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How Belarusian hospitals concealed Russia’s military casualties in the Ukraine war

CNN Particular Report

October 25, 2022

Vilnius, Lithuania — As his daughters dozed off within the again seat, his spouse filmed him driving, eyes narrowed, targeted on the darkish highway forward. Andrei, a health care provider, had been plotting their escape from Belarus since 2020, when the Kremlin-backed regime cracked down on a preferred rebellion, sending the nation spiraling deeper into authoritarian rule and engulfing it in a local weather of concern.

When Russia launched its assault on Ukraine from Belarus’ southern doorstep, getting out out of the blue felt extra pressing. His household watched from the home windows of their house block as helicopters and missiles thundered by means of the sky. Inside days, Andrei — whose identify has been modified for his security — stated he discovered himself being compelled to deal with Russian troopers injured in Moscow’s botched assault on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Then, on the finish of March, he was jailed on trumped-up corruption expenses. After his launch in Could, and thoroughly weighing the dangers, he determined it was time to go away.

In order to not spark any suspicion, Andrei requested considered one of their neighbors to sneak the household’s suitcases, crammed with authorized paperwork, a couple of garments and a photograph album, out of their constructing and stash them in a automobile. Late one Friday night in August, after he had completed his shift on the hospital, they met in a parking zone with none safety cameras to choose up their luggage. Then the household set off.

They stopped on a rural, grime highway and Andrei kissed his spouse and women goodbye. All being effectively, they’d cross by means of the official border checkpoint and reunite with him in Lithuania, the place he deliberate to assert asylum. Inside considered one of his daughter’s toys, Andrei had hidden a USB flash drive carrying proof of what he had witnessed — dozens of X-rays of wounded Russian troopers. He informed them he beloved them, turned and walked into the woods.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko allowed his shut ally Russia in February to make use of the nation, which shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine, as a staging floor for its invasion. Together with his permission, Russian President Vladimir Putin handled Belarus as an extension of Moscow’s territory, sending gear and round 30,000 troops ostensibly for joint military exercises — the most important deployment to the previous Soviet state for the reason that finish of the Chilly Struggle. Russia erected non permanent camps and hospitals in Belarus’ frozen fields, dispatching navy {hardware}, artillery, helicopters and fighter jets close to the border.

Belarusian and Russian forces performing dwell fireplace workout routines in Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border, on February 17, per week earlier than the warfare started. Belarusian Ministry of Protection/CNN/Pool
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko reaffirms his help for Russia on February 17, saying the 2 nations have “virtually shaped a united military.” Belarusian Ministry of Protection/CNN/Pool

When Putin declared his “special military operation” in a pre-dawn televised handle on February 24, he despatched missiles, paratroopers and an enormous armored column of troopers rolling south from Belarusian soil, setting in movement what was supposed to be a lightning strike to decapitate the federal government in Kyiv. However as Russia’s advance stalled and setbacks mounted, Moscow started to spirit wounded troopers again throughout the border to Belarus for therapy in a number of civilian hospitals, a CNN investigation has revealed. The docs working there have been drafted right into a warfare that they didn’t join, unwittingly enlisted as quasi-combat medics and obliged by their hippocratic oath to supply life-saving care.

Many have been compelled to signal non-disclosure agreements, informed not to discuss what they noticed. Some, like Andrei, later fled. From their working tables, Belarusian medical employees gained maybe the clearest sense of the size of casualties suffered by Russia within the early weeks of the warfare — describing younger, shell-shocked troopers who thought they have been being despatched for workout routines solely to search out themselves shedding a limb in a warfare they have been ill-prepared to struggle. Whereas Lukashenko admitted that Belarus was offering medical assist to Russian navy personnel, little is understood about what occurred within the hospitals the place they have been taken, which have been saved beneath strict surveillance. In interviews with Belarusian docs, members of the nation’s medical diaspora, human rights activists, navy analysts and safety sources, CNN examined the function Belarus performed in treating Russian casualties, whereas the Kremlin sought to conceal them. Their testimonies and documentation — together with medical data — supply insights into the Belarusian authorities’s complicity within the Ukraine warfare, as fears mount that the nation may be sucked additional into the struggle.

