Essays On War

Tanya Yermak. (Un)children’s stories

(Un)children’s stories

Border with Poland. It was the night of February 26, 2022, and I was returning to Gdansk from Kyiv, facing yet another challenge. I had arrived at the pedestrian checkpoint in Hrushiv, Lviv region, and was stunned by the number of women with children seeking refuge from the war abroad. Some held one child by the hand while pushing a baby in a stroller, and others had their children holding each other’s hands, with the eldest daughter leading the way. A teenage girl held the hand of her younger brother, who clutched a panda bear, much like my son’s. Their mother held a cat in her arms, while another boy stroked his curly-haired dog, his mother tucking a blanket around her sister in a stroller. Some had suitcases on wheels, while others had only shoulder bags. They were all beautiful and well-dressed, standing under a starry sky on a frosty night with no rain or snow.

Despite the heart-wrenching circumstances, there was no confusion in general, and some even played high five with little Alice, a three-year-old in her mother’s arms facing me. I smiled and winked at her, but I couldn’t shake my premature bitter thoughts – there are no wars without orphans, and perhaps my long-standing desire to adopt a child could become a reality. Alice had black circles under her eyes, unable to fall asleep, but I whispered to her to be patient, and soon we would all be safe. The line was moving fast.

My son Luka has always dreamed of having an older brother. One day, a friend of a friend contacted us to see if we could take in her twelve-year-old godson, Vadym. Both of his parents were serving in the army, and the family was struggling to care for him. I spoke with my husband, who had previously been against adoption, but now he was also eager to help.

We quickly prepared a room for Vadym and set out to meet him. Although he was actually thirteen years old and taller than my husband, he was polite and calm, blushing when he spoke. We explained who we were and why we were there, mentioning that there was a school and sports fields near our home, and that our apartment windows overlooked the sea. However, Vadym was categorically against the idea. He was sure that the war would end in a week or two, and that his group would be able to return home.

We returned home with mixed feelings of disappointment and relief. Luka was upset but still loved Vadym, telling us before bed, „I still loved Vadym, and I still love you.“

My friend Oksana told me about orphans from Ukraine and invited me to visit a children’s camp a couple of hours away from Gdańsk. The camp had taken in children from five orphanages in the Khmelnytskyi region, and although they had everything they needed, they lacked hugs and communication in their native language. My task was to find common ground with the „difficult“ teenagers that Polish educators couldn’t persuade to quit smoking. I couldn’t either, but we still had fun together. The boys‘ life stories were so compelling that they could easily fill a book. However, what surprised me most was that the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls longed for ordinary maternal hugs and were begging to return to Ukraine to protect it. Even the younger children wanted to cling to me.

Our visits lasted for half a day. We shared delicious meals and took walks in the nearby pine grove. Sometimes I brought my son along, and he made friends with Vitalik, a cheerful boy his age. Vitalik even showed Luka a secret bag under his bed full of sweets and little trinkets for his grandmother, who was waiting for him in Ukraine.

One day, however, I couldn’t find the older boys where they usually hung out. I later discovered that eighteen out of the one hundred and seven children had been transferred to a high-security juvenile institution because they couldn’t handle them. Meanwhile, volunteer animators entertained the younger children and those with intellectual disabilities, tugging at my sleeve and asking where the promised sweets and books were before running off to play.

Feeling overwhelmed, I retreated into the forest and cried my heart out.

The children from Mariupol have been on my mind constantly. Since the beginning of the war, the city has been relentlessly bombarded. Mariupol is Gdansk’s partner city, where I have lived with Marharyta for the past seven years. I met Ryta through work, and I promised her that I would hold a friend’s apartment for her and her family. I urged her to send her children at least, as she worked as a civil servant in Pokrovsk, a city next to the front, with her husband and eleven-year-old son Marko. Ryta managed to take her sixteen-year-old daughter Olha out of Mariupol on February 25, but her grandparents, with whom she lived, refused to leave, hoping it would be like in 2014. I reminded Ryta of my offer every week until she dared to temporarily separate from her children on March 16, when bombs landed precisely on the inscription „CHILDREN“ at the Mariupol drama theater. On that day, her friend Diana managed to leave Mariupol with Olha and Mark. They arrived in Gdansk on March 30, carrying a few backpacks of personal belongings and a small replica of the Mariupol water tower made by Olha’s father.

Despite the circumstances, the children were polite and beautiful, and we got along as if we were old acquaintances. I was impressed by Olha’s impeccable Ukrainian language and how she corrected her younger brother Mark’s use of Russian words. We managed to find a good lyceum focused on chemistry and biology for Olha, and Mark went to the nearest school. Diana’s children lived across the street from us, and we saw each other almost every day. Mark and Luka shared a passion for football, and Mark’s twelfth birthday in June only reminded us of how much he missed his parents and wished for their return, along with some sushi.

A few months later, Diana returned to Kyiv to develop the dialogue platform „Mariupol. Cultural deoccupation,“ and the children were joined by their grandparents from Mariupol, who had been in the basement for twenty days before making their way to Russia. The rescue operation through Sochi and Istanbul was a separate story, but the grandparents were weak and took half a year to recover. Olha, as the eldest, had many new responsibilities. Sometimes my husband was called to Mark’s school, but we were proud every time because our well-educated son had no problem standing up to those who abused Ukraine and hitting back at his offenders. On Fridays, we had homemade hamburgers and laughed about Mark’s school adventures while hugging a lot with our elder brother.

Olha was constantly studying according to both Polish and Ukrainian curriculums and learning English. In the summer, she would try to enter a Polish medical university with a Ukrainian school record. Whenever she visited us, she told us new details about Mariupol and her parents, particularly about the water tower where she worked as a tourist information center consultant during the summer.

In January 2023, Olha and Mark went to Transcarpathia during the school holidays to meet their parents who came from the east. I messaged Ryta a few days before their planned return, asking how they were doing. She replied, „The children are happy.“


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan