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Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the dilemma of parents in Kherson

In the wide corridor of a school in the city of Kherson, in the south of Ukraine, the parquet floor creaks under the stamping of children who are preparing to play board a bus marked "Evacuation".

Among the suitcases, Nadia Kondratkova's crimson lips never stop trembling and her blue eyes are clouded with tears. This is the first time she has been separated from her two daughters, aged six and seven.

“They need to rest far from the explosions and sirens. They are exhausted, they can't sleep more and howl at night”, explains the mother who made the decision to send her children out of Kherson.

The city has been subject to daily bombardments since its liberation by Ukrainian forces on November 11, 2022, after eight months of Russian occupation.

The locality is adjacent to the Dnieper River, which has become the southern front line, and the strikes have intensified while the Kiev army has been trying, for several weeks, to make breakthroughs on the eastern bank held by Russian forces.

Faced with the growing danger, the administration has put in place a temporary evacuation program to a holiday camp in Yaremche, in a peaceful mountainous region in western Ukraine.

Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the dilemma of parents in Kherson

Children on board a bus evacuating them from the city of Kherson, October 30, 2023 in Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY

“Our task is to put the children in safety for a few months,” explains Anton Yefanov, deputy head of the Kherson military administration, in front of the buses that will take 65 children that day, while 287 others have already been evacuated .

“For several months, we have felt a renewed sense of danger with the increase in bombings,” adds the official, covering the dull sound of explosions in the distance and the hubbub of evacuated families who oscillate between laughing and tears.

– “Forget the war” –

Nadia Kondratkova is not going to accompany her daughters. “I don’t know when I will see them again, it will depend on how long they stay there. I am afraid in Kherson, but I am used to it, I survived the occupation,” assures she said.

Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the parents' dilemma Kherson

Maryna (c) and Volodymyr with their daughters Anna and Daria costumed for Halloween, October 31, 2023 in Kherson, Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY

Volodymyr and Maryna Ptchelnyk, parents in their forties, prefer to keep their children with them “even if it's dangerous.”

In front of their flower shop in the city's central market, Daria, 11, skips around in disguise as a witch, while her father puts red makeup around the eyes of her sister Anna, 6 years old.

“I am death! I hide in the shadows!”, blurted out the shrouded eldest in a black cape.

“We celebrate Halloween to forget the war”, explains Volodymyr, a tall dark-haired man, smiling. “They miss their friends. Many have gone abroad and to other cities.”

Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the dilemma of parents in Kherson

Volodymyr puts on makeup on the face of his daughter Daria for Halloween, October 31, 2023 in Kherson, Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY

While they decorate the front of a building with a sheet painted with cobwebs and bats, the kids ride around on broomsticks, clashing with the elderly people who are doing their shopping.

“A father is supposed to protect his children, it’s a big responsibility,” sighs Volodymyr. “It's difficult to be a parent at the moment, to explain to them what is happening without traumatizing them. We tell them to be more careful, to listen to the sirens” of the air alert, he continues.

Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the dilemma of parents in Kherson

Children on a playground surrounded by a protective fence against bombing, on October 29, 2023 in Kherson, Ukraine © AFP – Roman PILIPEY

Parents try to get to the playgrounds” before the sirens. “So that they don’t forget that there is joy, and not just sorrow and death,” he says.

In Kherson, children are rare. Some fly kites in play areas protected by sandbags, or go out after dark with their parents, when air alerts are fewer.

– “Tragedy” –

Gennadiï Grytskov, 43, decided to leave the suburbs of Kherson on September 14. That day, a missile hit his sister's house, killing her 6-year-old nephew and injuring another 13-year-old.

Ukraine: stay under the bombs or leave, the dilemma of parents in Kherson

Gennadiï Grytskov, who left the suburbs of Kherson, sitting in a room in a reception center in Mykolaiv, on October 28, 2023, next to his mother who shows on her phone a photo of her grandson killed in the age of 6 in a missile strike on Kherson © AFP – Roman PILIPEY

With his family, Mr. Grytskov went to Mykolaiv, 60 km to the northwest.

The smell of stuffed cabbage from the canteen invades the corridors of the former boarding school, transformed into a reception center, where they took refuge.

Sitting on their makeshift bed, the father explains having been pushed to leave after the death of his nephew.

“It was a tragedy. When we fled, we just took our documents and the children's clothes, that's all”, relates -il.

Since then, he has shared a classroom transformed into a bedroom with his five children, including a son with a disability, and his mother, Lyubov, 62 years old.

Hug against him, she shows a photo of her late grandson on her phone.

“We were supposed to celebrate my son's birthday that day. My little boy told me that he wanted to go to school, that he wanted to learn to write. He was never able to go,” she explains in tears.

Despite this, she vowed to return home one day. “My house is my house,” she said, wiping away a tear.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2023) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116