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A child grips a bunny in a house while outside a giant hand puts down a rocket, illustration by Viola Gesmundo

“Mom, when are we going home?”

The Russian war displaced more than half of Ukraine’s children. Here’s a story of one.

“Don’t be scared, she doesn’t bite,” I say, a little bit too reassuringly. 

Deep inside, I know I am only telling half the truth, because I have no idea how Svitlana, our gigantic and spoiled bunny, will behave.

Svitlana is one of the pets we have on a farm in a small village in Western Ukraine. She is used to being arm-fed, and I hope this interests Il’ko, my little guest.

For a few minutes, it does not seem to work. Il’ko looks terrified by a giant bunny, and he does not understand if Svitlana will eat from my hand or will bite my finger off.

But then, something changes.

As Svitlana confidently grabs the carrot I offer, Il’ko smiles. His smile is shy at first, but then, it grows into a one big grin. 

“She is so goofy,” he manages to squeak in-between the laughs.

“Yes, she is. And she is also super big.”

I encourage Il’ko to pet Svitlana who, happy with her carrot, does not seem to mind. The boy gently puts his little arm on the white head and makes delicate movements.

Woah,” he exhales.

“Do you want to see more pets?” I ask.

 

He nods.

I do a little dance in my head: this is already going much better than our first encounter. So I wink to Il’ko as we embark on a little trip around the farm. He seems excited.

“This is Illya. I mean, Il’ko”

I first met Il’ko two weeks ago when he and his family arrived to my apartment in a small town in Lviv oblast, a Western region in Ukraine that borders Poland.

The family, consisting of Il’ko, his parents, grandparents, and an aunt, traveled from Kyiv. The trip, which should normally take around seven hours, lasted two days. There was a huge traffic jam and a curfew so cars could not move freely at night.

The areas around the capital have also seen some heavy fighting. As Russian troops tried to encircle Kyiv, they captured a few towns nearby where they massacred civilians. 

“We decided we had to get out,” says Sasha, Il’ko’s father, “We didn’t want to wait for Russians to come.”

Sasha’s parents live in Boryspil, which is around a thirty minute drive from Kyiv. The town is home to Ukraine’s biggest airport, and is one of the many potential targets in the region. When the war started, Sasha reached out to his parents and asked them to come to Kyiv. From there, a large family started their way toward the West. 

They were lucky because they left before heavy strikes destroyed many buildings in Kyiv. Still, they spent the first days of war in a subway, hiding during the air raids. 

 

“It was too hard to do that with a child. We didn’t want him to experience all that,” Sasha motions to his son.

“Illya, Illya, come here,” he continues, “Say hello to people.”

As the child shyly stands in front of us, the father corrects himself all of the sudden. “I mean, Il’ko. He is Il’ko”.

 

This is funny, I think. Il’ko and Illya are the same name, just different versions. Il’ko is more common for Ukrainian speakers, though.

Sasha and his family are Russian speakers. All adults speak Ukrainian around us even though we never mentioned the language. Il’ko speaks Russian. He is only five so he has not been to school yet, and he has not learned Ukrainian. Most Russian-speaking children start speaking Ukrainian through school. 

My parents and I did not know Il’ko or his family before the war. They were not even remote acquaintances. But when the war started, housing became really scarce in Western Ukraine, a relatively safe haven for many Ukrainians. 

As people started arriving in hundreds of thousands, many reached out to family members, friends, and colleagues to find a shelter. Il’ko’s father knows my uncle, and through him, they found us. 

My parents live on a farm, but they also own a small apartment in a town nearby. Now, this crammed two-bedroom is hosting six people of three generations. 

“It is very calm in here”

“Your town is very lovely,” says Lena, Sasha’s wife and Il’ko’s mother, “We walked around when we arrived, and we really enjoyed it. There is so much nature and quiet”

She is holding Il’ko’s hand – the child is very quiet and shy. We call those “greenhouse kids” because they rarely get real-world experience. You can tell that Il’ko is really attached to his mother, and that the war made him rely on her even more. He did not like the sirens in Kyiv, and he is worried to hear them here.

