We turn the camera off because Mariya*, a recent arrival from the Ukrainian conflict zone, is weeping. She insists she wants to speak with us, but describing what she and her family have been through is overwhelming. It has been four weeks since they fled fighting in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. Months of fighting, heavy shelling and a breakdown of basic services made life unbearable.
“Right now, there is continuous fighting, there is no water, social services are not paying. Pensions have not been paid for over five months,” she says.
The four hour train ride brought Mariya and two daughters Alina* (2) and Liliya* (4) to the train station in Kharkiv, where many of the 490,046 internally displaced people have fled. Disoriented and in shock, she didn’t know where to go or what to do.
“Mariya and her children were one of those families who ended up in the railway station and lived there for some time. The children were very sick,” says Olha, a psychologist who is volunteering to treat the arriving families.
Alina has multiple disabilities and requires special treatment and therapy. This necessitated Mariya traveling to Kharkiv, leaving Liliya in the care of her sister in Luhansk. While she was away, heavy shelling began and Liliya was in a basement for a week while the town was shelled.
“During that time, my sister wouldn’t let me speak to Liliya. She didn’t want Liliya to get upset. When I couldn’t hear her voice, it was so much harder,” Mariya says.
At present, Mariya and her children are staying temporarily at a government-run centre, supported by UNICEF, for children with disabilities, but she needs to find a place to live. Registering as an internally displaced person is proving challenging as she has no one to look after her children and waiting in line takes too long. After hiding in the basement, Liliya does not tolerate being separated from her mother for long.
“When she hears airplanes or fireworks, she is very afraid. She has lived through so much,” Mariya says.
Due to the deteriorating situation in the conflict areas and worsening weather conditions, the number of people registering as internally displaced is rapidly increasing. The spike in population displacement is expected to grow further due to the possibility of increased hostilities – with major impact on children. As the humanitarian community receives daily reports of ceasefire violations and indiscriminate shelling, it is estimated that over 1.4 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. All this places additional strain on already fatigued host communities as displacement is mostly long-standing. The continued shelling and ceasefire violations continue to affect children’s safety and well-being.
Mariya had hoped to return home soon, but now she cannot. With more than 500 people fleeing the conflict zone daily, there are many more families like hers who require psychosocial support to start to rebuilding their lives. UNICEF is providing basic hygiene supplies, educational kits, safe drinking water to families and is conducting training for 400 psychologists and social workers to provide psychosocial help to those arriving every day.
The names in this story have been changed to protect identities.