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9 Aug, 2009 14:28

Ossetia remembers lives saved in underground hospital

As war raged on the streets of the South Ossetian capital, the city's hospital was forced underground. Doctors had to treat hundreds of patients in the building's basement to escape the bombings.

In four days, medical staff performed 271 operations in these deplorable conditions. Georgy Gogichaev was on shift at the hospital when the Georgian bombings hit Tskhinval.

Over the years, medical staff at the hospital got used to hearing shots from the border. But this time, the shooting was more intense until eventually the building itself was under attack.

“We weren’t prepared for the rocket attacks,” Gogichaev recalls.

“We had more than 70 patients in serious condition who had to be transported to safety in their beds. We decided to move everything to the basement.”

For the next four days the hospital’s cellar became like a second home to hundreds of people. As Gogichaev explained, the intensive care unit was fully transported to a small dark basement room that was filled with beds.

“All the beds were taken up by the patients, so we rested in a room separate room on the floor.”

South Ossetian doctors, together with the assistance of 15 Russian medics, performed more than 270 operations. Gunshot wounds and burns were the most common reason for admission during the war.

Apart from the shortage of equipment and medicine, there was very little food; the first bread delivery made it through to them only on the third day.

Doctors worked day and night in a dimly lit area that served as an operating room to save the lives of scores of the wounded. At one point, over 500 patients were in the underground hospital since it was the only place in the city where the wounded could get professional medical help.

Zalina Chuochieva, lost her cousin to the conflict, works as a nurse at the same city hospital. She also worked several days in the basement and after everything she had experienced, her broken leg could not compare to the suffering she saw.

“We didn’t have light, water or food. We even worked with candles. I think we would all be dead if it wasn’t for Russia,” she says.

A year after the fighting the hospital is difficult to recognize: there are no holes in the walls, and the glass has been replaced in the windows. Doctors now work without fearing for their lives, but there is still a shortage of equipment. Clearly, the republic still has a long way to go on the road to recovery.