Ira walks quickly but cautiously down the stairs of the maternity hospital’s bunker, carrying her newborn daughter, Veronika. The wailing of the air raid siren is anxiety-inducing enough, but there’s something else weighing on Ira.
Two months ago, she had twins. At 1,800 grams, Veronika was classified as underweight, but her sister, Viktoria, was even smaller – she weighed just 800 grams and required the use of an incubator. With the sirens here in the city of Lviv now warning of another possible attack, Ira has no choice but to leave Viktoria upstairs in the incubator while she carries her other daughter to the shelter.
Heartbreaking scenes of parents being separated from their children – sometimes briefly, sometimes indefinitely – have been playing out across Ukraine and in neighbouring countries since the war started. In just two months, the conflict has forced half the country’s children from their homes. The scale and speed of this still-unfolding disaster is something the world hasn’t seen since World War II.
“The shelling was very, very close to where we were living near Kyiv,” Ira tells me from the hospital. “We didn’t have a bunker, so we hid in a carpark. We escaped after two days. The next morning a rocket hit there.”
She fled Kyiv by train. “It was really stressful,” she says. “We had no food, no water, and all the lights were kept off for fear of an attack from above.” Two days after arriving in Lviv, Ira gave birth – six weeks earlier than expected due to the incredible stress of the war unfolding around her. “The doctors here saved three lives,” she says.
Doctors at the hospital treating Ira and her daughters will likely be called upon to save many more lives in the coming weeks; the head of the hospital says work is being done to reinforce the building’s walls and bunker.
Cities under siege
I’ve spent most of this war based in Lviv. The cobblestone streets of the city – usually home to around 700,000 people – are lined with restaurants and bars (although in an act of solidarity, alcohol is currently banned). These establishments, set amidst the city’s famed Baroque and Renaissance architecture, would usually be bustling with tourists and students. Now, the city’s buildings are sheltering hundreds of thousands of people from around war-torn Ukraine who are seeking sanctuary from other cities under siege.
Located in the far west of the country, near the border with Poland, Lviv has become a jumping-off point for many of the more than five million people fleeing to other countries. The city has also been seen as relatively safe. Yet during a recent weekend there, at least half a dozen missiles struck just a few kilometres from the heart of the city. As people fled to bunkers and basements, or simply sheltered in stone archways, the faces of small children looking for safety bore a grim look of “not again.”
The railway platform here has been a sea of grief and anxiety. Of the hundreds of people I’ve spoken with, not one imagined they would ever be forced to flee their home or country. They want to return to their communities; they want their children to go to school and play in their neighborhoods; they want to reunite with their families. But for now, war and the mass destruction of parts of major cities make that an unrealizable dream.
So here we are: Husbands embracing wives, saying farewells. Fathers on their knees explaining to their daughters why dad isn’t coming too. Fathers explaining to tearful sons why they must stay and fight. These people – physiotherapists, teachers, accountants, mechanics – all of them want their families to be able to stay, but know they have no choice. Amid bombs, missiles, terror and trauma, they must get the children out.
And so, they do. The numbers are mindboggling. In Syria, it was around two and a half years until a grim mark was reached: one million child refugees. In Ukraine it took two weeks. This tsunami of fleeing children – frightened, scarred, forlorn – flooding into Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungry and other countries, presents the most urgent humanitarian crisis in the world today.
“A cyclone that doesn’t stop”
As I write, more than two million children are refugees. UNICEF has grave concerns for many of those children. Children without parental care are at heightened risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. When children are moved across borders, the risks multiply. The threat of child trafficking keeps me awake at night.
The senseless escalation of the war in Ukraine poses an immediate and growing threat to the well-being of every single one of Ukraine’s children. Hundreds of children have been killed, and many more injured. Attacks on hospitals seem almost commonplace; many schools have been bombed. As another mother told me: “I am in disbelief at what’s happening. We’ve lost everything. It’s a cyclone that doesn’t stop.”
On the ground, delivering for children
UNICEF is working tirelessly to meet this incredible challenge. I have Ukrainian colleagues who work 16 hours a day, then spend a few hours with their own families, also displaced. They try to steal a few hours of sleep overnight, although this is usually interrupted by air raid sirens, forcing everyone back to the bunker.
