Newborns in Bomb Shelters: Courageous Ukrainian Mothers Amidst War

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In the darkness of hospital bomb shelters, amidst the shrill echo of air-raid sirens, Yuliya Balahura cradles her newborn daughter, Mia. Each day starts the same, feeding Mia at 02:00 before the reality of their circumstances intrudes with the piercing sound of sirens. The thirty-eight-year-old mother of three resides in Bucha, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, but had to travel 30km to Kyiv to birth Mia, as Bucha lacks maternity facilities.

As she travelled to Kyiv, Russia had just launched its nightly missile and drone assault on the capital. Newborn Mia spent her inaugural night in the world in an underground bomb shelter. Squalling sirens and sudden explosions punctuated the quiet murmur of female voices, new mothers and mothers-to-be doing their best to stay calm amidst such frightening circumstances.

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The unsettling reality of war immediately interfered with maternal care, with frequent power outages interfering with medical procedures and cutting off vital water and heating supplies. However, having previously given birth to two daughters, Yuliya understood the hardships she was walking into. “You morph into a harder version of yourself. You adapt to the constant air raids and barrage of attacks. You grow stronger,” she shares.

Yet, as President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed Ukraine’s plans to draft more troops, the impending call for Yuliya’s husband, Vladyslav, adds an extra layer of foreboding to their situation.

The birth rate in Ukraine has plummeted since the conflict began, decreasing by almost a third. Over 38,000 fewer babies were recorded in the first half of this year alone, compared to the corresponding period in 2021 – pre full-scale invasion. The ongoing conflict, causing family dispersion and forcing many to defer plans for children, exacerbated an already declining birth rate.

This war has indeed exacted a hefty toll; hundreds of thousands of men enlisted or drafted, an unknown count lost to the conflict, women volunteering for service, and a significant forced exodus of about three to four million to neighbouring countries such as Poland, Germany, and the UK.

Oleksandr Hladun, deputy director of the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies in Kyiv, posits, “A fraction of these women could have become mothers this year. Whether they shall choose to return to Ukraine post-war or not remains uncertain. In all likelihood, some of these families may disintegrate.”

Baby Mia’s physician, Natalya Stolynets, offers a glimmer of hope. Prior to Russia’s invasion, she registered around ten newborns monthly. While the number has shrunk dramatically post-invasion, each new birth is seen as a beacon of optimism. “Life persists, and so must we,” she asserts.

For Halya Rudyk and her husband, Kostia Nechyporenko, both journalists in Ukraine and recent parents, the time is now. They refuse to let the invasion infringe upon their dreams. As Halya puts it, “Why wait for an idyllic time that may never come?”

Maria, their three-day-old daughter, was born into the same unsettling chaos as Mia, with echoes of air raids and missile hit reverberating overhead. And now Kostia is waiting for his conscription, they want to start their family today, rather than postpone it indefinitely.

Conversely, Iryna Melnychenko, a 35-year-old writer from Kyiv, and her husband opted to defer their dreams of starting a family once he was drafted. Iryna had initially regretted not being pregnant before her husband left, but later realized the harsh reality of becoming a single mother in a war-struck country.

Every day, Yuliya navigates the wreckage of her neighbourhood, with Mia in a pram and her middle daughter, Rimma, at her side. Persevering with their daily routine is their silent rebellion against the devastation of war. But Yuliya clings onto hope, that the war will soon be an unforgotten memory for her daughters. She holds steadfast in her belief that it’s the adults’ responsibility to reshape Ukraine into a sanctuary for families once more.