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These women had to leave everything behind in order to keep their families safe (Picture: UNFPA)
Since the start of the war, millions of Ukrainian women have been forced to flee their homes with their children.
They had to leave behind their belongings, their money, their friends and their futures – all to make sure they could keep their families safe.
And among them are some of the most vulnerable people: single mums, women looking after their disabled children, elderly women and disabled women.
Crisis rooms have been set up for these women in Lutsk, Ternopil and Chernivtsi to provide temporary accommodation and give them a safe shelter.
They are supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Equality Springboard Project, and funded by the Government of Sweden.
Some of the women in these crisis rooms have bravely told Metro.co.uk their stories of heartbreak, pain and suffering – but also of hope.
‘We were scared’
‘On the morning of February 24, we woke up and heard the tanks approaching – and those were not our Ukrainian tanks,’ said Olga, who is from Kyiv, tearfully.
‘We started to prepare, reinforced a cellar with beams and brought mattresses and bedding there.’
Olga, 26, is a single mum to a seven-month-old boy and a four-year-old boy (Picture: UNFPA)
She fled to Lutsk with her sister-in-law Masha, left, and her two-year-old son (Picture: UNFPA)
The 26-year-old is a single mum to a seven-month-old boy and a four-year-old boy.
She said for the first few days Russian tanks transited the village – but then began to stop and settle down at the outskirts.
‘We were scared, shots were heard from time to time on the street,’ she said, her voice shaking, ‘And we immediately hid in the cellar.’
Her sister and family came to stay with her a few days after the invasion, and 10 of them hid together in the cellar.
Electricity, gas and water supplies soon cut off and neighbours started preparing food for one another and swapping supplies.
‘The war brought everyone together. That’s how we survived,’ Olga said, her voice becoming barely audible.
‘Then the Russians began to drive down the streets and kill men. We hid and I took the children out to breathe fresh air when it was quiet.’
She left Kyiv almost by accident, after having an argument with her dad and pretending to get on an evacuation bus – and was pushed alongside her children and sister-in-law onto the vehicle.
Olga and other women were referred to a crisis room in Lutsk, where she has remained for more than a month now.
But she recently received terrible news from home.
Sobbing, Olga said: ‘My brother called me and said that our neighbour had been killed near the garage.
Olga explained how the war brought the neighbours on her road together (Picture: UNFPA)
She wants to start a new life in Lutsk, but Masha wants to return to Kyiv (Picture: UNFPA)
‘Our father went out to see what had happened, and the Russians shot him in the head.’
Russian soldiers apparently went into the house where Olga’s mum, brother, sister and two children were hiding, and, enjoying the moment of power over defenceless people, told them: ‘We killed your father.’
They then returned back to the tank and drove down the street.
Olga said she now cannot face returning to Kyiv, and hopes to stay in Lutsk and make a new life there.
‘Before my maternity leave, I worked as a packer in a factory, but recently I took a course in manicure and nail design – so now I can earn a living for myself and my children,’ she said optimistically.
‘We will never part again’
Masha, Olga’s sister-in-law, is however desperate to return to Kyiv when she is able to do so.
The 21-year-old has a son who is two, and she hopes they can be reunited with his dad at the next available opportunity.
Masha explained she and her son miss her husband, who is still in Kyiv (Picture: UNFPA)
She said: ‘I really want to go home when it’s safe. My child has become used to relocation, so he feels quite normal.
‘But my son misses his father. I hope to see him again soon and we will never part again.’
‘It gives me great happiness’
This is the second time Valentyna is having to flee war in Ukraine – the first time having to flee from her native Luhansk to Severodonetsk in 2014 at just 13 years of age.
Now 20, she had to run away with a one-month-old baby in her arms as there was no electricity or water.
‘When a corridor to Lviv was finally arranged for our train, it was a victory,’ she said.
‘We spent one night in Lviv and then came here, to Chernivtsi, where I settled in a crisis room. It gives me great happiness with such a small child.’
Her husband-to-be is currently fighting in the war, and she has hope their future wedding will go ahead.
Valentyna is sheltering in Chernivtsi with her one-month-old baby (Picture: UNFPA)
‘I am sure that the man I love will return alive from the war, we will celebrate the wedding and finally have a family,’ Valentyna added.
‘No one knows when the war will end and how long all this will last. However, I am glad that now, while we are here, I and my child have everything, and we are safe.’
‘Everyone believed they could escape’
Single mum Olena, 39, was forced to flee a mum and child centre in Severodonetsk after she was left unable to bathe or prepare food for her son, and had been hiding in the basement for days.
‘The shelling started immediately, on February 24,’ she recalled. ‘At first the explosions weren’t heavy, but within a week the walls began to shake.
‘I did not manage to get my new passport, as I ordered an ID card instead of the old paper one, so I had to leave without any documents.’
A friend helped Olena get on an evacuation bus to Sloviansk in early March. On the way, the bus broke down and the women riding in it had to push it down the road – but due to sheer determination, the group made it.
‘Everyone believed they could escape,’ she said.
Single mum Olena, 39, was left unable to bathe or prepare food for her son, and had been hiding in the basement for days (Picture: UNFPA)
‘My friends told me that after I left, a sheer terror began in Severodonetsk, the houses were literally razed to the ground.
