“Finishing off the wounded is the lowest you can possibly stoop.”

ICU doctor on trauma and suffering of people injured by government security forces

17 August 2020, 17:03 | Radio Svaboda
Yuri Sirash, an ICU doctor.
Source: Radio Svaboda

Yuri Sirash, an intensive care unit (ICU) doctor, talks about how ambulances were not allowed to the scenes of explosions, how riot police beat volunteers and finished off the wounded, about the condition of the people brought in from Akrescina jail. And why, in his opinion, the authorities have lost respect.

Yuri Sirash, the head of the intensive care unit (for surgical patients) of the Minsk City Emergency Hospital, gave an extended interview to Svaboda.

“We got most of the information from the ambulance teams – there was no official information”

When did you start accepting the wounded?

I was on duty on the 9th of August, I was the doctor in charge. In the evening, the ambulance teams started bringing in people injured by flashbang grenades. We expected more patients, but the military hospital took the brunt of it. Which is right, because shots and explosions are their specialties. The only thing we understood was that with too many injured, the military hospital wouldn’t be able to take them all. Our hospital has had some reserve capacity these days.

Source: Radio Svaboda

All the information was passed on verbally because there was no official information – zero, the Internet wasn’t working, the TV couldn’t be trusted. We got most of the information from the ambulance teams. A van came and the people said: “There are flashbangs going off, we need to prepare for this and that; or, they are using tear gas – prepare for a different thing.” Thanks to the ambulance guys for letting us know. I want to thank all my colleagues. On the 9th, the entire department was working; in the following days, they were also spending the nights here, not just working their shifts.

“Ambulances weren’t let through, volunteers were arrested and beaten.”

Is it true that medics weren’t allowed to provide medical aid on the spot, that they were being beaten and arrested?

Yes. This was humiliating. I think it was on the 11th of August when they forbade the ambulances to go there. The teams could go to the resistance hotspots only if the police called them – the 102 (the emergency police number in Belarus – Translator’s remark). They weren’t allowed through! This upset us a lot because there were combat injuries: the sooner you help, the higher the chances of survival.

But there was no despair. I know examples of how my fellow volunteers just put on hard hats or motorcycle helmets, put the red crosses on their clothing, and went “to the front.” They packed their first aid kits, took everything, and went to help people on the battlefield.

Yuri Sirash.
Source: Radio Svaboda

But the next step came when they were taken too. An acquaintance of mine said: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anyone left, they took our guys and sent them to Akrescina.” The ICU doctors, the nurses. As a result, people in the affected areas were left without medical help.

In similar situations, the Red Cross comes to the rescue. People raise the red cross and no one touches them. They help both sides of the conflict. Yes, altercations can happen, but no one has a right to touch the people with the Red Cross. No one has a right to finish off the wounded. The local chapter of the official Red Cross is a different story. But the volunteers tried hard. They sent me photos of them leaving gauze and hydrogen peroxide in various places so people could help themselves or bandage the wounded.

I still suspect that many of the injured are at home, they’re afraid of persecution by the government. And more consequences will come – the complications from those injuries…

Volunteers have also said that the riot policemen beat them. The volunteers with the Red Cross! “I’m helping – they hit me in the back and then hit a person I’m helping,” a volunteer said. Finishing off the wounded is the lowest you can possibly stoop. This is a first-hand account.

Have you ever dealt with injuries like that, shrapnel wounds, gunshot wounds?

I’ll reply with a line from the Belarusian anthem: “We, Belarusians, are a peaceful people.” While Russia is always at war with someone – the Caucasus, Crimea, Syria – these are very rare cases for us. Even the military doesn’t encounter things like that often. There are accidents during maneuvers. Or fireworks. We know this in theory but have never faced this in practice.

“You take off the t-shirt – there is mincemeat underneath. What’s more, they were marked with indelible paint.”

In addition to those injured on the streets, people beaten in the police precincts and Akrescina jail were brought to the ER. Now that they’ve been released, they come for help or to get official records of the beatings. What kind of damage have they suffered?

Yes, when the clashes in the streets stopped, thousands of people were thrown in jail. We started taking people from Akrescina, from the precincts. They were painful to look at – they really were “worked over.” When they brought the injured, there wasn’t an undamaged spot on them; you take off the t-shirt – there is mincemeat underneath. You try to move a guy from a stretcher to a wheelchair, and he screams in pain.

Source: Radio Svaboda

What’s more, they were marked with an indelible paint on their foreheads and arms. I don’t know why. These people aren’t gangsters, drug addicts, or criminals. These are normal young guys. There were no drunks, miscreants, alcoholics, antisocial people.

