A child peers out of a tent as millions of people flee across Ukraine’s border into Poland in the first days of the Russian invasion (Picture: Francesco Pistilli for IRC)
A haunting portrait of a Ukrainian child is among a series of pictures of girls across the world who have been caught up in conflict zones.
The snapshot was taken as refugees gathered at the Medyka crossing point in eastern Poland during the opening days of the Russian invasion.
The picture is among those taken around the globe showing young women whose promising lives have been uprooted by war and conflict.
They have struggled with food, medical care and education after being displaced internationally and internally.
The powerful collection has been brought together by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Gagosian network of art galleries to highlight the huge obstacles the refugees face in trying to reach milestones in their lives such as the first day at school.
Photographer Francesco Pistilli took the image of the child facing an uncertain future on the frontline of the biggest humanitarian crisis to unfold in Europe since the Second World War.
The portraits show displacement but also hope as those pictured try to overcome desperate circumstances in places also including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen.
Ukraine has been foremost in the world’s lens, with more than 5.7 million refugees fleeing the country since the invasion began 74 days ago, according to the United Nations. The vast majority are women and children, as martial law prevents men aged between 18 and 60 from crossing the border unless they qualify for certain exemptions.
A girl peers out from a shelter at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on March 5 amid a mass exodus of refugees (Picture: Francesco Pistilli for IRC)
Italian photographer Francesco Pistilli witnessed a flow of women and children in the first days of the Russian invasion (Picture: Francesco Pistilli for IRC)
‘It was very peculiar,’ Mr Pistilli said. ‘I have covered many mass migration events and almost all of them were formed by a large majority of men.
‘This time the flow was completely different, we saw men leaving Ukraine only in the first three or four days of our work, just after February 24 and before martial law was activated.
‘In the first few days of reporting from the border we saw many non-Ukrainians, students and workers of African and Asian origin.
‘Probably in the general panic, they were the ones who managed to organize themselves to leave the country fastest.
‘For a few days Ukrainian men also fled with their families, then with martial law it became a huge flow of women, minors and the elderly. Practically millions of vulnerable people gathered at the entrance to Poland.
‘An exodus that until mid-March was almost biblical. ‘
A woman fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine wrapped up against the cold in the early chaotic days of the war (Picture: Francesco Pistilli for IRC)
Mr Pistilli, an Italian freelancer who also makes films, told how people’s lives were turned upside down overnight as the Russian onslaught began.
‘We met those who told us that they had seen their friends and relatives die in front of their eyes,’ he said.
‘We met young people who fled from the east of Ukraine, the area hardest hit by the Russian attacks, who organized themselves to be volunteers and help women and children fleeing and in difficulty. I met people with cancer who had fled with only medicines and a few clothes.
‘What they all had in common was the shock of having lost everything in their lives in a few hours.
‘On February 23rd most of these people had a normal life, a house and a job, then 24 hours later many of them were on the run with a few things taken from home, with children, with pets, piled up on trains or in endless lines in their cars super-loaded with people and objects, heading to the borders of Ukraine. ‘
A mother and son in Nigeria where many children in the north-east suffer acute malnutrition due to a decade-long conflict (Picture: KC Nwakalor for the IRC)
Fatima Shuaibu shows her mother, Habiba, what she has learned to draw after school in Yobe State, Nigeria (Picture: Etinosa Yvonne for the IRC)
The images also include Najwan and her three sons and two daughters aged between five months and six, who have had to flee their home in Syria four times since the conflict began. Accustomed to a good quality of life, they settled in a camp where they initially found the living conditions harsh.
Najwan dreams of bringing her children up in their home village and for one of her daughters, Sarra, to go to school and become a teacher.
In Afghanistan, Mosina was pictured with her five-month-old daughter Seema as she found relief from her life of extreme poverty at an IRC-supported health clinic.
Seema was born at the facility, becoming one of eight children after Mosina lost another baby during labour at another clinic, where she said the midwives pushed her too hard.
In southern Ethiopia, teenagers Ampiya, Asha, Hibo, Nurta and Shamsa, originally from Somalia, linked arms for their portrait at a refugee camp.
They smiled despite finding themselves among 180,000 refugees who have fled across the border over the past decade.
Five girls originally from Somalia at the Helowyn camp in southern Ethiopia (Picture: Martha Tadesse for the IRC)
Habiba Shuaibu and her eight-year-old daughter Fatima, who wants to become a doctor when she grows up (Picture: Etinosa Yvonne for the IRC)
All of the pictures were taken in conflict-affected areas where programmes are run by the international charity.
They are themed around the fact that many of the girls and young women face missing out on key moments in their lives, such as their first words, due to the turmoil in their homelands.
The images also mark the launch of the IRC’s Protecting Milestones campaign, where the British government is matching donations to fund a new programme to treat nutrition in Nigeria.
Lack of access to nutritious food is one of the key obstacles preventing girls becoming empowered women.
Mosina visits a health clinic so her five-month-old daughter Seema can have a check-up with a midwife (Picture: Kellie Ryan for the IRC)
Two sisters originally from Syria at a camp where their family has dreams of returning home to a brighter future (Picture: Anas Alkharboutli for the IRC)
An exhibition of the images at the Gagosian shop in Burlington Arcade, London, has now closed but the wider campaign is continuing, with the fund-matching appeal running until August.
Laura Kyrke Smith, the IRC’s UK executive director, said: ‘We are thrilled to be partnering with the Gagosian on this important photo exhibition, raising awareness around the struggles that girls living in conflict areas have to face, one of them being malnutrition.
‘Unfortunately, it is all too common for families in conflict zones to struggle to access the food and medical care they need. As 50 million children worldwide suffer from acute malnutrition every year, we want to help girls living in conflict areas to grow and reach their full potential.’
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