‘The same was happening in my native Rubizhne and Lysychansk.’
Due to the lack of passport, Olena decided not to go abroad and has now settled in a crisis room in Chernivtsi.
She said she will only return home when she is ‘100% sure’ the war is over.
‘I felt great shock’
Iryna – not her real name – was born in Russia, but moved to Kyiv 13 years ago where she got married and had two children.
But this year, she was forced to flee the capital as a Ukrainian citizen.
‘I consider myself a Ukrainian,’ she said. ‘I love Ukraine, I like it here.
‘For almost 14 years of living here, I have never experienced any discrimination on the basis of nationality or language.’
Until recently, she said she did not believe that Ukraine would be invaded.
Iryna, who has two children, moved to Kyiv in Ukraine 13 years ago and is now a Ukrainian citizen (Picture: UNFPA)
On the eve of the war, Iryna’s mother came from Russia to visit her in Kyiv to celebrate her granddaughter’s birthday.
Iryna said: ‘On the morning of February 24, when the war began, I felt great shock.
‘Our windows face the road and I saw people running somewhere, carrying children wrapped in blankets, throwing things in cars and leaving. I turned to my husband and asked him, “What shall we do?”
‘Many of my friends had packed their suitcases a few days [before the war]. And we were in complete confusion.’
Her husband persuaded her not to leave due to huge traffic jams in the capital, and the family retreated to the basement after stocking up on food.
But after three nights in there, Iryna had a severe allergic reaction to dust and her son suffered from stress, so they started sleeping in the hallway instead.
When large-scale explosions began in Kyiv on March 13, Iryna’s husband drove them to Ternopil to take refuge (Picture: UNFPA)
‘One day I was horrified to find myself thinking that we were gradually getting used to the explosions,’ Iryna said, ‘And I started thinking about how to leave Kyiv.’
When large-scale explosions began in Kyiv on March 13, Iryna’s husband drove them to Ternopil and the mum and children took refuge in a crisis room.
‘I am glad that my children can be safe and have great living conditions,’ she said.
‘The apartment where we live has everything, including utensils and food, and my children and I feel very comfortable there.
“My three-year-old son doesn’t understand why we left. At first I told him that we were on a little trip.
‘But for him, trips are about the sea and rest, not sirens and explosions. And this is a problem.
‘The children also miss their father and our pet, whom we were forced to give to friends. I hope to return home soon. And at home, the walls will help.’
‘My heart breaks when I think about it’
Halyna, her two adult daughters, husband and granddaughters left Gostomel a few hours after the first missile strikes on Gostomel Airport on February 24.
‘My eldest daughter persuaded me to leave immediately,’ said the 63-year-old. ‘Our cellar was flooded, so we couldn’t hide there.
‘Only this saved us, otherwise we would have stayed.’
Halyna, 63, pictured with her daughter Lilia, left, in the crisis room in Chernivtsi (Picture: UNFPA)
Halyna, Lilia, her other daughter Tetiana, right, and her grandchildren wish to return home to Gostomel when it is safe to do so (Picture: UNFPA)
The family stayed in Mykhailivka-Rubezhivka, near Vorzel, for three days.
‘From the window we could see very well how Gostomel, Bucha, Irpin were bombed,’ she added.
‘And each time we understood how right we were to leave on time. My youngest daughter, Lilia, has cerebral palsy and needs my constant care.
‘When the fighting intensified, we simply would not have the opportunity to leave.’
After the fighter planes began to fly over the village, Halyna and her family urgently left and were taken in to the crisis room in Chernivtsi.
She said: ‘Our pets died. We never thought we would be unable to return – at first it seemed that the explosions would last only a few days.
‘My heart breaks when I think about it.
‘I really hope that everything will end soon, and we will be able to go home. We are all looking forward to it.’
Jaime Nadal Roig, a UNFPA representative who is working with the crisis rooms in Ukraine, said: ‘Here in Ukraine, the needs of women and girls are rising exponentially.
‘We are working closely with the government and other partners to provide lifesaving services for women and girls, but much more needs to be done.
‘We need to reach many more people, including survivors of gender-based violence. We are appealing for increased support to respond to this growing humanitarian crisis.’
UNFPA executive director, Dr Natalia Kanem, added: ‘Women and girls affected by the war in Ukraine face ongoing threats to their health and safety, and their needs must be prioritised.
‘Women do not stop getting pregnant or giving birth during conflict, and their access to lifesaving health services is literally under attack in Ukraine.
‘With health and social service facilities being bombed and shelled, and reports of rape and other forms of gender-based violence rising, UNFPA is focused on meeting the distinct needs of women and girls.’
What the UNFPA does
To respond to soaring humanitarian needs in Ukraine, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency is coordinating and bolstering life-saving sexual and reproductive health services, and protection and response services for survivors of physical and sexual violence.
As part of the United Nations led appeal for Ukraine and the regional refugee response plan, UNFPA seeks £50 million to meet the needs of vulnerable people – including women and girls, older people and disabled people – in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries.
UNFPA thanks all governments that have provided support for the health and protection of women and girls.
You can help the organisation by making a donation here.
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