As dawn breaks, the silence of a central Ukraine railway station is shattered by the trundling arrival of an early morning train. Aid workers gather eagerly around the locomotive, their eyes straining in the dim light to catch a glimpse of the throng within. The doors slide open and a small child emerges, stepping hesitantly into the brightness of the platform lights. A collective gesture of helping hands allows her to descend, followed by her mother who gingerly surrenders her precious pink-swaddled bundle to the care of those below. This scene embodies the bitter reality of Ukraine’s newest wave of war refugees.
A mere week ago, the forced evacuation of minors residing in thirty-one towns and villages near the combat zones was mandated by the authorities. Families from the beleaguered Donetsk region now find themselves transported to relative peace further into the west, though their specific locations are deliberately kept undisclosed for reasons of safety.
In response to the resurgence of Russian attacks in the Donetsk region and escalating conflicts in the Kherson region, these mandatory evacuations were executed. As night gives way to day, the volunteers begin to unload baggage and immediately shepherd the weary, disoriented newcomers into the station’s warm embrace.
Three shell-shocked teenage girls sit huddled on the station benches, their gazes vacant. An anguished cat’s meow echoes from a basket at their feet. Their mother recounts their harrowing past, plagued by repeated shell attacks that compelled them to relocate within the village, and ultimately, abandon their home when functioning communication and power lines were severed.
With urgency underscored by uncertainty about her family’s future, Liliya Mykhailik speaks of their blind journey to safety, her husband and parents still back home. As the refugees await their onward journey, aid volunteers distribute coffee while state officials disburse monetary relief to help them settle into their temporary life.
And then there are individuals like Pavlo Dyachenko whose mission is to convince the unwilling to evacuate. As a member of the ‘White Angels’, a specialized police unit tasked with humanitarian aid provision and rescue operations in the country’s danger zones, his approach puts a premium on speed and personal well-being. Yet, moving families, especially children, presents unique challenges.
An estimated five million internally-displaced persons are accounted for at present, according to the Ukrainian government. These evacuees are welcomed into the heart of diverse Ukrainian communities nationwide.
In an repurposed school, we encounter several families, engaged in the laborious task of building a temporary semblance of home. Ten-year-old Varvara tunes into an online lesson, a stark contrast to the physical school she had to abandon. She, along with her mother Iryna and grandmother Svitlana had been relegated to basement living due to constant shell attacks back home. As they speak of their longing to return and for the conflicts to cease, their tears betray the enormous weight of their shared predicament.
The children of this war, though now far from the front line, continue to be shaped by its shadows, their lives reeling under an uncertainty that seems to stretch far into the foreseeable future.