In the past two months, UNICEF has delivered medical supplies to more than 50 hospitals in nine regions, improving access to health care for hundreds of thousands of mothers, newborns and children. UNICEF continues to distribute water and hygiene items in communities under siege. We work with everyone from social media companies – sharing guidance on how people can protect themselves and their children from trafficking risks – to local authorities as we look for more robust policing. We’ve started emergency cash transfers to vulnerable families, in and outside of Ukraine. Meanwhile, close to the frontlines in the east – from where I’m currently writing – a small, brilliant emergency team is reaching children and families in shelters, in train stations, in hospitals and in bunkers.
The Dnipro Hub was set up just a month ago by Elias, the Head of Emergency in the east who was deployed from UNICEF headquarters; Mariia, a Ukrainian child protection specialist; and Yevegeny, a water officer; along with support from the team in Lviv. Prioritizing some of the worst-affected areas, and led by Elias and Mariia, the work of this dynamic duo has reached more than one million people. Elias brings experience and know-how from some of the world’s most difficult spots, while Mariia has unparalleled local knowledge and partnerships. Combined, the pair assess needs, identify locations, truck supplies and deliver.
I’ve yet to see them do anything other than work, and yet I know they are also thinking about their families. Mariia’s mum and dad are trapped on this war’s frontlines. Still, Mariia and Elias both continue to act as a tireless, passionate, and strategic life-saving force for children in the east. With the essential support of drivers Yuri and Sacha – who also perform supply and security duties – the Dnipro Hub’s access strategy means they are reaching children with the severest needs.
This comes with its own risks. A week ago, a massive missile strike occurred less than a kilometre from where Mariia, Elias and Yuri were delivering medical aid. The strike killed at least 50 people, including two children.
It was yet another grim reminder that so long as the war continues, so long as the indiscriminate attacks on places that should be safe – residential areas and hospitals – continue, more lives will be destroyed. And for what?
I’m often asked how the war in Ukraine compares to other crises I’ve worked in. How it compares with Yemen. Ethiopia. Somalia. Libya. I’m loath to compare, for each one brings its own terror for children, its own limitless heartbreak. Ominously, in today’s world, warfare has changed. Fighting has moved more into cities, so children in these conflict-affected countries are suddenly, constantly in the frontlines.
I was in Yemen late last year when the country hit another shameful milestone: 10,000 children killed or maimed since fighting started seven years ago. That’s the equivalent of four children every day. I’ve seen the faces of parents at those funerals. They are haunting. There is probably another one today. So, I can’t compare: they are all atrocities. They are all children. And they are all crises where UNICEF strives to keep children alive, and build something back amid the bombs.
A small ‘victory’
A day after first meeting Ira, I went back to the maternity hospital. It’s a better day: Little Viktoria – ‘victory’ in Ukrainian – has just hit the one kilo mark. “I am hopeful,” says Ira. “Our people have so much belief in each other. But I am a mother now, and so my thoughts also constantly go to those mothers whose children have been killed in this war.”
Another air raid siren. Again to the hospital bunker. It’s cold. Pregnant mums and those with newborns sit with blankets over them. Upstairs is a modern hospital. Down here, an operating table sits over the dirt floor in gloomy light. I sit next to Anna. She too is expecting twins. She too fled under fire. She too will give birth prematurely. Alone.
In easy English, Anna describes the life she left. She’s a cool 20-something about to start a family. Anna was a travel agent in Kyiv. She has been to countries around the world. But she has no plans to leave Ukraine during this war. “I love my country,” she tells me. “It is my dream for my children to grow up here.”
Those are words I’ve heard dozens of times since this war started. Mostly through mothers’ tears. There are moments when I crack. I spent a morning talking to a 15-year-old boy, Andriy, who finally managed to escape the bombardment of his city, Chernihiv. Deprived of water and food, Andriy’s only constant was shelling. With his mother and others from the community, they found a moment and sped out in a car. A landmine was waiting. With a broken right leg, shattered left heel, and injuries to his skull, Andriy lay crushed under the car, and watched his mother die.
That evening, I wandered back to my apartment, dazed. I couldn’t make sense of the many dark conversations in my head. I slumped down on a street corner, exasperated, sad, angry. An old lady, surely in her eighties, crouched beside me. She put her gloved hand on my shoulder. It was warm. She thought I was Ukrainian. But I of course have a home, free from war, to return to when I leave here. My mind whispered, “toughen up James.” Back to work.
James Elder is UNICEF’s spokesperson. Follow him @1james_elder