Battle for the lost children

The building lurks in the hollow of the dense forest that surrounds Zhytomyr, a strategic city to the west of Kyiv, and is bombed daily, as darkness devours the building. Inside, an eerie silence. You have to go down about twenty degrees and walk down a long dark corridor until the sounds of life echo between the pipe-pierced walls.

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3 meters underground, a temporary nursery was created. An electric heater tries to warm the wet basement. And the director of the foundation, a small woman whose eyes are swollen from the rushing nights, apologizes: “Bottom line, we were not prepared for the worst. 19 babies in blue hats are lying in cribs wrapped in blankets to sleep. Sasha, Olga, Alexei … Three care workers are moving in Babies from one to the other, giving caress, tightening the pacifier, and embracing the most agitated. They weep with a low intensity, as if, from the prime of their few months of life, they had already understood that cries were of no use in the noise of war.

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In the previous week, 32 residents, slightly older, were evacuated to western Ukraine, an area that remains relatively safe. But for those who stayed, the evidence is lacking. Among the staff still present, no one is willing to cross the country with fire and blood, in order to put these orphans to safety. Hence, here they are doomed to survive in the bowels of this ridiculous lair, delivered to the blind blows that randomly crush motherhood and schools. From afar, the siren goes off. The man tries to persuade the director: “You should all leave, he orders her, embracing her shoulder. When the Russians are here, we can do nothing for you. »

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Mikola Koleba is a former Commissioner for Children’s Rights. From the first day of the attack, the elegant 50-year-old struggles to vacate the orphanages located in the combat zones. A tragic race against time, as the enemy gnaws bits of land with artillery fire. About 2,000 children have already been accommodated. According to his calculations, there are more than twice that number, spread over about thirty privately exposed centers. Life is hardly drawn, already in lost time. On the way back to Kyiv, Mikola sighs: “People are in denial. Like in 2014, when the Russians invaded Donbass: no one wanted to believe it, even tanks were advancing before their eyes. At that time, at the request of ex-President Petro Poroshenko oversaw the displacement of thousands of families trapped behind enemy lines in the east of the country, even if it meant wearing a flak jacket when necessary…

A successful businessman, nothing is destined to play shadow heroes. But at age 30, this evangelical practitioner says he heard “the call.” After selling the shares of his chemical company, he devoted himself to underprivileged children, trying to reform the management of orphanages and specialized institutes, structures inherited from the Soviet era where the population sprouts, isolated from the rest of the world. “Prisons,” he said confused. Unfortunately, he ended up resigning from his position last summer. “Protecting underprivileged children has never been a priority for our masculine politics. They see it as work for good women, especially as they have traded their city suits for military uniforms.” In the face of a rotating war, the most vulnerable have no place. These thousands of orphans became the blind spot of the conflict. Their survival does not matter to anyone.

Arguing the danger of child trafficking, the Kyiv government is now asking for special permission to approve evictions abroad

On this 20th day of the Russian offensive, calls for help are pouring in. The former businessman conducts the war as his business used to be: with calm and style. His large house in the southern suburb of Kyiv has turned into a crisis center. Connected to their phones, dozens of people wander, in a state of concentration, into the sumptuous living room warmed by the fireplace. Most of them sleep on site to be available day and night. Here we are looking for a bus and ambulances. There is gasoline and a driver who is able to challenge snipers and bombardments. Here again, we tirelessly publish testimonies and videos on social networks in order to destabilize European diplomacy. Everyone remembers that economic sanctions are not enough to stop the tanks or the bombing of the civilian population. Their work was not in vain: on the same evening, an Italian orphanage announced that it was ready to receive 120 children.

But in the areas that fell under Russian control, repeated demands to vacate the orphanages failed. Even the Kyiv ambassador, with the support of the Vatican, failed to move the negotiations forward. The answer is fixed: these children are now under the responsibility of Moscow, and the only option is to transfer them to Russia. A disaster, according to Mykola Kuleba, who asserts that the recovered orphans are a fertile ground for the Russian army: “They are brainwashed into making them soldiers for Putin. They are all easier to train because they have nothing to lose … “

Despite the urgency, this Ukrainian struggle of Don Quixote faces, in addition to military violence, an inflexible bureaucracy. Arguing the danger of child trafficking, the Kyiv government is now asking for special permission to approve evictions abroad. The document is supposed to be issued by the social services which now work only on shuffles and quirks. “We currently have too many children in foster families who are not authorized to leave the country, storming Mikola Kuleba. After living in shelters for weeks, some risked their lives on the roads and then returned at the border!”

The blond comes to snuggle our legs before raising his head, worried: “Are you going to shoot me, or are you my friend?”

Final seal: This is what comments on his team’s efforts and the fragile lives of hundreds of orphans. Several days ago, the crisis unit had been preparing with great care for a major evacuation. The bus is already on its way, but the precious administrative mandate has yet to arrive. What does it matter! In his armored truck, Mykola tried everything that day. Through a window the size of an arrow’s slit, he passes the dark soil of Ukraine. After turning south to bypass the Russian positions, the car stopped in a dilapidated alley on the outskirts of Berdichev in the Zhytomyr region. Behind the gates, the screeching wind swayed deserted. The stench of canteen wafts across the majestic gray building. Backpacks pile up in the locker room.

Blond comes to snuggle our legs before raising his head, worried: “Are you going to shoot me or are you my friend? Whether or not talking about war with children is a question no one here asks anymore.” They indulged in it for three weeks! Obviously we explain to them,” the manager sighs. His foundation takes in about forty orphans between the ages of 6 and 17, all of whom are mentally handicapped. For two weeks, in order to avoid stressful trips back and forth in the middle of the night when you hear the sirens, everyone slept in Downstairs, on mattresses lying on frozen concrete. The day before, in the middle of the day, a shell fell less than 3 kilometers away. Teachers rushed to shelters with children screaming in panic. “We turned on music to mute the noise and sang loudly,” she says. Zina, upset. She admits that only one thought took hold of her at the time: She has no right to die. “They only have me!” She cried, embracing a little boy who was gently rocking back and forth. Already in peacetime no one wanted them…”

Zina loves her subjects so much that she refused to leave them from the first day of the war, even for a moment, even if it meant giving up seeing her children. It is out of the question, she says, to impose a new abandonment on those she calls her “flowers,” her “suns,” her “little chicken,” her children who have grown up under her wing but are preparing to bid them farewell. A specialized center in the Czech Republic approved its collection. It is good news, repeating Zina crying all the tears in her body. Along the corridors and in the rooms, there is an outburst. One activates in anticipation of the long journey. Some help children put on gloves and tight socks. Others collect bags of food and parcels, which are transported by horse-drawn wagon to the bus waiting at the entrance. Gathered in the courtyard, young frontiers go the path of exile into military ranks. Most of them, abandoned at birth, knew nothing else. Some are excited, like their first school outing; Others covered their ears, annoyed at the thought of being ripped off from this lonely teacher.
Around the car mobilized chefs, social workers and teachers, a community of tight-knit women, containing their grief so that the children would not be disturbed any more. Zina planted in front of the door, the last before them. She hugs them one by one, not knowing if she will see them again. In the background, Mikola Kuleba sticks her eyes to her phone. Two hours later, as the orphans were headed toward a virtual salvation, the Precious Passage finally arrived.

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Find photos of Alvaro Canovas on his Instagram account.

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