Precisely what number of Russian troopers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine stays a thriller to all however a couple of contained in the Kremlin. The Russian protection ministry stated on March 2 that early casualties amounted to 498 Russian troopers killed and almost 1,600 injured in motion. However US and NATO estimates across the identical time put the variety of useless considerably larger: between 3,000 and 10,000. Seven months into the warfare, Russian Protection Minister Sergei Shoigu revised the official tally, saying almost 6,000 Russian troopers had died. The Pentagon stated in August that it believed the true toll was rather more: as many as 80,000 dead or wounded.

Belarus’ stranglehold on data — Lukashenko’s regime has put impartial information media beneath extreme stress, restricted free speech and launched new laws extending the loss of life penalty for “makes an attempt to hold out acts of terrorism” — has supplied helpful cowl for Russia in repressing particulars about its injured and useless. In current months, plenty of individuals have been arrested for filming Russian navy autos, in line with Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group whose imprisoned founder was not too long ago awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite the repressive atmosphere, hints of Moscow’s troop losses have emerged on social media and native stories. In late February, the Belarusian Hajun project, an activist monitoring group that tracks navy exercise within the nation, began sharing photos on Telegram of Russian medical autos ferrying fighters throughout the border from the frontline. Drawing on a community of trusted native sources, the group posted footage of inexperienced, Soviet-era “PAZ” buses marked with pink crosses and a white letter “V” — an emblem believed to face for “Vostok”, or east — and armored ambulances in Gomel area.

“We will affirm they (Russians) used Belarusian infrastructure, together with medical buildings and discipline hospitals. Additionally they used morgues … they usually used prepare stations or airbases to move useless individuals or injured individuals, we have now images of that,” Anton Motolko, a Belarusian blogger who fled Minsk in 2020 and based Belarusian Hajun mission, informed CNN. Motolko stated his sources informed him that morgues within the space have been overflowing, and {that a} regular stream of wounded troopers had arrived at Mazyr Metropolis Hospital, the place Andrei labored.

In mid-February, Andrei watched in horror as his hometown of Mazyr seemingly became a sprawling navy base — armored tanks rolled down the streets, Russian troopers roamed native outlets and acquired drunk at bars downtown. He and his household now not felt protected, and averted being exterior after darkish. Quickly they started to suspect that Russia was making ready for warfare. Because the navy drills have been as a result of wrap up on February 20, Andrei stated his hospital administration prolonged a directive to deal with Russian troopers freed from cost till March 10. “They will need to have thought the warfare would finish by then,” Andrei stated, including that, two days later, Russian officers from the sector hospital exterior Mazyr cleaned out town’s blood financial institution reserves.

On the morning of February 24, the primary day of combating, Andrei recalled a hospital official gathering the entire docs into a gathering room, ordering them to maintain 250 beds free for Russian casualties, cease all deliberate surgical procedures and ship what Belarusian sufferers they may dwelling. “Then they warned us that we weren’t allowed to share any details about Russian troopers. We needed to signal a non-disclosure type, forbidding us to share any images, paperwork,” Andrei stated. “They informed us that we have been being watched by the Russian Federal Safety Companies (FSB), that that they had methods of monitoring our telephones.” Whereas he didn’t see any Russian FSB, Andrei stated he did discover native Belarusian State Safety Committee (KGB) brokers stalking the halls of the hospital. CNN has reached out to Mazyr Metropolis Hospital for remark.

“They warned us that we weren’t allowed to share any details about Russian troopers. We needed to signal a non-disclosure type, forbidding us to share any images, paperwork.”

