MOSTYSKA, Ukraine (AP) – Russia’s invasion has displaced half of Ukraine’s 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 a chronic heart condition, daily bombing raids, days of refuge in a damp and cold basement, and nights of sleeping in a freezing car. The frail 10-year-old was so unsettled that her father risked his life to return to her ninth-floor apartment 90 kilometers south of the capital Kyiv to rescue her hamster Lola and comfort her.
The animal now rests in a small cage next to Zlata’s bed in a schoolhouse that has been converted into a field hospital run by Israeli medics. The girl and her family hope to join friends in Germany if they can sort out the paperwork that will allow her father to cross the border with them.
“I want peace for all Ukraine,” the little girl said shyly.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says half of the country’s children, or 4.3 million out of an estimated 7.5 million, have now fled their homes, including some 1.8 million refugees who have fled the country.
The children are everywhere, curled up between suitcases in train stations, humanitarian aid tents, evacuation convoys. It is one of the largest such displacements since World War II.
Zlata’s mother Natalia folded her hands in prayer and was close to tears. Thursday is a war month and she can hardly stand it anymore.
“I ask for help for our children and the elderly,” said the mother.
She recalled fleeing her community, Bila Tserkva, which put her daughter’s life in danger beyond the ever-present threat of airstrikes.
When Russian planes pounded overhead and targeted the local military base, the family decided to flee. They found shelter in a cold, damp basement in a village for a week. The girl’s family struggled to keep her calm and alert as her heart condition requires constant care.
“We gave her medication to calm her down,” her mother said. But it wasn’t enough. Every loud noise was shattering. The family had few options, without friends and family, to ask for help and get to safety on the way west towards Poland. Eventually, they tried to find shelter with an acquaintance of the girl’s grandmother, Nadia, but the sounds of planes and air raid sirens followed them.
On the last drive to the border, Zlata and her family slept in their car in the freezing weather. At the border, they were turned back amid confusion about documents and the girl’s father. With few exceptions, Ukraine does not allow men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave the country if called to fight.
By chance, the family found out about the Israeli field hospital in the Ukrainian border town of Mostyska. Now they’re regrouping relatively comfortably, with no siren wailing.
To bridge the silence, Zlata sometimes 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 YouTube channel with performances. However, the latest video showed her basement hideout instead. As the shaky camera panned to show a bare lightbulb and concrete walls, the mother whispered.
“All we have are potatoes and some blankets,” she said in the recording. “I hope we don’t stay here long.”
Until the family moves again, there is some peace for the time being. A drawing by Zlata hangs in the hallway. On a nearby bed, a stuffed panda and doll were placed in a toy hug.
The girl has transformed. She arrived at the field hospital severely dehydrated, said one of the Israeli doctors, Dr. Michael Segal, who was born in Kyiv and is moved by the stories he hears from his homeland.
“It’s very close to my heart,” Segal said of Ukraine. People lost everything “in a short moment”.
Zlata’s family “came here crying and didn’t know what to do,” he added.
Medical staff stepped in and even treated her hamster, her very first pet, doctors said.
And remembered, the girl’s exhausted mother smiled.
“This hamster is the superstar of the clinic,” she said. “It was also too much stress.”