The building, lurking in the hollow of the dense forest surrounding Zhytomyr, a strategic city west of Kyiv that is bombed daily, is engulfed in darkness. Inside an eerie silence. You have to go down about twenty steps and down a long, dark corridor for the sounds of life to echo between the walls pierced with pipes.
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A temporary kindergarten was set up 3 meters below ground. An electric heater tries to heat the damp basement. The manager of the restaurant, a small woman with swollen eyes from the hectic nights, apologizes: “In short, we were not prepared for the worst. Lying in beds, wrapped in blankets, 19 small children with blue caps are trying to sleep. Sacha, Olga, Alexeï… Three teachers go from one to the other, caress, tighten a pacifier and rock the most excited. They cry with low intensity, as if at the peak of their few months of life they had already understood that screaming is useless in the noise of war.
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In the past week, 32 barely older residents were evacuated to western Ukraine, which is still relatively safe. But those who remain lack leaders. Among the staff still present, no one is willing to cross the country with fire and blood to bring these orphans to safety. So here they are doomed to survive in the bowels of this ridiculous bunker, at the mercy of the blind strikes that indiscriminately raze birthplaces and schools. A warning siren sounds in the distance. The man tries to convince the headmistress: “You all have to go,” he orders her and hugs her shoulder. If the Russians are here, there’s nothing we can do for them. »
Mykola Kuleba is a former child rights officer. Since day one of the offensive, the elegant 50-year-old has struggled to evacuate orphanages in combat zones. A tragic race against time in which the enemy eats away at parts of the territory with artillery fire. Around 2,000 children have already been admitted. According to his calculations, there are more than twice as many, spread over around thirty particularly exposed centers. Life barely outlined, already on borrowed time. On the way back to Kyiv, Mykola sighs: “People deny. Like in 2014, when the Russians invaded the Donbass: nobody wanted to believe it until the tanks advanced in front of their eyes. At the time, at the request of former President Petro Poroshenko, he oversaw the exfiltration of thousands of families trapped behind enemy lines in the east of the country. Even if it means putting on a bulletproof vest if necessary…
As a successful entrepreneur, he was not destined to play the hero of the shadows. But at the age of 30, this practicing evangelical says he heard “the call.” After selling shares in his chemical company, he dedicates his time to helping disadvantaged children and trying to reform the management of orphanages and specialized institutes, Soviet-era structures where residents languish isolated from the rest of the world. “Prisons,” he blurts out. Unfortunately, he resigned from his post last summer. “Protecting disadvantaged children has never been a priority for our male politicians. They see it as a good women’s business, especially since they’ve traded in their city suits for military uniforms,” he tackles. In the face of the steamroller of war, the weakest have no place. These thousands of orphans have become the blind spot of the conflict. Nobody cares about your survival.
Citing the risk of child trafficking, the Kyiv government now requires a special permit to authorize evacuations abroad
On this twentieth day of the Russian offensive, calls for help are piling up. The ex-businessman is waging war the way it used to be his business: calmly and methodically. His large house in a suburb south of Kyiv became a crisis center. A dozen people connected to their phones stare intently through the opulent living room, which is heated by a fireplace. Most sleep on site to be available day and night. Here we are looking for a bus and ambulance. There petrol as well as a driver who can defy snipers and shelling. Here, too, we tirelessly post testimonials and videos on social networks to shake up European diplomacy. Everyone remembers that economic sanctions are not enough to stop the tanks or the bombing of civilians. Their work is not in vain: that same evening, an Italian orphanage announces that it is ready to take in 120 children.
But in areas that fell under Russian control, repeated calls to clear the orphanages have all failed. Even the Nuncio of Kyiv, supported by the Vatican, is not moving the negotiations forward. The answer is immutable: these children are now under the responsibility of Moscow, the only option is to transfer them to Russia. A disaster, says Mykola Kuleba, who affirms that the rescued orphans serve as a breeding ground for the Russian army: “They are brainwashed to turn them into Putin’s soldiers. They are all the easier to train because they have nothing to lose…”
Despite all the urgency, the fight of this Ukrainian Don Quixote comes up against not only military force but also an inflexible bureaucracy. Citing the risk of child trafficking, the Kyiv government is now requiring a special permit to authorize evacuations abroad. The document is to be issued by the social services, which now only work in slices. “We currently have a lot of children in foster families who are not allowed to leave the country,” Mykola Kuleba stormed. After weeks of living in shelters, some risked their lives on the streets only to be turned back at the border! »
A blond man hugs our legs before raising his head in concern: “Are you going to shoot me or are you my friend?” »
One final stamp: that depends on the efforts of his team and the fragile lives of hundreds of orphans. For several days, the crisis management team has been preparing a major evacuation campaign with great care. The bus is already on its way, but the precious official permit has still not arrived. What does it matter! In his armored transport, Mykola tries everything that day. The dark earth of Ukraine rolls through a window the size of a loophole. After detouring south to avoid the Russian positions, the vehicle stalled in a potholed lane on the outskirts of Berdychiv, Zhytomyr Region. Behind the gates the wind creaks abandoned swings. A disgusting canteen smell wafts through the imposing gray building. Backpacks are piled up in the caretaker’s changing room.
A blond man hugs our legs before raising his head in concern: “Are you going to shoot me or are you my friend?” No one here asks whether you should talk to children about the war or not. “You’ve been immersed in it for three weeks! Of course we explain it to them,” the director sighs. His facility is home to about forty orphans between the ages of 6 and 17, all of whom are mentally handicapped. To avoid the hassle of driving back and forth in the middle of the night to the sound of sirens, everyone has been sleeping in the basement for the last two weeks, on mattresses thrown onto the frozen concrete. The day before, in the middle of the day, a shell had landed less than 3 kilometers away. The educators rushed to the shelters with the children screaming in panic. “We made music to muffle the noise and we sang really loud,” says Zina angrily. She admits that at the time she was obsessed with only one thought: she had no right to die. “You only have me!” she sobbed and hugged a little boy who was gently rocking back and forth. Even in times of peace no one wants them…”
Zina loves her charges so much that since the first day of the war she refuses to leave them, even for a single moment, even if it means giving up her own children. Excluded, she says, those she calls her “flowers,” her “suns,” her “chickens,” dented children who grew up under her care, but from whom she is about to say goodbye, a new abandonment to impose. A specialized center in the Czech Republic agreed to collect them. That’s good news, Zina repeats, crying all the tears in her body. It’s simmering in the hallways and in the rooms. One activates in anticipation of the long journey. Some help children put on gloves and tights. Others collect bags of groceries and packages to be taken by horse-drawn carriage to the bus waiting at the entrance. Gathered in the inner courtyard, the young boarding school students make their way into exile in closed rows. Most of them, abandoned at birth, have never known anything else. Some are excited, like they are on a first school trip; others put their hands over their ears, agonized at the prospect of being snatched away by that single landmark.
Gathered around the vehicle were cooks, social workers and teachers, a community of close-knit women holding back their grief to keep the children from panicking. Placed in front of the door, Zina is the last one to kiss her. She hugs them one by one, not knowing if she will ever see them again. In the background, Mykola Kuleba has her eyes on her phone. Two hours later, while the orphans drive toward a hypothetical liberation, the precious pass finally arrives.
To donate to the children of Ukraine: alliance4childrenukraine.org