That’s what made us rise up. This has gone too far.

Demonstrations in Belarus have always been peaceful. Tell us, what stopped you from letting the rally in the Friendship of Nations Park happen on the 6th of August? I was at a previous demonstration there on the 31st of July, there wasn’t a single hooligan or a bandit there. They were normal people. I, a politically neutral person, went with my family. There were beautiful people there. It was a drive, power. It was the birth of the nation. We were forbidden from assembling peacefully, and when people protested, the authorities used weapons. Violence begets violence – that’s the only way it can be.

“The detention of ICU doctor Bogdan Shilnikovsky was the last straw”

Have you been in the protest hotspots during the clashes? Did you join the medical professionals’ protests?

I didn’t join the protests. Not out of fear – I just understood that I would be more useful in the clinic. 

But we are protesting too. On the 12th of August, there was a peaceful protest near the Medical University. It was wonderful! The detention of our colleague, an ICU doctor by the name of Bogdan Shilnikovsky, was the last straw, and people understood that they couldn’t take it anymore. Because arresting a neighbor or an acquaintance is one thing; arresting a colleague or a relative is another. A colleague of mine, a classmate and a friend of Bogdan, said: “Why would you even arrest this “dumpling”, he’s the nicest person ever!

Source: Radio Svaboda

We appealed to the head doctor: he needs to be released immediately! The head doctor gathered us, spoke with a deputy minister, and went to look for him at Akrescina. But the information that a doctor had been arrested had spread through the whole system already and an ambulance took him away from Akrescina.  He has health issues not related to injuries (diabetes), and they let him out even before the head doctor went to Akrescina. Bogdan is at our hospital now. He is in high spirits, even makes jokes.

A few days ago, the Health Ministry declared that 16 doctors were released from Akrescina and other places. Did the medics write an appeal to free all their colleagues?

I am against it because I believe that we shouldn’t fight on professional, ethnic, or any other grounds. We need to fight for everyone. There are still people out there, and many are in critical condition. We must demand the release of all of them. We shouldn’t make concessions: we’ll let your colleague out and leave another person in. This is inhumane. That’s my opinion.

“I don’t let journalists into the ward because the patient will have to relive their trauma.”

In your opinion, is the worst over for the injured or will there be consequences, complications?

Of course, there will be. A stressful situation won’t just go away. The riot police, the police have special training, they are used to it, it is their job. But we are civilians. This won’t pass without a trace. We need professional psychologists working here in the hospital. But only volunteer psychologists come to us.

Nothing should be hidden, nothing should be swept under a rug – these are our citizens. There should be lists of all detainees and where they are held. We shouldn’t have volunteers looking for people at the police precincts and hospitals. There should be an information center for relatives where they can learn everything they need.

We were prepared for the worst. There are two intensive care units in my department that can accommodate four people each. But, thank God, we have no critically injured people in our ward who need intensive care.

Why don’t I let journalists through to my patients? The journalists will ask questions, and the person would have to relive their trauma. These people can only get over it with psychological help. If a person lives through this, they might be able to tell a journalist about their experience. But it shouldn’t be a factor for recurring trauma.

I understand that the world must learn firsthand about what happened – about the violence, lawlessness, pain of these people. But these people need help first and foremost.

The guys sent to us just slept for the first day or two. You go into their room and they are dreaming. In the evening, they regain consciousness, wake up: “Hello, doctor!” And I have already visited them about 10 times. 

An ambulance brought us a guy from Akrescina. He was beaten there for three days straight. And when the team put him in the ambulance, he asked: “They won’t beat me, will they?” And the kid is only 20 years old! Why?”

“A government without respect is done for!”

How are you coping, how do you survive the stress seeing all of this and working intensely for the entire week?

I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke. I stood at the reception all day, seeing everything, distributing everything, helping. Walking around the hospital saved me. I walked, walked in circles. When the rage boiled over, I gritted my teeth out of helplessness.

When they organized a demonstration, the question arose whether I would go. I did! I realized that I felt like crap and going there helped me deal with the stress. When we go out together and say: “No!” – that’s when we are strong. Only together can we change the situation.

When the authorities are strong, I can listen to them. I give interviews without asking for the press service’s permission despite what I was told. I don’t do anything illegal. You, the regime, have let this abomination happen, why should I ask you for permission to speak?

The authorities have lost respect. They don’t understand that a government with no respect is done for!