It is 6:00 pm when the sinister wail of the siren rises above the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. Very calmly, hands on their bellies, the women slowly make their way down two floors to the basement of maternity hospital Number 3.
Without a word, they settle on the beds in the makeshift, windowless ward.
They have only been at the hospital in Mykolaiv for two or three days but they are already used to this. Seven women about to give birth in a city where war has descended without warning.
Natalia Reznikova, a 30-something redhead, is expecting her third child. Another baby boy.
“I’m not panicking,” she says as she makes her way carefully down the stairs. “I just hope I don’t give birth in that basement.”
In a nearby room cluttered with paperwork, three new mums settle down with their newborn babies.
Natalia, who declined to give her last name, protectively cradles her firstborn, Maria, who arrived less than 24 hours ago.
She is exhausted but radiant in her electric blue dressing gown.
When the air raid alarm sounded, she was on her way back to her room on the second floor, helped by her partner Oleksander.
“We are happy parents,” the young couple smiles.
Natalia thinks herself lucky. She avoided having to give birth in the labour ward underground.
The hospital staff have done their best to make the birthing room seem welcoming.
Alongside two beds kitted out with surgical stirrups, there is a sofa and an aquarium that bubbles soothingly.
Alina Bondarenko is in there with her partner. Her waters have just broken.
“In peacetime this area is used by plumbers and technicians. Four or five days ago, we had two women giving birth at the same time in here,” says the hospital’s chief physician Andriy Grybanov.
He recalls with touching precision how much the newborns weighed — “5.18 kilos and 5.4 kilos”.
The Spectre Of Mariupol
When the sirens burst into life and the shelling starts, the staff do not always have time to usher the women down to the basement.
So they give birth in the second-floor corridor. “Between two walls,” Dr Grybanov says. “It’s just that tiny bit safer.”
The operating theatre, where the doctors deal with problem births and caesareans, is on the fourth floor of the building.
“But it’s really risky because we need light and then we become a target,” he continues.
Of the 49 babies the hospital staff have delivered since Russia invaded Ukraine, only three have been by caesarean.
Almost half the women admitted since February 24 have had to give birth in the basement.
Mykolaiv has been under attack for days. The city blocks the Russians’ coastal route to the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa and the invading forces are throwing their might at this last hurdle.
“The health department advised us to put a big red cross on the hospital roof. But we’ve seen what happens,” Dr Grybanov says. “There isn’t a single international convention that hasn’t been breached.”
Several Ukrainian hospitals have already been hit by Russian forces, including a cancer ward in Mykolaiv. The spectre of Mariupol, where a maternity hospital was bombed just a week earlier, hangs in the air.
There is a corridor in the basement too, decorated with posters of soft-skinned infants. It doubles as a shelter for locals — elderly people, women, children, and a dog.
When the all-clear sounds an hour later, everyone trudges back upstairs.
Among them is Bondarenko, who the doctors hope can avoid the cellar.
8:00 pm. Another siren. Another weary trek downstairs. Everyone looks drawn. Some of the women move laboriously, holding onto the walls and the arms of the nurses.
Bondarenko is fully dilated and the doctors have decided to keep her upstairs.
Despite the alarms, the night seems peaceful.
In the second-floor birthing room, Bondarenko’s husband is counting for her between pushes. The young women remain astoundingly silent and the doctor, a debonair man with a twinkle in his eyes, has put on some music.
Sting. Mylene Farmer. And “Pretty Woman” when baby Snizhana greets the world.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)