Ukraine Dispatch: The Russian Bullets Going After Children

Before last month’s Russian invasion, Ukrainians dreamed everyday dreams. Now they face a future of huge uncertainty – including not knowing whether their homes are still standing or if they will ever return to them

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A car with the word "Children" in a window driving past a pro-Ukrainian army sign in Ukraine last week.
A car with the word "Children" in a window driving past a pro-Ukrainian army sign in Ukraine last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

UKRAINE – On the roads of Ukraine, vehicles carrying families are plastered with the word “children” on A4 pages printed out at home and stuck in the windows or daubed in white paint on the side doors and roof. The cars have come through the war zones and parents had hoped this would give Russian soldiers reason to pause before opening fire. Once out of the danger areas, they are often allowed to go to the front of the queue at Ukrainian roadblocks.

Irina and Alexei Maglin are driving westward with their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, in a small van on to which they’ve added “children” in wide white tape. It didn’t help. There are bullet holes in the front doors and, just by extremely good fortune, neither of the parents were hit.

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For 17 days they hid in the basement of their home in the suburb of Bucha, north of Kyiv. Alexei says he was shot at twice by Russian soldiers when he ventured out to look for food. They finally decided to risk it and escape in the van when they saw Russians looting neighboring homes.

The drive to relatively calm western Ukraine is largely through narrow side roads, as the main highway west of Kyiv is closed due to the fighting. Irina, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, smiles at drivers stuck in the heavy traffic. As far as she is concerned, the worst is behind them. They succeeded in getting their family out of their besieged home. They don’t know if it or any of their possessions will still be there when they get back, whenever that may be, but they are all alive.

A vehicle with the word "Children" written in Ukrainian over the windows, on a road in Ukraine last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the days leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and in the early hours of the fog of war, much of the media coverage was focused on the massive stream of refugees heading out of the country. Naturally, the world’s attention has since been captured by footage of Ukrainian fighters setting Russian tanks alight with anti-tank missiles; by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s compelling appearances from Kyiv; and the harrowing accounts of civilians under fire in cities like Mariupol and Chernihiv. Reports on the massive traffic jam of fleeing cars between Lviv and the Polish border were replaced by the Russian armored column stuck between the Belarusian border and the outskirts of Kyiv.

The road to Poland is no longer jammed. The first large wave of refugees, estimated at over 3 million, has already left Ukraine. But there are more waves to come – of internally displaced refugees who were reluctant at first to leave the country and hoped they would soon be able to go back to their homes, but are now beginning to understand they won’t return in the near future. If ever.

International aid agencies believe over a quarter of Ukraine’s population have been forced to leave their homes so far and according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, half of Ukraine’s children have been made refugees.

Too hot to handle

Anna and Alexander Shumyatsky are resting in a small room in the basement of the Brodsky synagogue in central Kyiv, awaiting their second aliyah to Israel. Like many Ukrainian synagogues, this one has been transformed in recent weeks – into a refugee center where those arriving from the war zones can rest, have a cooked meal and then proceed onward to cross the border to Poland or Moldova.

The Shumyatskys arrived the previous day from Chernihiv, a city to the north on the Russian invasion route that has been under intense bombardment for weeks.

“A rocket hit the building next to us, a 17-floor apartment block, and destroyed it completely,” Anna says. “Our home was badly hit by shrapnel. Half of Chernihiv is in ruins. We spent the last three weeks in hiding. The city is without food, water or electricity, and the Russians are bombing schools, bakeries and shelters,” she adds.

In peacetime, the drive from Chernihiv to Kyiv takes about two hours. But the vehicle that eventually got the couple out of the city took over five hours to traverse the front lines.

The couple, both 75, emigrated to Israel two decades ago, where they lived in Herzliya (just north of Tel Aviv) with their three children. The children remained, but Anna and Alexander decided to return to Chernihiv and live as pensioners in the city where they were both born and met as fellow workers at the local auto-parts factory.

