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‘There is no Mariupol. I Don’t Even Know How to Express this with Words’

Chris York speaks to mothers and children who have fled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and arrived in Poland

Valentina and her sons, Timor and Miron. Photo: Chris York

‘There is no Mariupol. I Don’t Even Know How to Express this with Words’

Chris York speaks to mothers and children who have fled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and arrived in Poland

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Valentina gently scolded her two young boys, Timur and Miron, as they ran around outside Warsaw’s central train station in the warm spring sun. The pair gleefully wrestled over toys and threatened to trip up any number of bemused passers-by.

It was a scene familiar to any parent. But the playfulness belied the fact that the family had just escaped Mariupol, the city in eastern Ukraine obliterated by the Russian Army.

“There is no Mariupol,” said Valentina. “I don’t even know how to express this with words.

“We were trying to get out but there was shelling from every direction, tanks, and we were driving in a car without any windows just to get out of the city. It was freezing. We had one aim – to get out and to save our kids.”

Olena and Sofia. Photo: Chris York

Timur, seven, and three-year-old Miron are just two of the estimated 4.3 million Ukrainian children displaced by Russia’s brutal invasion. Of these, 1.8 million are now refugees abroad and a further 2.5 million are internally displaced inside Ukraine. 

Every one of those children has now had a first-hand experience of war. 

“It was very tense and very stressful for the kids because it was very difficult to explain why they had to hide in the basement,” said Olena who arrived in Warsaw from Lviv. She escaped with her three children – Ostap, seven; four-year-old Danylo; and baby Sofia.

“They were just constantly shaking with fear,” she said. “That’s why we decided we had to take them away from there.”

Warsaw’s train stations are still packed with families escaping the conflict.

The refugees fleeing across the border are overwhelmingly women and children, as Ukraine’s mobilisation law forbids men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Each family brings with them the stories of now depressingly familiar horrors.

“We came from Kharkiv,” said Larisa, who arrived with her seven-year-old son, Yaroslav. “We were living under shelling for a whole week, from 5am every day.” 

The bombardment meant that Larisa and her child were forced to live underground for most of the time. 

“We went to the market for food but then they bombed the market,” she said. “We had to run to and from the house to get water. There’s no metro, no taxis, no card payments, no pharmacies – nothing.

“It’s a bit easier for the kids because they don’t understand what’s happening but it’s really difficult to be in the basement because it’s so cold and dark.”

Larisa and Yaroslav. Photo: Chris York

Added to the fear and misery of the war zones that used to be their homes was the danger and uncertainty of the journeys they had to undertake to reach safety. 

“We lived near a military hospital and the situation there was very tense,” said another Olena. She and her four-year-old daughter Myroslava are from Bila Tserkva. 

“Rockets hit five or six residential buildings near the hospital. It took us 24 hours to get out. There were checkpoints to make sure we were really refugees from Ukraine and not collaborators from Russia.”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 78 children have been killed in the now month-long war in Ukraine and 105 have been injured. The Ukrainian Government puts the figure of those killed higher, at 128.

For those who have survived but experienced the trauma of conflict and the separation of families, the impact of this war may not even yet be apparent. 

Olena and Myroslava. Photo: Chris York

“The kids were scared of course,” said Valentina. “Here they seem okay, but they were very scared. I don’t know how it will affect them in the future. And our parents, a sister and my brothers are still there. We haven’t heard from them since we left.”

The one saving grace was the help offered once the families arrived in Poland, where a huge volunteer effort has managed to feed, water and home hundreds of thousands of refugees. 

All those who spoke to Byline Times praised the assistance offered. At one point, an American man with a bag of Kinder Eggs arrived – much to the delight of the children.

The other universal desire expressed by Ukrainians in Poland was the wish to return home as soon as possible.

“Of course we hope to return home,” said Larisa. “Everywhere is fine, but the best place is home but our city is almost gone. Our city was beautiful but we’ll make sure we rebuild it even better.”

For the time being, uncertainty reigns for all refugees. Asked how she thinks Yaroslav will deal with everything he’s been through, Larisa said with tears welling in her eyes: “I’m not ready to answer this question. I just don’t know.”

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