This is the story of Natasha Kaluzhskaya, a patient in an opioid substitution programme in Mariupol, Ukraine. Mariupol was completely destroyed by the Russian army in 2022. Under the bombs, Natasha rescued people who were using drugs. She managed to survive. And today she stands as a witness to the crimes of war in Ukraine.
Natasha has lived in Mariupol for over 20 years. A client of the opioid substitution therapy (OST) programme herself, she was involved in the development of OST and harm reduction services in the city, as well as helping people who use drugs. The war caught Natasha in Mariupol.
“The first thing I did,” Natasha says. – They wanted to open a commercial substitution therapy office there. And the office was nearby. I ran straight to the office to get the database from there. There was a database of people living with addiction in several cities. I took the computer and my documents.
Natasha decided that she would not evacuate from the city straight away, as she needed to help clients of the programme to receive substitution treatment first. “And that was 300 people in Mariupol alone, and also in the Donetsk region – there’s also Kramatorsk, Slavyansk. That’s 700 people on OST alone. Another 5000 people are HIV-positive. And all these people need life-saving medication,” says Kaluzhskaya.
In a city that was bombarded and ravaged daily, the doctors and medical staff behaved with dignity and professionalism. With the support of the chief medical officer, they were allowed to dispense OST for a month at a time. People were called in. Some were able to come, some from towns close to Mariupol were already unable to get there due to lack of petrol and military operations. At the AIDS center, ARV therapy was given for 3 months at a time.
“That was the last time we saw our office nurse that day,” Natasha recalls. – Her name was Olya. She first worked with us in the OST room. Then at the AIDS center. She died. The house was near AZOVSTAL. And there was no living quarter left at all”.
According to Kaluzhskaya, many clients of the OST programme died: “I know that 50 disappeared, 12 died for sure. And when people left Mariupol – some died simply because there were no drugs and they were in withdrawal. They had been using for 30, 40 years and they couldn’t take it.
Natasha managed to evacuate the city on March 15, the day the Mariupol Drama Theatre was blown up. Today she is in Dijon, France, and receives prescription OST from a local pharmacy. Already in France, she continues to help clients of the programme from Ukraine who come to the country: she counsels, accompanies and helps in every way she can.
Natasha believes that Ukraine will win this year and she will be able to return to her favorite city. “We dream of meeting again in Mariupol,” says Kaluzhskaya. – ‘It really is so wonderful, so warm. I have only bright memories from Mariupol. And I believe we will go back there and build and create there.”
Igor Kuzmenko, a filmmaker and co-founder of the Drug Users News (DUNews) documentary studio, needs your help! Please make a donation today to support his work to produce a series of documentaries about the community of people who use drugs in Ukraine during the war. Movies about the people, organizations, and networks that save thousands of Ukrainians from death and give hope every day.
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