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, centered on the darkish highway forward. Andrei, a physician, 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 all of the sudden felt extra pressing. His household watched from the home windows of their residence block as helicopters and missiles thundered by means of the sky. Inside days, Andrei — whose identify has been modified for his security — mentioned 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 punctiliously weighing the dangers, he determined it was time to depart.

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

They stopped on a rural, dust highway and Andrei kissed his spouse and ladies goodbye. All being nicely, they might cross by means of the official border checkpoint and reunite with him in Lithuania, the place he deliberate to assert asylum. Inside certainly 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 instructed 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. Along with his permission, Russian President Vladimir Putin handled Belarus as an extension of Moscow’s territory, sending tools and round 30,000 troops ostensibly for joint military exercises — the largest deployment to the previous Soviet state because the finish of the Chilly Struggle. Russia erected non permanent camps and hospitals in Belarus’ frozen fields, dispatching army {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 struggle started. Belarusian Ministry of Protection/CNN/Pool
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko reaffirms his assist 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 deal with 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 remedy in a number of civilian hospitals, a CNN investigation has revealed. The docs working there have been drafted right into a struggle that they didn’t join, unwittingly enlisted as quasi-combat medics and obliged by their hippocratic oath to offer life-saving care.

Many had been compelled to signal non-disclosure agreements, instructed 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 struggle — describing younger, shell-shocked troopers who thought they had been being despatched for workout routines solely to search out themselves dropping a limb in a struggle they had been ill-prepared to combat. Whereas Lukashenko admitted that Belarus was offering medical assist to Russian army personnel, little is thought about what occurred within the hospitals the place they had been taken, which had been stored below strict surveillance. In interviews with Belarusian docs, members of the nation’s medical diaspora, human rights activists, army analysts and safety sources, CNN examined the position Belarus performed in treating Russian casualties, whereas the Kremlin sought to conceal them. Their testimonies and documentation — together with medical information — supply insights into the Belarusian authorities’s complicity within the Ukraine struggle, as fears mount that the nation is likely to be sucked additional into the combat.

Precisely what number of Russian troopers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine stays a thriller to all however just a few contained in the Kremlin. The Russian protection ministry mentioned 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 similar time put the variety of useless considerably larger: between 3,000 and 10,000. Seven months into the struggle, Russian Protection Minister Sergei Shoigu revised the official tally, saying almost 6,000 Russian troopers had died. The Pentagon mentioned in August that it believed the true toll was rather more: as many as 80,000 dead or wounded.

Belarus’ stranglehold on info — Lukashenko’s regime has put unbiased information media below extreme stress, restricted free speech and launched new laws extending the demise 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 latest months, a lot of individuals have been arrested for filming Russian army autos, in response to Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group whose imprisoned founder was just lately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite the repressive atmosphere, hints of Moscow’s troop losses have emerged on social media and native studies. In late February, the Belarusian Hajun project, an activist monitoring group that tracks army exercise within the nation, began sharing photographs 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 purple crosses and a white letter “V” — a logo believed to face for “Vostok”, or east — and armored ambulances in Gomel area.

“We are able to verify they (Russians) used Belarusian infrastructure, together with medical buildings and discipline hospitals. Additionally they used morgues … and so they used practice stations or airbases to move useless individuals or injured individuals, now we have photographs of that,” Anton Motolko, a Belarusian blogger who fled Minsk in 2020 and based Belarusian Hajun mission, instructed CNN. Motolko mentioned his sources instructed him that morgues within the space had 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 was a sprawling army base — armored tanks rolled down the streets, Russian troopers roamed native retailers and acquired drunk at bars downtown. He and his household now not felt protected, and averted being outdoors after darkish. Quickly they started to suspect that Russia was getting ready for struggle. Because the army drills had been as a consequence of wrap up on February 20, Andrei mentioned his hospital administration prolonged a directive to deal with Russian troopers freed from cost till March 10. “They should have thought the struggle would finish by then,” Andrei mentioned, including that, two days later, Russian officers from the sector hospital outdoors Mazyr cleaned out the town’s blood financial institution reserves.