– Andrei, a health care provider from Mazyr, Belarus

Aliaksandr Azarau, head of ByPol, a corporation arrange by ex-Belarusian police and safety service members, informed CNN that Mazyr authorities went to nice lengths to maintain details about the variety of wounded Russian troopers, and the varieties of accidents they sustained, beneath wraps. Azarau stated that the KGB departments for Mazyr, together with the area’s division of inner affairs, put Mazyr Metropolis Hospital “beneath round the clock surveillance” whereas ”warning the workers of private duty for disclosing details about navy personnel present process therapy within the hospital.”

Nonetheless, Andrei managed to secretly photocopy the X-rays of dozens of troops handled at Mazyr Metropolis Hospital, which he shared with CNN. “What I took with me, that a part of the archive, might have gotten me into authorized hassle for espionage,” he stated, including that he had taken the danger to supply proof of a facet of the warfare that has to this point gone unseen, smuggling them out of Belarus in his daughter’s toy cellphone. The scans included the names and ages of the troopers, lots of whom have been between 19 and 21 years outdated, capturing their accidents in stark black and white.

Andrei stated he noticed the most important wave of casualties arrive at Mazyr hospital en masse within the early hours of February 28. After receiving a name that the troopers have been incoming, the docs assembled on the entrance to the emergency room round midnight, ready. Quickly, busloads of injured troops started to pour in. Russian troopers carted them inside on stretchers, dumping them on the entrance doorways, Andrei stated.

In actuality, the hospital was stuffed with troopers, Andrei stated. Some have been lacking eyes, others required amputations — having arrived with gangrenous, shattered limbs — a couple of have been paralyzed, one had misplaced a part of his mind, one other his decrease jaw. A number of had been carrying tourniquets for days to staunch the blood, their our bodies peppered with bullets and shrapnel, the X-rays confirmed. “There have been extra wounded, in want of an operation, than we had working tables,” Andrei stated. “The Russians simply gave us their injured [soldiers], and didn’t give a rattling about them.”

Lots of the Russians had been combating in areas exterior of Kyiv — in Hostomel, the place they suffered main losses at a key airfield, in Bucha and Borodianka, suburbs that they terrorized for weeks, and in Chernobyl, the place their forces have been uncovered to radiation within the extremely poisonous zone often known as the “Pink Forest.” Andrei stated he handled Russian paratroopers and particular forces injured within the botched assault on Hostomel airfield, the place they informed him their helicopter got here beneath assault. “They have been skilled killers. We needed to deal with them, that was our job. I felt disgusted by the entire thing. However, as a health care provider, I’m not actually allowed to really feel disgusted,” he stated. Russian Main Basic Sergei Nyrkov, who suffered a extreme belly harm in Chernobyl, was additionally handled at Mazyr hospital, in line with his X-ray, which was amongst these Andrei smuggled out.

However the majority of the injured have been younger, inexperienced troopers and conscripts from distant components of Russia, Andrei stated. CNN has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Protection about these allegations, in addition to accusations it has co-opted Belarus to hold out an “act of aggression” in opposition to Ukraine, in violation of worldwide regulation.

On March 1, at a gathering of Belarus’ Safety Council, Lukashenko acknowledged that hospitals have been offering Russian troopers with life-saving therapy. “We deal with them and can proceed treating these guys – in Gomel, Mazyr, and I believe in another district capital when they’re transported to us. What’s incorrect with that? Injured individuals have at all times obtained medical therapy throughout any warfare,” he stated, earlier than dismissing stories that Russia had suffered big losses as pretend information.

“Our self-exiled opposition and the remaining shout about 1000’s of injured [Russian military personnel] delivered to Gomel. Nothing like that. We have handled about 160-170 injured on this complete interval,” Lukashenko added.

