UKRAINE- Many Ukrainians have been forced to hide in basements and subway stations across the country due to the influx of Russian forces. Children have seen war up close and personal. Families have been forced to flee, leaving their fathers and homes, jumping on trains or buses with their children, and walking miles to find safety.
Several children have died or been injured as a result of the conflict.
During shelling near Mariupol, a 6-year-old girl was injured, resulting from shell damage. It was obvious that she was dying as the ambulance was rushing her to the hospital. Her parents, nurses, and doctors wept as they knew she would not survive.
Babies were born into a world of chaos. Swaddled in blankets, twin newborns lay on the basement floor of the Okhmadyt children’s hospital in the capital.
In Mariupol, Kateryna Suharokova gave birth to her son Makar in the basement of a maternity hospital that had been converted into a medical ward and used as a bomb shelter.
Children witnessed the war with Russia despite not understanding its history or reasons. In Kyiv, a 3-year-old boy stared quietly at the open casket at the funeral of a Ukrainian soldier.
The cancer hospital’s basement was filled with young patients holding up signs in English: “Stop War.”
In refugee camps across the border and across Ukraine, parents have struggled to comfort their children. Mothers carry their children miles in the cold or rock them while they are standing on subway platforms.
Children occupy themselves with books, toys, phones, and pets while spending their nights underground. One border station in Poland provided boxes of donated clothes and toys for refugees.
Children at Ukraine’s largest pediatric hospital Okhmatdyt have already been evacuated with non-life-threatening conditions, but several children cannot be removed from life support.
The number of these children is increasing as fighting around the Ukrainian capital intensifies. There has been shelling near the hospital at night, according to surgeon Vitaly Demidov.
The hospital is surrounded by abandoned vehicles and bodies. “The saddest thing is that when the siren sounds, we have to go down with the children and parents to the basement,” Demidov said. “We run five or six times a day in the basement and back.”
According to him, oxygen-dependent children had to keep breathing while being moved, which required staff to work alongside gurneys and manually operate ventilators.
An image of Demidov with a rifle slung around his torso as he cradles a baby on life support, has gone viral since he posted it to Instagram on Feb. 26. Underneath, he wrote: “It was very hot tonight. There are very [sick] children in the hospital, oxygen-dependent.”
Volunteers have been bringing food, supplies, and medicine. “So far, everyone is provided for,” Demidov posted, “but I don’t know for how long.” A boy whose 10-year-old sister and parents were reportedly killed by Russian saboteurs is among the wounded.
Another patient is a boy who suffered shrapnel wounds to his neck during the shelling of Kyiv. “Due to the severity of the injury, in order for us to stop the bleeding the boy had to undergo surgery right in the admission department of the trauma center of the hospital,” says pediatric surgeon Oleg Godik.
The boy is currently in critical condition and on a ventilator. Several other children have horrific wounds, as demonstrated by Demidov and other hospital staff.
Another shows a teenage girl lying on a gurney with bloodied and shredded pants. Under a makeshift cover of cardboard, one image appears to show a young, lifeless body. Several children, including babies, are seen lying in the hospital’s basement.
In the midst of all this, hospital staff tries to keep youngsters’ spirits high. Songs are sung and games are played during air raids. Birthdays have even been celebrated in the basement.
The challenges are, however, overwhelming. Natalia Karpenko, head of the intensive care unit, struggles to contain her emotions. “The children are suffering,” she says.