Part Five: the Children of Putin's War
Russian missiles have killed dozens of children, destroyed hospitals and forced over 1 million to flee Ukraine.
LVIV, UA — Kiril clung to the safety of his mother’s arms, looking at us with a mixture of curiosity and reserve.
His mother Olga whispered to him in Ukrainian and he sheepishly extended his hand towards me. Kiril’s hands are just long enough to wrap themselves around two of my fingers.
The toddler has been especially shy since a rocket floored his neighbourhood in suburban Kiev on March 4. That was the last straw. Olga and Kiril’s father packed a bag with food, a change of clothes and medicine before leaving the capital with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
They had spent the first week of Putin’s war holed up in the dark basement of their apartment building.
“He would wake up crying in the night wondering where he was. It was so cold and damp,” his mother Olga said. “It’s no place for a child. But when we let him play outside one day, he saw a Russian rocket exploding in the sky and he ran back towards the basement.”
Ukraine’s anti-missile system intercepted the strike before it could hit its target. But the sound was deafening and the blast lit the sky with so much force that it warmed the air thousands of feet below.
They weren’t as lucky the next time.
“When the rocket hit our street, everything shook with such violence,” Olga said. “We went directly to the train station.”
Olga wept and squeezed the boy. Kiril climbed down from his mother’s arms and walked across the flat to play with his cars. At two-and-a-half-years old, the toddler is old enough to speak but he didn’t say a word throughout our 30-minute visit.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed dozens of children, wounded over 100 and sent more than 1 million across the country’s western border. Verifiable statistics are hard to come by but the United Nations confirmed 38 deaths earlier this week. That was before the Russian air force bombed a maternity ward and children’s hospital in the port city of Mariupol, Thursday.
There have been 24 confirmed attacks on Ukrainian medical facilities since the invasion, killing 12 people, wounding 18 and displacing hundreds of patients, according to the World Health Organization. At the St. Nicholas children’s hospital in Lviv, all elective surgeries were cancelled to accommodate sick and wounded children pouring in from the east.
“Every day, we get anywhere between five and 15 children from the south and the east … hospitals everywhere are being evacuated,” said Zoryana Ivanyuk, an anesthesiologist at St. Nicholas children’s hospital. “We have infants, toddlers, they don’t realize what’s happening but parents are scared. … We have orphans which is difficult because we don’t know where to send them once they’ve been discharged.
“At another hospital in Lviv, there are oncology patients, patients with neurological pathology. We have the children of refugees coming to the hospital with diarrhea, sore throats and lots of psychological trauma. When we hear the air raid sirens, we have to move them to the basement and it’s traumatic for parents who have to pick their babies up and run downstairs.”
Though Lviv is 540 kilometres from the besieged capital of Ukraine, the city of 700,000 has been targeted by missile attacks from Russian positions stationed in Belarus to the north. So far, they’ve all been intercepted by anti-missile systems.
Every day since the invasion, Ivanyuk has been at the hospital for 12 to 20 hours a day, sometimes sleeping in a spare room to save herself the trouble of being stuck in military checkpoints on her way home. One child arrived at the hospital after their leg was blown off during an air strikes on Kharkiv, where some of the worst fighting rages on.
She says the fact that she’s so busy helps keep her mind from slipping into despair. Most days, Ivanyuk works from morning until 2 a.m.
“I try to hold myself together, to keep busy instead of despairing,” Ivanyuk said. “We cannot stop, we cannot sit and think about the war, we cannot watch the news because it is too hard. It’s also stressful for me. My husband left Lviv to fight in Kyiv. We try to speak on the telephone every day. It’s just a few phrases, ‘I’m okay. Stay safe!’ That’s it.”
Their patients range in age from premature babies who need around the clock care to teenagers visibly rattled by the war. Down the hall from where I met with Ivanyuk, parents kneeled on prayer mats in a sunlit chapel.
“I’m Christian, I’m not very observant but yes I’ve been praying more lately,” the doctor said.
Across the city at Ridni Orphan Centre, workers brace themselves for an influx of children who were in foster care and those newly orphaned by the war. A young woman stood atop a van loaded with humanitarian supplies, rubbing a cross-shaped sticker onto the roof in hopes that it will dissuade helicopters from firing at the vehicle.
