Oksana remembers how she knew the Russian attacks had started in Ukraine. It was about four in the morning when she heard a massive blast. Her adrenaline spiked. She shook her husband awake and said: “Kolya, there is a war!”
Suddenly the household was frantic. They started to seal the windows to keep the glass from shattering inwards, but Oksana knew that wasn’t enough. They had to get down to the basement. It was by no means a bomb shelter. It was never built for that. But it would have to do. There was no time to go anywhere else.
It wasn’t just Oksana and Kolya. She also cares for orphans and foster children in Brovary, just outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, for SOS Children’s Villages.
“A child started to scream,” Oksana told CNN. “I was trying to calm him: ‘look at me, breathe, we’re gonna seal the windows, everything is under control. Now we need you to stop the panic and help us,’” she said she told him.
War forces a grim choice
Tatyana, another Ukrainian woman involved with SOS Children’s Villages, managed to escape the war with her six foster children, without them hearing the bombing. But she had to make an awful decision. Stay in Ukraine with her family or leave and save her foster kids.
“I have a daughter and mother in Ukraine, I am worrying so much, but these children should be saved,” Tatyana said from the SOS Children’s Village in Bilgoraj, Poland, which lies close to the Ukrainian border and is taking in evacuees.
“My daughter is an adult already, I asked her if she wants to come to Poland as well, but she doesn’t want to,” she said, adding that her daughter wanted to stay to fight against the Russians.
Tatyana decided to foster children because she had always wanted a big family. Now that family has been forced apart.
One girl who has been mothered by Tatyana since she was just one year old was with her as we were talking. Now 13, she seems calm and has a sweet smile for strangers before opening up about her feelings.
“I’m anxious, scared,” she said. “I’m worrying for my relatives, for all Ukrainians.”
Traumatized and afraid
The trauma of war is hitting the children who have already had a hard start in life, said Oksana, who is a psychologist and art therapist for SOS Children’s Villages. The organization calls itself the world’s largest non-governmental organization that supports children who do not have parental care.
“Before the war, our children had been abused physically, psychologically, economically, and sexually,” she said. “They suffered. They didn’t have a childhood.”
And now, they are refugees of war.
A total of 107 children along with foster mothers known as “mom mentors,” such as Tatyana, have left SOS Villages in Ukraine for Poland. Some fled areas where the war had not yet reached, while others saw it up close, Oksana said.
“There is a girl who is coming to us, she broke free from the hell of Irpin, a city that’s been leveled, and she witnessed a family being shot before her eyes,” Oksana said. “I am scared to imagine her condition right now.”
She ran through the new stresses the children are facing. “They now know what explosions are, they know what a bomb shelter is. They know what it is like to sit in that cold pit. Some are even afraid to go the toilet now without their mom mentors,” she said. “It’s just terrible.”
Fears for the children she works with and the state of her country have tears running down psychologist Oksana’s face as she talks. The children aren’t the only ones suffering. Trauma doesn’t discriminate.
But her sorrow turns to rage when she speaks of the man she sees as responsible for waging an unprovoked war on Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin is the second Hitler, it is serious. If the world will not stop him, there will be World War Three,” she said.
She said the fighting had already changed everything for her and the children in her care.
“Our life is divided by before and after war.”