“Il’ko really liked the children’s park you have,” Lena continues as she strokes her son’s head. She is petite woman, blond like her son, with delicate hands. She is in her mid-thirties, and her husband is around forty. Lena used to work as an office manager in Kyiv, but she is unsure if she has a job anymore. Many companies have stopped working due to war.

Sasha is already retired. He is a pilot, but he has not flown in years – many leave work when they reach 35. 

Sasha’s parents, Nataliya and Volodymyr, are also retired. They are both in their seventies. There is also El’vira, Volodymyr’s older sister. She is a widow and has no children.

“Thank you so, so much for having us,” Nataliya keeps repeating.

Out of the entire family, she seems the most friendly and open as the rest is still traumatized from the war. She is very grateful - in fact, too grateful, as she keeps on repeating how thankful she is for our house offer.

My parents and I are not used to this; my mom gently brushes her off.

“Don’t mention it,” she says, “It’s what we all should do.”

We don’t stay long in the apartment – the point of us visiting was to show what’s where, help with any issues, and bring some food: my mom got a bag of potatoes for the family. My dad also exchanged numbers with Sasha because he’s taking the man to the local city council. All internally displaced people in Ukraine have to register to receive help and for security reasons. All men, too, are required to report: they may be conscripted if the need arises. 

“If you want, we have a farm nearby which you can visit,” my mom offers, “In case you are bored and want to have a walk or something.”

The grandparents seem to brighten: they don’t have much to do in a new town, so they happily agree. Sasha and Lena also nod: the farm may be fun for Il’ko. 

Childhood needs protection

I didn’t realize this at that time, but Il’ko has never been on a farm. Our bunnies were exotic animals to him. The child was scared of chickens and ran away from a rooster. I know it’s mean to laugh at a five-year-old, but it was funny.

I think the animals did Il’ko good. 

He forgot about the sirens because he has to face another threat: a bunch of angry birds.

“Don’t worry, they are just chickens. They are not very clever, and they don’t attack people,” I say.

I am showing Il’ko the farm, but he seems a little nervous. On our drive here, I gave him a little toy car, but he barely touched it. I am very inexperienced with kids, so that was discouraging; but I also realize that he is a quiet and sensitive boy, and he was just displaced from his home, which is very traumatic. So I try harder to be nice.

“Do you want to see a bunny?” I ask.

And this is when the miracle happens. Svitlana breaks the ice. The chubby bunny has no idea of the effect she made on the child as he finally relaxes. I then introduce him to Barack, our other bunny, and although the pet does not seem to care about the kid too much, Il’ko looks genuinely amused.

“You see, Il’ko, when we are back, you can get yourself a cute pet like this one,” says grandpa Volodymyr. Our farm reminds of his home in Boryspil, and he daydreams of returning. 

“El’vira already wants to go back,” he tells me with sadness in his voice, “But it is way too early. Right, boy?”

Il’ko winks at his grandpa as we walk around the house, the chickens, and the garden. The child starts to run around and does not mind me or others anymore. He seems happy, like an average five-year-old. 

“You have such a lovely home,” Nataliya reappears from the house as she chats with my mom. Lena and El’vira follow. The women were having cake while my dad was showing Sasha our garden. Grandpa Volodymyr joins them.

I am not quite sure how to call our new residents. They are not rentees because we don’t rent our place to them; it’s free. And they are not guests also. If it wasn’t for the war, we’d probably never meet. Il’ko would not see any bunnies, and I would not worry about making him laugh. But here we are. 

This is the reality of millions of Ukrainians affected by the war. More than 4.3 millions of Ukrainian children have been displaced. More than a million left the country while others moved to Western regions with their families. Many don’t go to school and are traumatized by what they saw in the war: bombs and deaths.

The story of Il’ko is, however, much better than of those who are still in Mariupol and other areas under Russian siege. It’s true that Il’ko is not in his home, but he is with his family in a relative safety of Western Ukraine. Many children don’t even get that.

Some are stuck in basements for weeks, without food, water, or heating. They cannot leave because the shelling does not stop. The invaders also target evacuation buses.

In the first month of the war, Russian troops killed at least 128 Ukrainian children. 

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