Giving birth under fire in a Donetsk hospital cellar

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Just a pink cap was visible as Larisa held her daughter Yeva swathed in a blanket on Sunday, sitting in the cellar of Donetsk's largest maternity hospital, where she gave birth days ago amid heavy shelling.

As mortar fire continued to rain down on the centre of the rebel-held city, dozens of women huddled in this cellar, sitting on benches along the walls of the corridor, many pregnant or holding newly born babies.

"I gave birth here on August 7th, right in the corridor," said Larisa, dressed in a nightgown decorated with hearts, as her mother held a bottle of milk for the sleeping baby.

In between periods of shelling, the patients went back up to the wards, but "every time the baby calms down, we have to come down here again," she said.

"I can't believe we have got to this point: giving birth in a cellar," added her mother, Yekaterina Petrovna, angry tears in her eyes.

"Why should we experience this? Waiting for our deaths? No one hears us."

The conflict has been drawing closer to the heart of the city for days, and on Sunday residents were woken by regular bouts of heavy shelling close to the centre, which continued into the daylight hours.

"We've had three births already in the cellar. One was this morning -- the mother and baby are both fine," said the hospital's deputy general director Marina Ovsyanik.

The cellar was previously used for sterilising equipment but "since wartime we have used this as a temporary operating theatre," she said as doctors hurriedly carried through a tiny newborn baby wearing an oxygen mask.

Patients were emotional and angry as they recounted how often they had to rush to the cellar to escape the shelling.

"This is the fourth time we've been down today," said Irina, who gave birth on Friday.

"I wasn't scared at all. I was only thinking about giving birth," she said.

But her mother Lyubov, who came with her daughter from Donetsk's outlying district of Makeyevka, was adamant: "We're leaving today, we're going to stay in the cellar at home," she said, holding her granddaughter Kira in a wrap decorated with hedgehogs.

- 'Maternity hospital for separatists' -

Upstairs, shelling in the early hours of Sunday shattered windows and lodged shrapnel in the walls in several wards.

"We're in a maternity hospital for separatists," anaesthetist Dmitry Bessonov said in a bitter joke.

"We're doctors. We're not for one side or the other, we're for peace," added Ovsyanik.

Just a few hundred metres (yards) away, a facility for jaw and facial injuries -- which like the maternity ward is part of the state-run Vishnevsky hospital -- sustained a direct hit on Thursday, killing at least one person.

Central Donetsk has been under fire in recent days as Ukrainian government forces try to wrest back control of rebel-held cities in the east. The security services headquarters occupied by the rebels are also located near the city centre.

Bessonov said he has been working round the clock for four days but many staff have stayed away since the onslaught began.

But the patients are "in fighting mood," he said. "There's no panic."

The hospital would normally have around 400 patients but currently has only around 50, he said, since many have fled the region.

Nearby, 35 steps lead down to a large underground Soviet-era bomb shelter with camp beds, a generator and tanks of water, but they were not using it yet.

"If there is prolonged shelling, we will be forced to," Ovsyanik said.