An armed Jewish worshipper at a Chabad synagogue in Kyiv last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Israel was much too hot for us,” smiles Anna, who has now made her peace with going back and living with the Middle Eastern weather for the rest of their lives. Since they managed to get out, Chernihiv has been fully encircled by the Russians.

“Those who have seen death come to their homes are no longer looking for a way station within Ukraine to wait things out,” says a senior operative in one of the major Jewish organizations rescuing civilians from the front lines. “You need to promise them a destination where they can be guaranteed of remaining safe. I really hope those who will be receiving them in Israel are aware that this is a very different type of oleh [new immigrant] than we’ve seen in many years.”

Within Ukraine, there are still at least twice the number of internally displaced refugees than those who have left the country – men and women who are daily calculating where they will have a better prospect of taking care of themselves and families.

Andrei Romanenko, owner of a small office furniture manufacturer, had to leave his home in Bucha with his wife and two young sons. He doesn’t know if his house is still standing, but the nearby apartment building in which his parents lived was destroyed. All three generations are now sheltering together in his parents’ dacha, or summer house, south of Kyiv. He and his father stand guard outside at night with an old World War II carbine rifle.

Only a month ago, his business was finally beginning to pick up after the pandemic as offices were reopening and ordering new furniture. “No one is going to the office now, and if the war continues for a couple more months my business is dead,” Andrei says. “We have perhaps six more months of savings, but then I’ll have to join the army so my family at least has a military salary to feed itself.”

He’s 47 and is still reluctant to contemplate having to leave behind everything he built and continue life as a refugee, reliant on the charity of others. At his age, leaving the country would be difficult anyway as the Ukrainian government has prohibited the departure of men of military age, between 18 and 60.

Most Ukrainian men have accepted this, but there are some who are trying to bribe or smuggle themselves across the border. In some cases, troops have fired on “deserters.”

Ukrainian soldiers examining the devastation caused by Russian shelling at a mall in Ukraine last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Uncertain futures

On the border with Poland, those leaving make their way between two large hangars either side of the border. There is a long, snaking convoy of those who are taking their cars with them into exile, and a pedestrian corridor with groups going through 10 at a time.

In the Ukrainian hangar, for a minute everything looks almost normal at the passport control stations. But above the window where documents are checked, there’s a small notice from the Ukrainian government asking all those who saw or experienced Russian war crimes to report at a special website set up for the purpose.

On the Polish side, after another short documents inspection, the Ukrainians board buses that take them to a large logistical center a few minutes away for processing.

Refugees resting at a sports center in Poland after crossing from Ukraine, last week.Credit: Petros Giannakouris/AP

The building was donated by a Polish supermarket chain and is part of a massive effort by the neighboring country to help the millions who are fleeing. Inside there are makeshift dormitories, a dining hall and a children’s activity area. A bunch of boys are playing an energetic game of soccer, as if they have no concerns.

For some of the refugees, the stay here will be short, as they already have destinations prepared and more buses are waiting to take them to train stations and cities in Poland. For others, there will be a longer period in which, with the help of international aid agencies whose representatives are milling around the center, they will work out their next step in life.

Journalists who interview refugees usually meet them when they have had a period in which to absorb their new status. On the bus from the border crossing, we saw those escaping Ukraine at the moment they were transformed from people with homes and orderly lives to refugees with uncertain futures.

It hits them at different points. For some it’s when they look out of the window and notice that the road signs are no longer in Cyrillic but Latin letters. Or when they see the yellow-blue flags replaced by red and white. Others are hit by it when they see the clock on their smartphones suddenly jump an hour back to adjust to the different time zone. Some will realize it only the next day when they have to purchase new SIM cards to communicate, or realize they can no longer buy their usual brand of cigarettes.

But sooner, rather than later, it hits them all as the relief at their rescue is replaced by the acknowledgment that all the things that gave them meaning and stability in life – a home, possessions, a job, friends and community – have been left behind and may never be regained. The awareness that none of their plans are relevant anymore, and they now need to plan a new life in a world where all their foundations have crumbled.

A Polish soldier carrying a Ukrainian youngster at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Saturday. Credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

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