Ukrainian parents hiding their children in basements in frontline cities

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukrainian volunteers who have been evacuating civilians from the frontlines of the war with Russia say some parents have been hiding their children in basements to prevent them from being taken.

While parents have given different reasons, most volunteers have attributed the phenomenon to a combination of poverty and the psychological condition of the families, who have been living under bombing for months.

In early March, Ukraine’s government gave local authorities in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of Russia’s war, permission forcibly to evacuate children.

At present, this includes only settlements at risk of coming under Russian occupation, which the government has said is limited to Bakhmut. There are no legal powers for areas just as exposed along Ukraine’s 600-mile frontline, such as Avdiivka, a town south of Bakhmut.

Sasha, a volunteer medic in Bakhmut, described how other civilians would notify him of where children were being hidden.

“We knew (the child) was in this place so we went there and she had not been outside since September,” said Sasha, who shared a video of the labyrinth basement the child was living in. The children’s hands were grey from lack of sunlight. The mother said she feared going outside and had nowhere to go – a concern reflected by the volunteers, who said more work needed to be done on building relocation programmes for civilians.

Civilians in Bakhmut have been under fire since the war began, but the intensity has increased dramatically in recent months. Ukrainian authorities say 4,000 civilians are still in the city; it is not clear how many of them are children.

Thousands of volunteers have been involved in evacuating civilians from frontline areas since the beginning of the war. Though many parents leave voluntarily before the frontline reaches them, and others flee soon after, there are still thousands of children living in frontline areas.

Ignatius Ivlev-Yorke, 27, has been evacuating people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region almost daily since May. His team liaises with other groups to ensure those leaving are re-housed. Videos he posts to his Instagram account vividly depict what life is like for civilians in frontline areas, and the evacuation process itself.

A woman adjusts a helmet in Avdiivka.
A woman adjusts a helmet in Avdiivka. There are still many children in frontline cities. Photograph: Donetsk Region Police/Reuters

Ivlev-Yorke has described the severe mental health problems faced by many people living in basements in frontline areas. They often spend months together with no electricity, water, gas or fresh air, while battles rage above.

On a visit to Soledar, a town east of Bakhmut from which Ukrainian forces retreated in January, he persuaded a woman to evacuate with her child. As they were leaving with her, some of those staying in the basement swore at her and burned her belongings.

Ivlev-Yorke said his experience in another a basement on the opposite side of the road in Soledar was “completely different”, which he attributed to each basement becoming its own “tight-knit community”.

He said people gave many reasons for not leaving, from having an elderly relative who could not walk, or a dog they did not want to be separated from, to not believing he would be able to arrange accommodation for them. Many of those he encountered have already fled once.

People reluctant to leave often are very poor, have little trust in the state and are “not very confident”, he added.

“They feel like they have been overlooked [by the state],” he said. The Ukrainian government offers evacuees 2000 UAH (roughly $50) a month and hostels to live in.

“Ukraine isn’t a very rich country. It’s not a welfare state. So when someone comes along and says ‘everything’s going to be OK, just get in the car and you’re going to have a future, we’ll take you abroad, we’ll give you a house and give you clothes. I’ll give you a computer’, they think: ‘Well, no, that’s bullshit. Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone care for me, no one’s ever cared’.”