Ukraine_Mother with 4 children in front of photo backdrop
Photo: CARE

Ukraine: Newborn witnesses explosions before even entering his new home

Nazar does not know how to walk or speak yet. He has not entered his new home or even met his siblings yet. The first thing he witnesses after being born is explosions. On the way home from the hospital, he is accompanied by a siren warning of an air raid. The terrifying sound is the first thing he hears on the streets in the Dnipro region.

The second thing he sees after starting his life is the grey basement of a high-rise building. It is damp, cold and there are no stairs. His mother Oksana carries him, he squirms and then she jumps down into a pit to reach the basement. Here he meets his brother, sisters and their cat Honda for the first time. And here he spends nearly six hours each day for the first six months of his life. 

He was born on February 19, 2022. And on the day the war in Ukraine escalated he and his mother had just been discharged from the hospital. The alarm howled loudly through the streets.

"The spring was cold. There was no heating in the basement. I wrapped the baby in my jacket, gave blankets to the other children and that is how we survived the anxiety",
says Oksana.

Nazar’s mother’s embrace is the only thing that warms and protects him in the first cold days of his life. His five-year-old brother Kiryusha and his sisters Kira, 4, and Vika, 8, are always by his side. Eight-year-old Vika is the oldest in the family. She has become a nanny for her siblings and a big help for her mother.

"Vika is my support", says Oksana. "If it were not for her, I do not know, if I would have coped with all these troubles. Vika helped to cook and take care of her younger brothers and sister. She is the only one I can trust with everything," says Oksana while Vika puts a hand on her shoulder. Oksana raises her children alone. Nazar’s father is often drunk and abusive against her and her children.

"The first thing I did when I got back to the apartment after giving birth to Nazar was to put cardboard over the windows and cover them with blankets," Oksana recalls. On TV Oksana hears that they should not have lights shine out of the windows after 9 p.m. "To be able to feed the baby at night, I had to cover the windows tightly so that no light could penetrate outside." These 'curtains' prevent sunlight from entering the apartment. The children now live in constant twilight. 

Ukraine_4 displaced siblings

Photo: Halyna Bilak/CARE

The family hears the air raid alarms day and night. The children learn to sleep fully dressed and with their shoes on, because of the shelling in the middle of the night. "I had no time to dress four children, and we had to go downstairs quickly," remembers Oksana. 

After four months of daily air raids and staying in the cold basement, Oksana does not have any breast milk left. Also, their food supplies are running short. The family barely survives. Sometimes they can go to the city center to get some bread, but they only give one loaf to each person. She feeds the four-month-old baby mainly with semolina cooked in water. Baby food is not affordable for a mother of four children. And it is not so easy to find. Oksana tries to divide one jar of baby formula into little portions that last for a month.  

"In such conditions, the children's chronic diseases worsened. My eldest son Kyrylo had more frequent asthma attacks and allergies. Because of problems with electricity, we could not even give him inhalations,"
Oksana recalls with horror.

Forward to nowhere 

When the children's illnesses are even more frequent, Oksana decides to leave the basement in town. She packs one bag with the most necessary things for her children and some important documents - a starter kit for Oksana's new life. It is July, and the pale skin of her children shows that the sun has not even touched them once over the last months.  

It takes them a day to flee from Dnipro to Lviv. They find a place to stay at the Lviv football stadium. This sports ground has become the largest temporary shelter in the city for internally displaced persons. Over the entire period, more than 25.000 internally displaced persons have passed through it. They stay for a couple of days and then find a more permanent shelter. Oksana and her children also find themselves here and are glad that her children no longer spend their days in a damp basement. Here in Lviv the family goes outside, they have fun and are even offered hot meals.

Ukraine_Baby with inhaler over his mouth and nose

Photo: Halyna Bilak/CARE

It was here that she heard about the aid organization Center for Women's Perspectives while looking for a more permanent shelter in Lviv where the family can relocate to. With the support of CARE, Center for Women’s Perspective opens and equips shelters for women throughout the city. They provide housing, psychological and legal assistance, and help meet basic food and hygiene needs. Oksana and her family are able to move into a separate room. A safe space for her and her children. "I owe everything I have now to the kind people around me. They gave me clothes for my children, bought shampoos, bring potatoes and cereals, organize entertainment for the children," says Oksana.  

Her family lives on less than 25 US-Dollars per month and misses home very much. The children often remember their cat Honda, who they unfortunately had to leave behind. Vika regularly attends online school classes, but she wishes to see her classmates again offline, and not just via a computer screen.  

Fortunately, they got a message from home that their house is not damaged. Oksana believes that they will return to their own apartment, and that they will no longer have to go down to the cold basement that had been their home for many months last year. Little Nazar continues to cuddle up to his mother's chest; the warmest and safest place he has seen for almost the whole year of his young life.