As she massaged the sticker onto the van, a nun and social worker taped crosses to its side panels. Inside the newly-built centre, young women assembled cheese sandwiches and children napped on the second floor.
“These children need warm meals, a place to sleep and they need to be held and loved,” said Martha Krasnohor-Hrystsyk, the head of Ridni’s charity department. “Everyone has their normal job and a new job; I wash the floors and clean the rooms, our psychologist is in charge of the storage rooms. We have our work to do and we are supplying orphanages in (besieged) cities.”
Ridni is coordinating a supply run to the coastal city of Odesa, where children with physical and mental impairments are stranded at an orphanage under heavy fire from Russian warships. They can only safely travel part of the way before meeting volunteers from Odesa on the treacherous road south.
So far, the food and medicine has all made it through.
Ridni took in 29 children from the Kyiv suburb of Irpin Wednesday. They’ll be sent abroad in a few days because child services in western Ukraine can no longer handle its rapidly mounting caseload.
“The teenagers seem to be doing okay but the most shocked and stressed are toddlers,” said Krasnohor-Hrystsyk. “Foster parents are abandoning the children to escape. In one case, they spent seven days in a basement before getting on a bus to Lviv. Three times they had to change buses.
“Now the children must travel abroad without any support from a parent. Everyday things are changing. There is no consistency.”
Krasnohor-Hrystsyk paused to compose herself and a toddler wailed in the distance.
“They were traumatized before the war, now we cannot begin to understand how hard it will be for them.”
Trauma is devastating to a child’s developing brain. Exposure to something as unconscionable as war can cause a kid to stop eating, sleeping, talking and even brings on a regression in their motor skills. It isn’t uncommon for children who’ve been traumatized to see basic milestones like walking and crawling regress.
Now more than ever, the children of Putin’s war need psychosocial support. But as attacks on civilians and hospitals continue, creating more orphans and war wounded kids, Ukraine’s social services are overloaded.
“Some days ago, a journalist asked me about my emotions. I told him I have none anymore,” said Krasnohor-Hrystsyk. “Maybe one day I will cry for a very long time. For now, I clean and I keep busy. I am like a robot. That’s how I deal with it.
“I pray a lot. It helps me. I ask God to save our children, to give us more strength, more hope. I absolutely believe everything will be okay because when I see the people around me working so hard, I cannot give up. I believe that even the children we send abroad, we will return them, we will do everything we can to get them back.”
Back in the little Kiril’s new apartment, the boy rolled a plastic tow-truck along the hardwood floor. His father Andrii watched over him, smiling.
Kiril is a beautiful child and seemed happy to lose himself in the imaginary universe of play for a moment. He has seen the worst of humanity; men fighting to get on westbound trains, craters full of rubble and death where his mother once pushed him in his stroller and the devastating rumble of rocket fire for days on end.
But he has also benefited from the kindness of strangers. A friend of his parents’ friends arranged for the young family to stay in his apartment while he’s out of the country on business. Volunteers have helped supply them with food and clothes so they can get back on their feet.
Now they wait in hopes that one day they can return to Kyiv.
They don’t want to leave their home city or have to start over in a new country with an unfamiliar language and culture. Before the invasion, they carved out a nice little life in the Ukrainian capital. Olga had just started a new job and Kiril was going to daycare.
Now they wait and pray that the fighting will end.
“My only hope is for peace, for Vladimir Putin to grow some brain cells and realize he is waging war on women and children,” Olga said. “When we have peace, we will go home.”
On our way out, Olga plucked Kiril from the ground and the boy reached for my hand again. His skin was warm and it reminded me of my own daughter’s. I could feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes so I stuck my tongue out at Kiril to try to hide my emotions from the boy.
He smiled and buried his face in his mother’s bosom.
Stay safe, Chris! We're all thinking of you back here at home and admiring you for greatly for your dedication to honest journalism and above all for your courage.
Another thing: my friends and I have donated loathing and bedding to the Ukrainian church for the expected refugees and I have donated to the Red Cross and MSF. Any suggestions for more direct help? People have been sending money to B&b’s, renting rooms but not expecting to stay,but that seems nuts to me - who knows if the place is still operational or even inhabited by now. Any suggestions so we can help more directly?!