Three seconds to save three lives

A mother describes life sheltering in a metro station with her family as war rages in Ukraine.

By Toby Fricker
Ukraine. Children do exercises in a metro station.
22 April 2022

LVIV, Ukraine – “I heard the sounds, different ones. I knew we had about three seconds to run to the corridor and lie down,” Zina says as she recounts the moment she grabbed her daughter and husband to take shelter. “It felt like a year.”

Within minutes, their home had been devastated.

Zina and her family – her husband Sergiy and 19-month-old daughter Alice – lost everything in the attacks that day. But they were alive, saved from the blasts by thick apartment block walls. Zina says she and Sergiy protected Alice by using their own bodies to cover her.

The windows of the apartment were completely shattered, exposing them to freezing temperatures, while ankle deep glass littered the floor. But with the bombing in the area continuing for another 12 hours, it wasn’t safe to move.

“The next day we went to the Kharkiv metro,” Zina says. “We stayed there – for 32 days and nights.” For Zina and her family, and for thousands of other people, these metro stations have become  home, without natural light and few signs of the outside world aside from the yellow flowers that people gathered to brighten things up a little.

“We put tulips everywhere,” Zina says. “If you live somewhere you try to make it comfortable and like home.”

Volunteering underground

The cold, cramped and dusty conditions in the metro made it hard to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. Adding to Zina’s stress was the fact that Alice was already an extremely vulnerable child, having survived two cancer-related surgeries.  

“I couldn’t go outside,” Zina says. “I had flashbacks to the explosions. It changes you – you can’t stay the same.”

Zina says she was determined to stay positive – for the sake of her daughter and the other children in the metro. She wanted to help any child and other families sheltering underground, despite the conditions and the combined impact on her own mental health of losing her home, living in the metro station, and fighting to keep herself and her family healthy.

“A girl from UNICEF called me and asked if I wanted to be a volunteer and teach some English,” Zina says. A local UNICEF partner had received supplies, including early childhood development and recreation kits, to support children sheltering in metro stations. The kits have allowed volunteers like Zina to create games, informal lessons, and emotional support for children, a response that has been replicated across dozens of metro stations in Kharkiv where people have fled bombing.

Ukraine. Zina teaches a class in the Kharkiv metro.
Courtesy of Zina

“It helped us a lot. There were toys and people volunteered,” says Zina. “It was wonderful to see how close people really are, thousands of people in the station but people would help you, like family,” she adds. “They are just kids, they loved playing and having classes.”  

Deteriorating health, moving west

Still, the conditions eventually began to take a toll on Alice’s health. “She couldn’t walk. She was so tired and sick,” Zina says. She says that it was at this point that she made the difficult decision to leave the relative safety of the metro station with Alice to find help for her. Confronting the devastation above ground – and her fears of the journey that lay ahead – Zina set out for Lviv, in the west of the country. Sergiy stayed behind at the metro station to look after his parents.

Zina says that the stress over the journey west was exacerbated when she heard the news of an attack on the Kramatorsk railway station, a key route for thousands of families fleeing from the east.  They made it without incident to the relative safety of Lviv.

Ukraine. A woman stands by a bed in a children's hospital.
Zina stands next to Alice’s bed at a children’s hospital in Lviv, western Ukraine.

Alice is now being cared for at a children’s hospital in Lviv, her mother living at her side. “This is the best treatment we can ever imagine, they [the hospital staff] are all wonderful, we felt like we came home,” Zina says.

UNICEF has been distributing life-saving equipment including surgical equipment, first aid kits, and other medical supplies to children’s hospitals in cities including Lviv. Such supplies are vital to help alleviate some of the strain being placed on facilities in the area as more child casualties arrive.

“My work is to stay cheerful for her,” Zina says. “I need Alice to be healthy.”

UNICEF’s child protection response is made possible thanks to generous support from the EU humanitarian aid and the Governments of Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland and the United States.