Everyone who’s been through war has a story. Some are tales of enemy atrocity; some are tales of devastating loss and suffering; some are tales of enduring the seemingly unendurable. Other tales tell a different story: They hold reminiscences of unexpected kindness, selfless acts, courage under the most extreme conditions, and ultimately, of hope. Yet, for every testament that speaks to surviving that particular hell on earth, one thing holds true: war is not a game. But as Dr. Oleksandr Yaroshenko, chief physician of Mariupol’s regional hospital system told the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s Museum of Civilian Voices, the team dynamics he relied on to run an elite sports academy stood him in good stead as he coordinated boots-on-the-ground medical care and evacuations for the citizens of his beloved city as it faced the relentless onslaught of Russia’s encroaching forces.
Trying to Make Sense of Senseless Russian Violence in Mariupol
Prior to the invasion, in addition to his duties as president of the Mariupol Football Sports Club, and CEO of a medical supply business, Oleksandr Yaroshenko was chief physician at a regional hospital. After the shelling started in earnest, Yaroshenko volunteered to take on leadership of all the area hospitals which had been thrown into chaos by the near-constant and repeated Russian bombardment. While Yaroshenko was able to keep a cool head thanks in part to the discipline and dedication he’s cultivated through years of sports training, he was stunned by the sheer brutality and the growing swath of post-apocalyptic landscape where the thriving and vital communities of Mariupol once stood.
“Of course it’s scary when something explodes above you, when the roof of an ambulance is torn off or there’s a shockwave so close by that it breaks all the windows and knocks your helmet off your head,” Yaroshenko admitted. “Of course it’s scary, but you don’t [really process] the fear [at the time]; only later, when it passes. I still haven’t told my family what I saw. I don’t want to tell anyone… Everything you saw on TV, I saw with my own eyes.”
In the early weeks of the war, Yareshenko moved about 30 members of the football team and their relatives into the basement of his family home for safety and to keep everyone together. His days fell into a routine. “At 7 a.m., I got up and visited all the hospitals, baked bread, transported the wounded, [reconnoitred] the city [for survivors], gathered the football players and gave them tasks,” he recalled.
Yareshenko downplays the humanitarian assistance he so freely offered as well. “My main thing was medicine because many medical institutions were being destroyed almost every day,” he noted. However, in addition to urgent triage, providing emergency care, anaesthesia, and pain medications, he says felt compelled to offer moral support — or perhaps one might call it “team spirit” — to those in need.
Although they were initially reluctant to go, as the situation in Mariupol continued to decline, Yareshenko made the decision to evacuate his family and team. Already involved in staging growing evacuation efforts, Yareshenko remained behind until the last hospital was destroyed, after which, he continued working to extricate as many survivors as possible from a checkpoint in nearby Zaporizhzhia. “I…bought minibuses, organized volunteers. We took people out of Mariupol for another month and a half,” he recalled.
Rinat Akhmetov Calls Out Russian War Crimes
A Feb. 21, 2023 report by the Physicians For Human Rights organization stated: “For 35 days (after the initial attack), Ukraine’s health care infrastructure was damaged every single day. In the first two weeks of the invasion, an average of four to five hospitals and clinics were attacked daily.” In addition to 292 documented attacks on 218 hospitals and clinics, there were 65 documented assaults on ambulances; 181 attacks on pharmacies, blood centers, dental clinics, and medical research centers, and 86 attacks on health care workers that left 62 dead and 52 wounded. In Mariupol, the stark statistics revealed nearly eight out of 10 medical facilities or service providers had either been damaged or destroyed.
Attacking hospitals and civilian targets have been designated as war crimes by the International Criminal Court as stated in its 1998 Rome Statute. The definition includes “intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives.”
Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire philanthropist who heads Ukraine’s largest steel and mining concern, Metinvest, has a history of taking Russia — and in particular its amoral leader, Vladimir Putin — to task for the hostile criminal aggressions they have perpetrated against his country and its people. “…Russia is an aggressor country, and Putin is a war criminal,” Akhmetov declared in a Mar. 5, 2022 Q&A with epravda.com.ua. “Because Ukraine has always been a peaceful country and has never attacked anyone. And today in our country villages, cities and infrastructure are being destroyed, peaceful people are dying and suffering.”
For Team Mariupol, Survival is Victory in and of Itself
Even as egregious Russian war transgressions continue to exact a murderous toll on Ukraine, for the survivors of Mariupol, life goes on. Currently settled just outside Kyiv, Yaroshenko is working to rebuild his company and get his footballers back on the pitch. “Now the most important thing is participation,” he said in an RTÉ News story credited to AFP/Reuters prior to their first game of the 2022 season. “We do not know whether the game that has begun will end or not, whether the championship will end or not. Today it is more of an ideological team, which is built on the philosophy that this is Mariupol and that we are alive.”
While the original roster has dwindled, that they are able to show up at all is an homage to survival and perseverance. For Oleksandr Yaroshenko, every life saved counts as a victory that’s helped Team Mariupol pull a symbolic win out of the ashes. “…Before every game, the coach says [the players] are writing history,” he told the Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation. “We understand, we’re not just talking about Mariupol — by our actions we are proving we exist.”