An empty, isolated school in Ukraine’s quiet, far west has become a safe haven for 93 orphaned children evacuated by train last week from Kiev.
“We feel safe here, it’s quiet,” said Mykola Topolov, 17, a member of the group that arrived at the makeshift orphanage in the town of Perekhrestya, 800 km from the capital.
The children lived in the frontline area in the Donetsk region but were at Artek children’s camp near Kiev when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
“Children were taking a break from the tension in Donetsk when the war started,” said Galyna Ivazenko, 57, the director of the camp who accompanied the children.
“We had just arrived when we heard two bomb blasts and learned that the Russians had attacked,” said Mykola, who is from the north of the Donetsk region.
“It was scary. A few days later, when we were put on a train, he was stopped at the Kiev station for eight hours,” recalls the minor.
The train finally crossed the Carpathian mountain range into the Transcarpathian region, before reaching Perekhrestya, near the Hungarian border, last Friday.
– Island of Peace –
Isolated from the rest of the country by the mountains, Transcarpathia shares borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, member countries of the European Union (EU) and NATO, one of the few Ukrainian regions that has not been attacked by Russia.
“It’s an island of peace, a safe place, that’s why the authorities decided to bring the children here,” Mykhailo Glynka, director of the complex, told AFP.
The site, which was once a boarding school for sick children, was closed for a year before the regional government ordered it to reopen, Glynka said.
City officials, aid organizations and residents helped prepare the building for new guests and deliver supplies, including toys for the children.
While the children tried to have fun, the volunteers prepared the sole and salad.
Mykhailo, who said his biological parents abandoned him at birth, told AFP that after the war he plans to resume a programming course he started in Kramatorsk, near Donetsk.
“After Ukraine wins the war, I want to go home and help rebuild the country,” he said.
Ivazenko, fearful for his parents in Mykolaiv, where violent fighting took place, waits for the end of the war to return home.
“I lost contact with them, I don’t know where they are or how they are,” he declared, trying to hold back tears.
– Help from neighboring countries –
“We do our best to help,” said Jozsef Sipos, pastor of a Protestant church in Perekhrestya, which has 800 inhabitants, mostly of Hungarian origin.
More than 180,000 refugees have crossed the border into Hungary since 24 February, 10% of the total who fled Ukraine.
“When the war started, we rushed to the border to deliver food and drink,” recalls Sipos, 47, who runs a children’s aid foundation called “Kegyes” (“Pious” in Hungarian).
“I heard about the orphans that were arriving and I started to organize and deliver help for them too,” he told AFP, after taking medicine, food, clothing and hygiene materials sent from Hungary from a vehicle.
“It’s the least we can do for them,” he added.
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