For some 35 years, Maya Mendel has worked as a doctor in children’s health in Kherson. When she saw Russian BTRs and tanks rolling into her city in early March 2022, she knew what she had to do. That is: serve and save the kids of her hometown.
That included standing up to Russian FSB agents who wanted to take local kids from her clinic to Russia.
“We stayed on the spot. My kids told us to leave, but we didn’t consider the option,” Mendel, 62, tells Kyiv Post. “We live here. Our family was all born and raised here. I cannot live anywhere else. There are kids to look after here.”
During Kherson’s nearly nine-month-long occupation by Russian forces, Mendel, together with colleagues, continued to provide care to the young patients of the Kherson regional children’s hospital where she has worked since 2009.
“After we decided to stay, we knew we had to be prepared. We had to accept that ‘this is where we are’ and we must do our best. So, people helped each other during the occupation. From big things to little things, like looking after each other’s pets,” Mendel, whose daughter Iuliia Mendel has worked in the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, says.
There were periods of up to ten days where Mendel could not be in contact with family outside Kherson, a southern Ukrainian city of some 300,000 people prior to its occupation.
“War is a big job. You get up. You get to where you need to be. You work. You keep the kids fed and warm when the city lost power and heating after the Russians destroyed infrastructure in retreat,” Mendel says.
“You can’t make the war invisible, but you do your best for the kids. You don’t know what will happen next so you just deal with the present.
“During the occupation, the city continued to resist and take a very patriotic stance,” says Mendel. “There were protests. People filled the streets and stood in front of military vehicles and heavy arms with only their bodies. The partisans did their work too.”
She describes how FSB agents came to her clinic in September and began to say that the young patients needed to be “evacuated” to Russia for treatment. From 20,000 to 300,000 children may have been deported to date, with the latter figure claimed by the Russian military; Vladimir Putin is charged with an international war crime in related regards.
“We stood firm and, of course, would not consider giving the kids up. Eventually, the agents got nervous about our stance and stopped trying.”
On November 9, the Armed Forces of Ukraine pushed south and successfully liberated Kherson and the rest of Kherson oblast’s ‘right bank.’ (It is divided by the Dnipro River.)
“I couldn’t believe it though I always knew it would come. My nurses told me: ‘They’re here!’. We were all yelling ‘Slava Ukraini!’ and eventually went down to Ploshcha Svobody (Freedom Square) where we met so many people we knew from the protests,” Mendel recalls. “There was dancing, crying, laughter, so many emotions… Our great unity and great faith in our military and in our future had been fulfilled.”
Asked by Kyiv Post about the future, Mendel reminds of the current reality: Kherson continues to be regularly shelled by Russian forces.
Two days after her interview with Kyiv Post, according to Kherson city administrators, Russian forces on the still occupied ‘left bank’ of the Dnipro River made 54 artillery attacks on Kherson, including five residential districts, using 319 shells from mortars, MLRS, artillery, tanks and drones. One person was killed and two injured.
“We continue to believe that the ‘left bank’ will also be liberated. In the meantime, we just have to continue to work, to believe, to stay busy and to grow.
“This is a war where no one can stand aside. It isn’t local. It’s global. Putin is not thinking only of Ukraine,” Mendel says.
“Everyone needs to work for victory and peace. All other values and priorities need to be set aside for that goal.”
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