Teen picks up pieces after shell attack in Ukraine

Thirteen-year-old Sofia is recovering in hospital after surviving a shell attack.

10 June 2022

Back in February, 13-year-old Sofia had long hair, lived with her family in the south of Ukraine and dreamt of becoming a psychotherapist.

Now, her short buzz cut barely covers a large scar on her head, her home has been destroyed and she has been living in a hospital ward for the last three months.

“My mother and I were taping up the windows, when I saw a missile flying,” says the teenager. “Mom screamed, ‘Run away, Sofia!’ I took three steps and passed out. Shrapnel hit me in the head, cut off my ear and hit me in the shoulder."

There is one more thing that has changed for Sofia – she dreams of becoming a surgeon, like the doctors who saved her life.

"I just adore the doctors who simply didn't think about their safety, but saved her life,” says Lyudmila, her mother. “They operated to the sound of explosions in the background.”


A terrifying ordeal

The war in Ukraine has been devastating for children. Sofia is one of millions who have lost their homes, lives and loved ones since the violence escalated on February 24. To date, it is estimated 250 children have been killed and 215 have been injured. Over 200 attacks have been reported against health care facilities.

At the hospital, Sofia hugs her mother with her left arm. She is unable to lift the right.

"You're still such a kid," says 48-year-old Lyudmila, sadly.

But Sofia has experienced more than most adults, having endured severe pain, several surgeries and evacuation from her home in the Mykolaiv region.

"At the moment of the explosion, I saw everything go flying,” recalls Lyudmila, who suffered injuries to her face. “I saw shrapnel as if it was in slow motion. And then I saw Sonya, thrown back by the blast wave. And I couldn't understand which blood it was: mine or hers.”

As the shelling continued, an ambulance drove Sonya to the city of Mykolaiv, where doctors sprang into action. But it was two weeks before she could be airlifted to the specialized children's hospital ‘Okhmatdyt’ in the country’s capital of Kyiv.

"I forgot a lot of things,” says Sofia. “When I regained my senses in the hospital in Kyiv, I thought I had been unconscious for just a couple of hours, while in fact I spent a couple of weeks anesthetized. I had a bad headache where the fragment was.”


Shelter from the storm

Since February 24, staff at the ‘Okhmatdyt’ hospital have been working around the clock to help children injured in the violence. 

For many parents and children, the biggest challenge is reaching the hospital, due to shelling and gunfire.


"Children are able to get oxygen even in bomb shelter conditions,” says Volodymyr. “I believe UNICEF has saved more than a few children’s lives.”

Every day, Volodymyr longs for peace.

“The main need of our children's facility now is to ensure peace in the country,” he says. “The war prevents us from saving children's lives. Moreover, this war kills children, injures them, I see it with my own eyes.”

Once she has fully recovered, Sofia hopes to attend boxing classes and see her brothers and father once more.

"I'm cheerful and kind,” she says. “I'm trying not to judge those who fired at me. But war means pain, fear, suffering and destruction. And that's it.”

"People from the Kyiv subburbs kept calling us, and over the phone we heard sounds of explosions. They asked for help for their children, who were injured in the head, abdomen or chest. But they couldn't transport their kids to us. I'll never forget how I called back and it turned out that the children had died.”

Volodymyr Zhovnir, Director of the National Children's Specialized Hospital of Ministry of Health

Even at Okhmatdyt, the threat of shelling and gunfire is ever-present. To mitigate this, a basement for vulnerable patients who are unable to be transported has been built and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has provided oxygen concentrators. 


Since February, almost 1,600,000 children and adults have had access to medical care in Ukraine’s hospitals, which receive regular support from UNICEF and partners. 

According to UNICEF, 2 million children have now fled the country, seeking safety abroad. An estimated 60 per cent of all boys and girls, including 2.5 million internally displaced children, have been forced to leave their homes due to the fighting.