However Andrei and different medical professionals within the area inform a distinct story. In early March, 40 to 50 Russian casualties have been delivered to Mazyr Metropolis Hospital on daily basis, shuttled out and in once more like a “conveyor belt,” Andrei stated. Most arrived in the dead of night of night time, or early within the morning, in inexperienced Russian navy buses and ambulances. “We, the docs on the hospital, thought that perhaps they have been apprehensive about safety, so that they introduced them beneath the duvet of the night time. They have been afraid of highway site visitors to see the pink cross on their autos. Individuals would know,” Andrei stated. The Russians additionally tried to carry the useless to the hospital, he stated, including: “They didn’t know what to do with them.”

A metal bullet on white medical gauze dotted with blood stains.
Andrei secretly photographed a bullet he stated he faraway from a Russian soldier’s neck on March 8. Obtained by CNN

Anna Krasulina, spokeswoman for exiled Belarusian opposition chief Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, informed Ukrainian parliamentary TV channel “Rada” in March that the morgues in Mazyr were flooded with the bodies of dead Russian soldiers. In April, Tsikhanouskaya met with members of the US State Department in Washington, DC, handing over evidence of Lukashenko’s involvement within the warfare in Ukraine. The paperwork, seen by CNN, element how Belarus supplied key infrastructure to Russia, together with missile launch positions, railway strains, and medical help.

Citing open supply data, Franak Viačorka, Tsikhanouskaya’s chief political adviser, informed CNN that Russians have been utilizing hospitals in each the Gomel and Brest areas between the beginning of the warfare and April, however that there have been additionally “many circumstances when docs refused to take Russian troopers,” describing this as grassroots resistance. He added that Russians haven’t been utilizing infrastructure like hospitals in Belarus since April.

“There have been extra wounded, in want of an operation, than we had working tables.”

– Andrei

Mazyr was considered one of a minimum of three hospitals in Gomel area that handled Russian casualties, in line with medical and safety sources, who estimated that the amenities collectively cared for tons of of troopers. Mikalai, a health care provider who left the area and whose identify has additionally been modified for his security, stated that the Regional Scientific Hospital and the Republican Analysis Heart for Radiation Medication and Human Ecology have been amongst these offering therapy, however that the latter was largely working with Russian medical workers introduced in for the warfare.

After receiving a affected person transferred from the Republican Analysis Heart for Radiation Medication and Human Ecology, Mikalai stated that he had been interested by how the hospital was working. So, late one night time, he drove slowly previous the complicated. “I noticed when it began getting darkish, navy medical buses coming to the hospital … green-colored ‘PAZ’ autos, with their home windows coated with white material,” he stated.

Azarau, the top of ByPol, stated that the Republican Analysis Heart for Radiation Medication and Human Ecology was used to deal with Russian servicemen who took half within the assault on the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant, a few of whom confirmed indicators of radiation poisoning. The hospital was initially constructed within the early Nineties to supply specialised medical care to the native inhabitants affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Mikalai stated it was no shock that the Belarusian and Russian authorities went to nice lengths to maintain the fact of what was occurring behind closed doorways in these hospitals a secret. “A large number of wounded younger troopers is a unclean, soiled stain that doesn’t correlate with the concept of this nice Russian invasion,” he stated, including that the authorities wished to offer the impression that the scenario was beneath management and stories of an enormous variety of casualties have been pretend. “However that is the dangerous reality … they tried to cover it.”

Unpicking the function that Belarus has performed within the Ukraine warfare has taken on new urgency since Lukashenko introduced in October that Russian troopers would deploy to the nation to type a brand new, “regional grouping” and perform joint workout routines with Belarusian troops, elevating fears that he may draw the nation more directly into the conflict.

“The actual fact is that Belarus way back ceded its sovereignty in vital methods to Russia,” State Division spokesperson Ned Value stated in a briefing on October 12, responding to a query about Belarus’ posturing, which america is monitoring intently. “The truth that President Putin has been ready to make use of what needs to be sovereign Belarusian territory as a staging floor, the truth that brutal assaults in opposition to the individuals of Ukraine have emanated from a sovereign third nation, Belarus on this case, it’s one other testomony to the truth that the Lukashenko regime doesn’t have one of the best pursuits of its individuals at coronary heart.”