On the morning of February 24, the primary day of preventing, Andrei recalled a hospital official gathering all the 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 residence. “Then they warned us that we weren’t allowed to share any details about Russian troopers. We needed to signal a non-disclosure kind, forbidding us to share any photographs, paperwork,” Andrei mentioned. “They instructed us that we had been being watched by the Russian Federal Safety Providers (FSB), that that they had methods of monitoring our telephones.” Whereas he didn’t see any Russian FSB, Andrei mentioned 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 kind, forbidding us to share any photographs, paperwork.”

– Andrei, a physician from Mazyr, Belarus

Aliaksandr Azarau, head of ByPol, a company arrange by ex-Belarusian police and safety service members, instructed CNN that Mazyr authorities went to nice lengths to maintain details about the variety of wounded Russian troopers, and the forms of accidents they sustained, below wraps. Azarau mentioned that the KGB departments for Mazyr, together with the area’s division of inner affairs, put Mazyr Metropolis Hospital “below round the clock surveillance” whereas ”warning the workers of non-public accountability for disclosing details about army personnel present process remedy 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, may have gotten me into authorized hassle for espionage,” he mentioned, including that he had taken the chance to offer proof of a facet of the struggle that has to date 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 had been between 19 and 21 years previous, capturing their accidents in stark black and white.

Andrei mentioned he noticed the largest wave of casualties arrive at Mazyr hospital en masse within the early hours of February 28. After receiving a name that the troopers had 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 mentioned.

In actuality, the hospital was stuffed with troopers, Andrei mentioned. Some had been lacking eyes, others required amputations — having arrived with gangrenous, shattered limbs — just a few had been paralyzed, one had misplaced a part of his mind, one other his decrease jaw. A number of had been sporting 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 mentioned. “The Russians simply gave us their injured [soldiers], and didn’t give a rattling about them.”

Lots of the Russians had been preventing in areas outdoors 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 had been uncovered to radiation within the extremely poisonous zone often known as the “Purple Forest.” Andrei mentioned he handled Russian paratroopers and particular forces injured within the botched assault on Hostomel airfield, the place they instructed him their helicopter got here below assault. “They had been skilled killers. We needed to deal with them, that was our job. I felt disgusted by the entire thing. However, as a physician, I’m not actually allowed to really feel disgusted,” he mentioned. Russian Main Basic Sergei Nyrkov, who suffered a extreme stomach harm in Chernobyl, was additionally handled at Mazyr hospital, in response to his X-ray, which was amongst these Andrei smuggled out.

However the majority of the injured had been younger, inexperienced troopers and conscripts from distant elements of Russia, Andrei mentioned. 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” towards Ukraine, in violation of worldwide regulation.

On March 1, at a gathering of Belarus’ Safety Council, Lukashenko acknowledged that hospitals had been offering Russian troopers with life-saving remedy. “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 unsuitable with that? Injured individuals have at all times acquired medical remedy throughout any struggle,” he mentioned, earlier than dismissing studies that Russia had suffered large losses as faux information.

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

However Andrei and different medical professionals within the area inform a distinct story. In early March, 40 to 50 Russian casualties had been delivered to Mazyr Metropolis Hospital day-after-day, shuttled out and in once more like a “conveyor belt,” Andrei mentioned. Most arrived at the hours of darkness of evening, or early within the morning, in inexperienced Russian army buses and ambulances. “We, the docs on the hospital, thought that perhaps they had been apprehensive about safety, in order that they introduced them below the duvet of the evening. They had been afraid of highway visitors to see the purple cross on their autos. Folks would know,” Andrei mentioned. The Russians additionally tried to deliver the useless to the hospital, he mentioned, including: “They didn’t know what to do with them.”

