In the early hours of morning, as the night’s grip still clings to the Ukrainian sky, a train halts in a nondescript central station. Aid workers, their faces earnest and anticipatory, surround one of the carriages. With the grating sound of opening doors, a small child, bathed in the weak light of the platform, ventures out. Hand over hand, the child is helped to disembark, followed by her mother, who in a delicate act of trust passes her baby, ensconced in a miniscule pink carrycot, to the awaiting helpers. These are the dislocated echoes of Ukraine’s enduring conflict.
In an official governmental decree from just the week prior, the forced exodus of children from 31 towns and villages near the battlefront was mandated. The train, now resting in the station, was a beacon of refuge to several families from the volatile Donetsk region, carrying them into the relative sanctuary of the western territories. The precise location remains undisclosed for matters of security.
Among these displaced lives was Liliya Mykhailik, accompanied by her three daughters. Their evacuation was triggered by the escalating dangers unfolding in the Donetsk and Kherson regions as a result of Russia’s renewed offensives. In the comforting embrace of the station, they found themselves surrounded by volunteers unloading their meagre belongings and others quickly guiding them into the station’s warmth.
The vacant expressions of shock plastered across the faces of three adolescent girls are unmistakable. A cacophonous meow escapes from a basket at their feet, almost mirroring their own bewilderment. Recounting the instances of shell strikes, Liliya revealed that their family home was targeted ten times. The last strike forced them to relocate to an apartment within the same village, but subsequent assaults on infrastructural links made normal life, including online schooling for her daughters, a daunting challenge.
Her poignant uncertainty about their future echoes in her words, “We travelled here blindly.”
As they await their onward journey, volunteers provide coffee while state officials distribute cash, a small gesture to ease their ordeal. In addition to the free transport, the government also provides a stipend and housing to the displaced families. However, the silence that hangs in the air reveals the hidden truth – the return to their homes still remains an indeterminate future.
Despite the looming threats and hardships, there are those who refuse to leave, firmly attached to their land. It falls on dedicated humanitarians like Pavlo Dyachenko of the ‘White Angels’ police unit to aid their transition. Amid the chaos, the safety of children is prioritised with distractions in the form of toys and continuous comforting conversations.
The Ukrainian government estimates that the internal displacement crisis in the country approaches nearly five million. These displaced lives, striving to adapt to their new surroundings, are spread across Ukraine. We encounter several of these families now living in an old school building, the youngest among them participating in distant learning, using whatever resources available.
Despite the initial show of resilience, the longing for home soon overcomes. Through tears and heartache, they share their wishes, “We want to go home. We want all this to end.” This sentiment is echoed by young and old alike.
The lives of the refugee children of Ukraine, though distanced from the front line, continue to be irrevocably carved by the unfolding conflict. Each chapter of their lives now marked by their home nation’s turmoil. The echoes of battle impacting each moment and shaping their everyday reality.