In Ukraine, three generations flee horrors of war at home

Valentyn, an 84-year-old grandfather, drove for several days without rest in a desperate attempt to save his family from the violence in Ukraine.

Grandpa with his grandchildren
18 May 2022

For almost a month, 84-year-old Valentyn’s family hid in the dark, damp basement of their home, in a desperate effort to avoid the war that raged above.

"The three children, my granddaughters, came to live with me because their house was destroyed,” recalls Valentyn. “They thought it would be better, safer at my place. But it wasn't better, the bombing started here too. Everything was bombed – their house and mine.”

Valentyn's son, Yuriy, says the family was constantly on the verge of death. On one occasion, the shelling in their village, near Zaporizhzhya in south-eastern Ukraine, was so violent that they could not even make it down to the basement in time.

84-year-old Valentyn, a grandfather of three, with his family during a walk in Ivano-Frankivsk.

“We couldn't take a step,” he says. “We were just lying on the floor, the house was shaking, the children were crying. The shots were coming closer to us. And I already thought it was the end.”

Eventually, Valentyn, Yuriy and his family decided to flee when his wife Maria, 35, fell ill with hypothermia, and medication and food began to run out.

"She had a fever of 40 and her lips were already cracked with blood,” says Yuriy, sadly. “The only medicine left was children's Panadol. But food was also getting less and less. And seeing your children's hungry eyes is worse than just dying.”

The family piled into a car and drove on a mined road amidst the whistle of bullets. There was little petrol and the car broke down several times.

But, although he was suffering after a month in the freezing cold basement, Valentyn was determined to drive the family to safety.

"I barely made it, I had to drive, even though it hurt. It was hard for everyone, but the children did well, they kept quiet even though they were frightened.”

The family made their first short stop at a refugee centre in Zaporizhzhya, in order to repair the car and get some rest. There, while the parents poured the older children hot tea, Valentyn took six-month-old Isabella into his arms and rocked her to sleep

A mother with her son

This touching moment was captured on video, which then amassed millions of views on social media.

"God knows how long I have left, but as long as I'm alive, I only wish for one thing,” says Valentyn. “That my grandchildren do well.”

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Finding safety again

The family had hoped to move west to Ivano-Frankivsk to find a safe shelter for the children. But they had little money for accommodation or petrol.

"All we could take were the children's clothes, documents and our dog, which the children love very much," says Maria.

However, the family were soon able to find their feet again thanks to the cash assistance they received from a multi-purpose programme run by the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which assists vulnerable families with children who have been affected by the war.

"This help has made our situation much easier,” says Yuriy. “We were able to buy petrol and a phone with a navigation system to get to Ivano-Frankivsk.”

The family is now searching for a place to live, where the children, parents and grandparents can feel safe. In the meantime, people who were touched by Valentyn’s video have raised 500,000 UAH for the family to buy a new house.

"The most important thing is that we managed to save the whole family,” says Maria. “And now we are very much dreaming of a house and peace.”

Unfortunately, the family has no idea if they will ever be able to return home again.

4 years old girl embraces her dog

Valentyn, who spent his childhood amid the rubble of the Second World War, can only hope for a brighter future for his grandchildren. 

"I played with bullets as a child, but I don't want my grandchildren to have the same childhood.”

Humanitarian conditions for children in Ukraine continue to deteriorate, more than 50 days into the war. Around two-thirds of children are now displaced either within Ukraine or in neighboring countries. Children continue to be killed, injured and deeply traumatized by the devastating violence around them. They are terrified, in shock and desperate for safety.

UNICEF is on the ground, providing critical support and protection services for children and families. This includes multi-purpose cash interventions for vulnerable households, provision of essential health services and access to temporary learning for children affected by war.