In the first moments of respite since fleeing her home, Lilya Solodovnik watches her pigtailed 6-year-old, Lena, rocking on a blue plastic pony. Their home city of Kharkiv has been pummeled by Russian forces, and her friends and family are now hiding in bomb shelters.
Solodovnik, and dozens of other women and children from Ukraine’s besieged cities, have found a safe haven in a former orphanage-turned-shelter in Solotvyno, a village nestled in the Carpathian mountains near the Romanian border. Here, they are resisting the literal last mile out of the country.
“I don’t want to leave my husband alone in Ukraine,” says Solodovnik of her partner, who worked as a driver until three weeks ago. He dropped off his family here and turned back around to fight. “This, here, is still Ukraine. It’s my home,” she tells CNN.
More than 2.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24. Even in sleepy Solotvyno, one of Ukraine’s smallest border crossings, thousands have come to walk the narrow, wooden bridge spanning the tranquil Tisza river to Romania, a member of the European Union and NATO.
Most have backpacks or schlep trolleys with the few belongings they can carry as they cross.
“When we arrived, the volunteers showed us the border,” says Nina, a retired kindergarten teacher from a suburb of Kyiv, who is staying in Solotvyno with her daughter and granddaughter. She is too scared to give her last name. “But then the gears were turning in our head: ‘Why should we go? We are at home, in Ukraine.’”
Now, these women are stuck in what has become a no-man’s land of the heart – they haven’t fled their country, but equally, they’re not at home with their loved ones, who are facing Russia’s attacks.
Within the first two weeks of the invasion, the population here has doubled, says Timur Averin, head of administration for Tyachiv district, during a visit to Solotvyno’s municipal offices. In this bucolic village, some farmers still work the land by horse and cart.
Across the street, the lines at the ATM are getting longer and gasoline is being rationed. But people are still getting haircuts and attending church on Sundays.
“It is the safest, the closest to Europe, the closest to NATO, the closest to security,” says Averin, speaking of the wider region around Solotvyno.
Even as Russian forces began striking cities in the west, the closest bombardments were about 110 miles (180 kilometers) away, in Ivano-Frankivsk, at the foot of the mountains.
At the shelter, Vivian, a volunteer who declined to give her last name out of fear for her safety, pulls up a map tracking the fighting on her phone. There are two large swaths of Ukraine devoid of dots and crosses: One borders Putin-allied Belarus, she notes. “And the other one is us.”
Though Averin believes Ukraine will have won the war in two or three weeks, for now, he is preparing for his district’s population to triple, mostly with women and children. “There is a lot of patriotism among the women,” which keeps them tethered to Ukraine, he says.
They’ve also become vital to the war effort. Women and children here cut donated T-shirts and pants into strips, then knot them into camouflage nets.
On the muddy driveway to the shelter, local volunteers and footballers who joined Solotvyno’s first competitive team just one month ago heave donations sent from Romania. Inside, the women repackage the canned food, flour and baby formula milk, then send them to the besieged cities.
“We are getting a lot of support from Romania,” says Angela Biletska, a local nurse who has been working 14-hour days to oversee medical donations. Her shins are covered in bruises and cuts from lifting boxes.
‘I like that there are no bombs’
As Europe experiences its fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, it is responding with an outpouring of aid. Within a day, the donated items began spilling out of the shelter’s spare rooms and into the hallways, and now stack high against the facade of the three-story building.
They’re sorely needed. Getting supplies into eastern Ukraine has become increasingly difficult – and dangerous. “It’s constant, every minute,” Solotovnik says of the bombings in her home in Kharkiv, one of the hardest-hit cities. Her friends and family are still trapped there in bomb shelters. “They have nothing – no food – nothing,” she says.
Nina and her family, too, were holed up in the basement of their apartment building, always dressed and ready to run. “We were waiting until the last moment,” the 62-year-old says. On the eighth day of the invasion, she flagged down the sole car she spotted driving past her apartment building, and asked the driver to take them out of Kyiv. “We had five minutes to pack,” Nina says. Their Chihuahua, named Rave after the music, stayed behind with her son-in-law.
Nina’s daughter says she’s too traumatized to speak, as is Nina’s granddaughter. When volunteers knocked on their door to call them to dinner, they are jolted, jumpy from sudden noises after living for days under bombardment.
In the arts and crafts room, Magdalena Myhailivna is trying to take the children’s minds off the war. “It’s important to do normal things with them,” says Myhailivna, an arts teacher for more than 50 years.
She is teaching them to paint trees and tulips with water colors and for International Women’s Day they went to a local park to pick flowers for their mothers. “I like that there are no bombs,” says Sofia, a girl from Kharkiv, who wears a unicorn sweater and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.
Anastasia, an 8-year-old who is staying here with her mother, recites a verse by one of Ukraine’s foremost writers, Lesia Ukrainka, a feminist and anti-Russian imperialist.
“They asked me: ‘Did you hurt yourself?’
‘I am all right,’ I would reply.
My pride would then assert itself,
I laughed in order not to cry.”
The poem was written in Ukrainian, at a time when it was banned by Imperial Russia, in an act of defiance.
A similar spirit can be found in the women staying in Solotvyno. One of them is Elena Sierosa, a coordinator at the shelter, who makes sure that beds are pushed close together to accommodate as many people as possible. As the war wears on, there’ll be many more.
“Right here is the border – we believe it won’t be bombed or shelled,” she tells CNN. If it is, Sierosa says, they will send their children down Solotvyno’s main street and over the wooden bridge into Romania. “The children can be saved across the border,” she says, “but we will stay here. We will fight.”
With translation by Vlasta Tkach