Not solely has Russia infringed on Belarus’ sovereignty, it has additionally posed a critical problem to NATO — three members of the alliance share a border with Belarus. Putin has been laying the groundwork to rework Belarus right into a vassal state for a while. After a rigged presidential election in 2020 cemented Lukashenko’s lengthy reign, triggering widespread pro-democracy protests, he clung to energy with the assistance of Putin. Russia backed the ruthless crackdown on demonstrations, and gave Belarus a $1.5 billion lifeline to evade the brunt of sanctions, but it surely got here with strings connected. Beholden to the Kremlin, Lukashenko has supported Russia’s navy actions from the sidelines, to this point avoiding sending his personal troops into the fray. However he could also be compelled to shift his place, as Putin racks up losses.

“So far as our participation within the particular navy operation in Ukraine is anxious, we’re taking part in it. We don’t disguise it. However we aren’t killing anybody,” Lukashenko stated in early October. “We provide medical assist to individuals. We have handled individuals if vital,” he added.

Nonetheless, many in Belarus are terrified that may change. A majority of Belarusians don’t need their nation to participate within the warfare, in line with a current Chatham Home ballot carried out on-line, which discovered that solely 5% favored sending troops to help Russia. Andrej Stryzhak, a Belarusian human rights activist and founding father of BySol, an initiative that helps victims of political persecution in Belarus, who himself faces politically motivated expenses for “funding extremist formations,” stated that the group noticed a surge in requests for assist when the invasion began. The group arrange a Telegram channel with recommendation on methods to flee overseas, for individuals who don’t help the warfare or have been afraid of being mobilized themselves. “We took greater than 10,000 consultations … and now we have now a Telegram channel with 30,000 subscribers,” Stryzhak stated, including: “It’s very intensive work for us.”

Andrei reached out to BySol for assist getting in another country, however in late August, with the borders to Ukraine and Russia largely impassible, they have been unable to help him. In the long run, he was aided by a casual community of Belarusian dissidents dwelling in exile in Lithuania, who determine potential crossing factors. They stated they too have seen a surge within the variety of Belarusian males fleeing for concern they are going to be forced to fight in Ukraine.

Video: Watch CNN’s interview with a Belarusian physician who handled Russian casualties

Having seen the havoc that the warfare has wrought first hand, Andrei stated he was involved that he may be despatched into Ukraine as a fight medic. In Russia, docs are more and more coming beneath stress. Earlier this month, Russian state-run information company Tass reported that physicians in St. Petersburg obtained letters from authorities telling them to not go away the nation for “safety causes,” and Russia’s parliament stated round 3,000 docs might be referred to as up as a part of Putin’s “partial mobilization” of troops.

In late March, Andrei was arrested alongside dozens of different Belarusian docs, lots of whom specialised in surgical procedure, on expenses of corruption and receiving bribes, which he denies. After being jailed within the Belarusian capital Minsk for a month and a half, Andrei stated he acquired the sense that their detention could have been an intimidation tactic — to make them suppose twice earlier than leaving the nation. When he was launched, he stated he was contacted by his native navy department and informed to enlist within the military. “I used to be requested to return to the navy enlistment workplace with my paperwork … After all, I didn’t go there,” Andrei stated. He fled the nation shortly after.

Now settled in one other European nation together with his household, Andrei is relieved to now not be questioning when or if he may be despatched to warfare. As an alternative, he’s targeted on sitting nationwide medical exams so he can begin to observe once more in his new dwelling.

“Ukraine may be very expensive to me. I used to be apprehensive about my shut family and friends dwelling there,” he stated, including that Belarus’ complicity within the warfare was insufferable. “We wrote to one another ‘Slava Ukraini,’ saying that Ukraine was going to win. My kinfolk stated that we’d all outlive all of this. And but the bombs have been being launched at them from the territory the place I lived.”

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