Russia’s invasion has displaced more than half of Ukraine’s children. On a hospital bed in a town close to the border with Poland, a little girl with a long blond braid and dressed in pink is one of them.
To get there, Zlata Moiseinko survived a chronic heart condition, daily bombings, days of sheltering in a damp and chilly basement and nights of sleeping in a freezing car. The fragile 10-year-old became so unsettled that her father risked his life to return to their ninth-floor apartment 90 kilometres south of the capital, Kyiv, to rescue her pet hamster, Lola, to comfort her.
The animal now rests in a small cage beside Zlata’s bed in a schoolhouse that has been converted into a field hospital operated by Israeli medical workers. The girl and her family hope to join friends in Germany if they can arrange the paperwork that allows her father to cross the border with them.
“I want peace for all Ukraine,” the little girl said, shyly.
The United Nations children’s agency says half of the country’s children, or 4.3 million of an estimated 7.5 million, have now fled their homes, including about 1.8 million refugees who have left the country.
The children are everywhere, curled up amid suitcases in train stations, humanitarian aid tents, and evacuation convoys. It is one of the largest such displacements since the Second World War.
Zlata’s mother, Natalia, folded her hands in prayer and was close to tears. Thursday marks a month of war and already she can hardly take any more.
“I ask for help for our children and the elderly, ” the mother said.
She recalled the escape from their community of Bila Tserkva that put her daughter’s life in peril beyond the ever-present threat of airstrikes.
As Russian planes pounded overhead, aiming for the local military base, the family decided to run. They found shelter for a week in a cold, damp basement in a village. The girl’s family struggled to keep her calm and attended, since her heart condition requires constant care.
“We gave her medication to calm her down,” her mother said.
But it was not enough. Every loud sound was jarring. The family had few options, without friends and family to call on for help along the road west toward Poland and safety. Eventually they tried to shelter with an acquaintance of the girl’s grandmother, Nadia, but the sounds of airplanes and air raid sirens followed them.
On the final drive to the border, Zlata and her family slept in their car in freezing weather. At the border, amid confusion over documents and the girl’s father, they were turned back. Ukraine is not allowing men between 18 and 60 to leave the country in case they’re called to fight, with few exceptions.
It was by chance that the family heard about the Israeli field hospital in the Ukrainian border town of Mostyska. Now they are regrouping in relative comfort, without the scream of sirens.
At the hospital
At times, to fill the silence, Zlata plays the piano at the school. She missed playing while the family was on the run, her mother said. She proudly showed off her daughter’s YouTube channel of performances. The most recent video, however, showed their basement hideout instead. As the shaking camera panned to show a bare light bulb and concrete walls, the mother narrated in a whisper.
“All we have is potatoes and a few blankets,” she said in the recording.
“I hope we won’t stay here long.”
For now, until the family moves again, there is some peace. A drawing by Zlata has been tacked up in the hallway. On a nearby bed, a stuffed panda and a doll have been placed in a toy embrace.
The girl has been transformed. She arrived at the field hospital severely dehydrated, said one of the Israeli physicians, Dr. Michael Segal, who was born in Kyiv.
“It’s very close to my heart,” Segal said of Ukraine. People have lost everything “in one brief moment.”
Zlata’s family “came here crying, not knowing what to do,” he added.
The medical staff stepped in and even treated her hamster, her first-ever pet, doctors said.
And reminded of that, the girl’s exhausted mother smiled.
“That hamster’s the superstar of the clinic,” she said.
“It had been over-stressed, too.”