Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven more than half of the country’s children from their homes

The Russian invasion displaced more than half of Ukrainian children. On a hospital bed in a town near the border with Poland, a little girl with a long blonde braid and dressed in pink is one of them.

To get there, Zlata Moiseinko survived chronic heart disease, daily bombardments, days spent sheltering in a cold, damp basement, and nights sleeping in a freezing car. The fragile 10-year-old became so unstable that her father risked his life to return to their ninth-floor flat 90 kilometers south of the capital, kyiv, to rescue his pet hamster, Lola, to comfort her.

The animal now rests in a small cage next to Zlata’s bed in a school that has been turned into a field hospital run by Israeli medical workers. The young girl and her family hope to join friends in Germany if they can sort out the papers that allow her father to cross the border with them.

“I want peace for all of Ukraine,” the little girl said shyly.

The UN children’s agency says half of the country’s children, or 4.3 million out of an estimated 7.5 million, have now fled their homes, including around 1.8 million refugees who have left the country.

A refugee fleeing war from neighboring Ukraine walks with children holding toys after crossing the border by ferry at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing in Romania on Thursday. (Andrea Alexandru/Associated Press)

Children are everywhere, curled up among suitcases in train stations, humanitarian tents and evacuation convoys. It is one of the largest such moves since World War II.

Zlata’s mother, Natalia, folded her hands in prayer and was on the verge of tears. Thursday marks a month of war and already she can’t take it anymore.

“I am asking for help for our children and the elderly,” the mother said.

Escape to the West

She recalled the escape from their community of Bila Tserkva which put her daughter’s life in danger beyond the ever-present threat of airstrikes.

As Russian planes pounded overhead, targeting the local military base, the family decided to flee. They found refuge for a week in a cold and damp basement in a village. The girl’s family have struggled to keep her calm and attentive, as her heart condition requires constant care.

“We gave her medicine to calm her down,” her mother said.

But it wasn’t enough. Every loud sound was discordant. The family had few options, with no friends or family to turn to for help along the road west to Poland and safety. Eventually they tried to take shelter with an acquaintance of the girl’s grandmother, Nadia, but the sound of planes and air raid sirens followed them.

On the last trip to the border, Zlata and her family slept in their car in freezing weather. At the border, amid confusion over the documents and the girl’s father, they were turned away. Ukraine does not allow men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country in case they are called to fight, with some exceptions.

It was by chance that the family heard about the Israeli field hospital in the Ukrainian border town of Mostyska. Now they huddle together in relative comfort, without the wail of sirens.

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To the hospital

Sometimes, to fill the silence, Zlata plays the piano at school. She missed playing while the family was on the run, her mother said. She proudly showed off her daughter’s performance YouTube channel. The most recent video, however, showed their hideout in the basement instead. As the shaky camera panned to show a bare light bulb and concrete walls, the mother narrated in a whisper.

“All we have are potatoes and some blankets,” she said in the recording.

“I hope we won’t stay here long.”

Three-year-old Anastasia is being held by her mother as she receives treatment at Mostyska field hospital. (Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press)

For now, until the family moves again, there is some peace. A drawing by Zlata has been nailed to the hallway. On a nearby bed, a stuffed panda and a doll were placed in a toy embrace.

The girl has been transformed. She arrived at the field hospital severely dehydrated, said one of the Israeli doctors, Kyiv-born Dr. Michael Segal.

“It’s very close to my heart,” Segal said of Ukraine. People lost everything “in a flash”.

Zlata’s family “came here crying, not knowing what to do,” he added.

Medical staff stepped in and even treated her hamster, her very first pet, doctors said.

And remembering that, the girl’s exhausted mother smiled.

“This hamster is the clinic’s superstar,” she said.

“He had been too stressed, too.”