Children usually feel uncomfortable when their mothers cry. They don’t know how to react. They contort their faces into forced smiles. Viktoria is different: she strokes her mother’s hand when her eyes well up. The woman is crying because her 10-year-old daughter has just explained to journalists from EL PAÍS that what she’ll miss the most is her grandparents. They are sitting on a bench in a train station in Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, 800 kilometers from home. Their town, located in the province of Kharkiv, now lies on the war’s frontlines. They have been traveling for two days, and they still have one to go before they arrive at the border with Poland. Viktoria’s father, who works in Warsaw, is waiting for them there.
Among the more than a million Ukrainian refugees who have already fled from the war, tens or even hundreds of thousands of them are children who are escaping hand-in-hand with their mothers. Many more are hiding in shelters every day or suffering in besieged cities such as Mariupol. Cases like Viktoria’s show how the horrors of war are playing out before a child’s frightened eyes.
The cold is unusually severe this Saturday in Lviv. Viktoria pulls her hat, marked with a TikTok logo, down to just above her eyes. Vlad is 11 and also comes from Kharkiv. He had time to pack his backpack with a shirt, a pair of pants and food from his mother. His most important possession is a round blue monster toy: his father gave it to him when they said goodbye in Kharkiv train station. “I lost it on the train and I cried a lot,” Vlad explains. “But in the end we found it.” At the Lviv train station, Vlad, Viktoria and his sister Juliana are strangely calm. “It’s because we already cried a lot when the train left,” Juliana says. “Because we knew that they were going to bomb our city.”
Stanislava, eight, and Vladislava, nine, are friends who reunited in Lviv, having been neighbors in Kyiv. Stanislava heard the first missiles fall in the Ukrainian capital while at school. “We were all inside the shelter, and we were really scared,” she explains. In a quiet voice, she confesses that she had also felt embarrassed: she didn’t dare break the silence to tell the teacher that she needed to pee.
Meanwhile, in the wedding hall of a hotel in the Romanian city of Suceava, 13-year-old Dina Vok is sitting on a mattress, surrounded by hundreds of people, all refugees like him who have left via the Romanian border. Dina is the kind of person who keeps everything inside. Along with his aunt and cousins, he has come from the city of Vinnytsia. He left behind his father, a soldier, as well as his mother, who is a nurse and felt the moral obligation to stay.
To combat his boredom, Dina is listening to music, playing with his cousin and using games on his cellphone. He has stopped checking TikTok because, he says, “it’s full of Russian propaganda.” A little over a week ago, he had been checking the application frequently to keep himself calm. His mother had woken him a few hours before, just as the invasion began, and explained to him in no uncertain terms that he had to leave because Russia was bombing their country. “I was really scared. I started packing the clothes that she told me to take,” he says. When the car got stuck in an enormous traffic jam at the city’s exit, he focused on checking his phone. “I kept looking at TikTok, Google News and Telegram to find out what was happening,” he says.
He understands that “this is very real, not a dream,” but his green sweatshirt, printed with the word “Positive,” summarizes his life philosophy. “I’m fine here. I can eat and stay warm,” he insists, though when someone mentions his parents, it’s clear what is going through his head – and what he is struggling to keep inside.
“What does war mean to you, Dina?”
“When one country kills people from another country because it’s greedy.”
Now they’re heading toward Bucharest so that his mother, who is leaving by another border, can give him “a hug” before returning to Ukraine. He will go to the United Arab Emirates, where his grandparents live. “It will be really nice. Like a vacation from school. And it’s warm there.”
From where she is sitting cross-legged, 14-year-old Sofia Holodalina starts jumping with joy when the journalist approaches, even though she thinks “newspapers are for old people.” It’s the closest thing to fun that has happened to her this week. She arrived in Romania a few hours ago from Zaporizhzhia. That day, the place happens to be in the headlines: it is home to Europe’s largest nuclear plant and had been taken by Russian troops.
She starts to laugh when her mother explains that they had planned to visit her sister in Torrevieja, in the Spanish province of Alicante, in the second half of 2022, but the war has forced them to move their travel plans forward. “Thanks, Putin, for the favor!” says Sofia, dressed in a tracksuit, with a mischievous smile. And when the journalist tells her that there’s a beach in Torrevieja, she breaks into a smile and gazes in another direction. “I think I’ll stay in Spain. I don’t think I want to return to Ukraine just to see how it’s rebuilt, how they make everything again out of nothing.”
In the packed and chaotic Kyiv station, one of the places that are serving as an escape from the conflict, 12-year-old Islam is keeping an eye on his younger siblings, seven-year-old Ilias and four-year-old Yasin. They cluster around a large, orange, wheeled suitcase among hundreds of people. They are accompanied by their mother, 28-year-old Kamala, who does not speak Ukrainian and lets her oldest son communicate with the reporter. Islam’s father, 35-year-old Ali, will accompany them to the border and then return to Ukraine. For this Uzbek family, who came to Ukraine four years ago, it is time to emigrate once more. The boy remains resolved and confident amid the whirlwind. For them, at least for now, the time for studying and attempting to integrate into a country far from Uzbekistan has ended. Rivers of people, foreigners and Ukrainians are showing up each day to try to secure a space in one of the trains that are leaving for Lviv. They reach the top floor through the station lobby, and after confirming that the next convoy to the west leaves from Platform 10, they head straight there, on the way to their new lives.
At 6am on Friday, 11-year-old Nika left her home in Odessa alongside her mother, two of her sisters and their dog. Six hours later, they crossed the border into Moldova by car. In the store where tea and sandwiches are offered to the new arrivals, they were waiting for a cousin to take them to Chișinău, the capital, where they will stay with him for “a week.” Nika is about to turn 12, and she is hoping to be back by then. “She cries all the time because her best friend went to Poland and won’t come back. She’s going to stay there for school,” her mother says. The girls correct their mother’s English, laugh and quickly become engrossed. “We wanted to go. It was really scary. We took an hour to cross the border,” says the oldest sister, who doesn’t speak much more English. “I’m fine,” says Maria, who is the youngest sister at age nine. She grabs a stuffed animal and continues playing on her tablet among the family’s suitcases. The others take turns looking at the phone and holding the dog in their arms. Their lips are all chapped from the cold.