does not exist.
*These people are condemned to die of these diseases.*
Yes. Unless you get lucky and they arrive medicines, yes. I now am in a big city and this is where the convoys come, but I have been in villages and also the situation there is different. There is much greater shortages, obviously. And yes there are people who that unfortunately is doomed to die.
*Lack of medicines and shortage appears as problematic as the war.*
I can not give you exact figures, because there are none. It is obviously much easier to count the casualties by shots or bombs that for lack of medicines, for lack of food or lack of adequate food. It is much more difficult because if you see a person with one shoot, you know what is dead and you can put on a record.
A person who has died from other things, malnutrition, malnutrition or chronic disease by lack of medicine, that is not quantified. So you can not give official figures of any kind, but I think it's a pretty big, especially in the rural problem.
And rural people, old people. I would like to have figures, because this must be said with public health figures, increased mortality, mortality rate, but no official figures exists. In fact, they have begun to count the victims, by gunfire and bombs not very far ago. I do not know how much will have to wait or if it was ever going to do someday quantify deaths from shortages of both medicines, such as food and such products.
*Is there still bombing infrastructure, electrical, water? At the beginning of the war there was talk of a lot of destruction of civilian infrastructure, with the problems that entails.*
They usually go for the civilian population. But other than that, the problems that previously could be permanent, such as water or electricity, now have become punctual. Before coming to the hospital I was in a base and was a weekend that bombed the water treatment plant and we were without water a couple of days. Not only the military area but also the entire civilian population. There are also power outages from time to time, but the situation is better than before in terms of infrastructure.
You are trying to harm civilians even higher than they are military objectives. I think that the priority is the civilian population. When I was in Alchevsk there was a multi-storey building, a hotel, and was where the militia were. Everyone knows, of course. It is not a secret. People knew. But the Ukrainian regime, instead of bombing the building was bombed everything is the city except that building. Even preferred bombing civilians while having easy access to bomb military. It will, in my opinion, harden the conflict.
That will benefit the Nazi battalions, which are the usual bomb. Because if you bombard civilians, they reacts defending, more people enlisted in the army and people react violently. And then the conflict hardens, becomes crude. No more hatred, more people get into the militias, the more he attacks Ukraine. And the fascists and fascist parties benefit when units have even more attacks on our side, which sometimes land this side wins and becomes more violent because it gives them more power to them, giving them more resources and gives more international support. So it ends up being more power.
*Do many difference is seen between the regular army and volunteers battalions?*
A lot. There is no comparison. Volunteers battalions in quotes, because they also have a heavy load of mercenaries, they want to intensify the conflict. I can tell that I was in a village near the airport. I was there a couple of weeks or three and the whole floor was full of shells. They were unexploded shells. Then I asked my companions, why not exploit the shells? I said no, they are defective.
But actually it makes no sense. As much to be defective, or many years ago, a percentage much larger would have to explode. Then I talked to more people who are more informed on the subject, with journalists, and was told that the Ukrainian regular armed forces even before throwing bombs. They throw the shell and the shell hits the ground and you're done. And not explode. This explains why the whole floor was full of unexploded shells, full of unexploded bombs. It makes no sense. Occasionally one arm, because they also have to explain to his superiors and not only to their superiors, they may be more or less benevolent, but also the Nazi forces that are in the rear.
Those people do not have any compassion or any kind of problems in removing them. Of course, the regular forces, I think they know they are bombing their brothers and often not assemble the bombs. But it is very different with the Nazis battalions. Nazi battalions bombed, robbed, systematically looted the entire population where they enter, rape women. This does not appear in the media.
When I was in the front of Alchevsk, I saw that there is not only victims in this side but also on the Ukrainian side. The regular forces give me pretty bad, because there are many who do them will not come this conflict and they are against it and do not want to bomb your brothers. But of course, you have some Nazi battalions behind will kill you if you do what you're supposed to do. On the front of Alchevsk there were two Ukrainian lines: an era of regular forces and a battalion was Aidar, I think. When I was there, there were several days that the regular forces began to kill with the Nazis, which is common, relatively. They bombarded each other and shoot each other.
*Usually it mentions there infighting among the battalions, but as rumors of foreign mercenaries, it is difficult to confirm. Are they only rumors?*
Yes, I've seen it with my own eyes. The Aidar mortar battalion destroyed a tank, or BMT, shielded regular forces in front of Kirovsk vehicle. And at a position near the airport, there were the Poles ahead of us mercenaries, 400m and had the Polish flag hoisted. Obviously it is very difficult to prove all such claims, but I have seen with my own eyes.
*One problem for international volunteers is language. And you deal directly with local people. How do you deal with the language?*
At first I was with a colleague who spoke Russian with him as a translator. Then we went distributing the work, when I was in Alchevsk. We saw patients, he talked with them and I prepared the medication. He spoke with them and I bandaged them and stuff. We would share the work. And I've recently moved enough with Spaniards in Donetsk.
Before I learned some Russian, but not enough. Then I got sick and spent two and a half weeks in the hospital with heart problems and in that time is when I learned Russian. Now as I'm in the hospital surrounded by Russians, I'm learning a lot, at least basic conversations. It's complicated, but I like it because it is very different and I'm learning everything I can.
Despite the difficulties and the risk of health professionals from hospitals in Donbass they continue their work. Javier Benitez has the details of this work in “Medic in Donbass”.