Andrei secretly photographed a bullet he mentioned he faraway from a Russian soldier’s neck on March 8. Obtained by CNN

Anna Krasulina, spokeswoman for exiled Belarusian opposition chief Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, instructed 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 struggle 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 info, Franak Viačorka, Tsikhanouskaya’s chief political adviser, instructed CNN that Russians had been utilizing hospitals in each the Gomel and Brest areas between the beginning of the struggle 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 certainly one of no less than three hospitals in Gomel area that handled Russian casualties, in response to medical and safety sources, who estimated that the services collectively cared for a whole lot of troopers. Mikalai, a physician who left the area and whose identify has additionally been modified for his security, mentioned that the Regional Medical Hospital and the Republican Analysis Middle for Radiation Drugs and Human Ecology had been amongst these offering remedy, however that the latter was largely working with Russian medical workers introduced in for the struggle.

After receiving a affected person transferred from the Republican Analysis Middle for Radiation Drugs and Human Ecology, Mikalai mentioned that he had been inquisitive about how the hospital was working. So, late one evening, he drove slowly previous the complicated. “I noticed when it began getting darkish, army medical buses coming to the hospital … green-colored ‘PAZ’ autos, with their home windows lined with white material,” he mentioned.

Azarau, the pinnacle of ByPol, mentioned that the Republican Analysis Middle for Radiation Drugs 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 Nineteen Nineties to offer specialised medical care to the native inhabitants affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Mikalai mentioned 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 grimy, soiled stain that doesn’t correlate with the concept of this nice Russian invasion,” he mentioned, including that the authorities needed to provide the impression that the state of affairs was below management and studies of an enormous variety of casualties had been faux. “However that is the dangerous reality … they tried to cover it.”

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

“The very fact is that Belarus way back ceded its sovereignty in vital methods to Russia,” State Division spokesperson Ned Worth mentioned in a briefing on October 12, responding to a query about Belarus’ posturing, which america is monitoring carefully. “The truth that President Putin has been ready to make use of what must be sovereign Belarusian territory as a staging floor, the truth that brutal assaults towards 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 the very best pursuits of its individuals at coronary heart.”

Not solely has Russia infringed on Belarus’ sovereignty, it has additionally posed a severe problem to NATO — three members of the alliance share a border with Belarus. Putin has been laying the groundwork to remodel 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, nevertheless it got here with strings hooked up. Beholden to the Kremlin, Lukashenko has supported Russia’s army actions from the sidelines, to date 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 army operation in Ukraine is anxious, we’re taking part in it. We don’t cover it. However we aren’t killing anybody,” Lukashenko mentioned in early October. “We provide medical assist to individuals. We have handled individuals if crucial,” he added.

Nonetheless, many in Belarus are terrified which may change. A majority of Belarusians don’t need their nation to participate within the struggle, in response to a latest Chatham Home ballot carried out on-line, which discovered that solely 5% favored sending troops to assist 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,” mentioned that the group noticed a surge in requests for assist when the invasion began. The group arrange a Telegram channel with recommendation on tips on how to flee overseas, for individuals who don’t assist the struggle or had been afraid of being mobilized themselves. “We took greater than 10,000 consultations … and now now we have a Telegram channel with 30,000 subscribers,” Stryzhak mentioned, including: “It’s very intensive work for us.”

Andrei reached out to BySol for assist getting in a foreign country, however in late August, with the borders to Ukraine and Russia largely impassible, they had been unable to help him. In the long run, he was aided by an off-the-cuff community of Belarusian dissidents dwelling in exile in Lithuania, who establish potential crossing factors. They mentioned 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 struggle has wrought first hand, Andrei mentioned he was involved that he is likely to be despatched into Ukraine as a fight medic. In Russia, docs are more and more coming below stress. Earlier this month, Russian state-run information company Tass reported that physicians in St. Petersburg acquired letters from authorities telling them to not go away the nation for “safety causes,” and Russia’s parliament mentioned round 3,000 docs may very well be known 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 mentioned he acquired the sense that their detention might have been an intimidation tactic — to make them suppose twice earlier than leaving the nation. When he was launched, he mentioned he was contacted by his native army department and instructed to enlist within the military. “I used to be requested to come back to the army enlistment workplace with my paperwork … After all, I didn’t go there,” Andrei mentioned. 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 is likely to be despatched to struggle. As a substitute, he’s centered on sitting nationwide medical exams so he can begin to follow once more in his new residence.

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