Fleeing from bombs with Ukraine's most vulnerable children
One social worker escaped Chernihiv with 29 children, and a teenager from Kharkiv was left to care for 9
Natalia Pesotska can't walk through the colourful playroom in western Ukraine without a string of children clinging to her side. Complaining that the others aren't sharing the toys. Asking for a cookie. Looking for crayons.
"In the beginning, it was hard, but now I'm used to it," the social worker said. "Every morning they come to my room just to say hello, or to say good morning.
"They want to be caressed on the head, they want to be hugged," Pesotska, 45, added. "They want this," she said, stroking a young boy's hair. "The warmth of a mother. They want love."
Anything to keep the thoughts of what they've escaped at bay.
The children, who are all wards of the Ukraine government because their parents are unfit or unable to take care of them, are getting used to life at a former rehabilitation centre for sick kids. It's been turned into a sanctuary for those who've made it to the Ivano-Frankivsk region in the west of Ukraine from some of the country's hardest hit cities, where they endured relentless shelling.
These children were living in government-run institutions in the east and northeast that were targeted by Russian missiles, sustaining heavy damage as the occupants sheltered in the basements.
Two-thirds of Ukraine's children forced to flee
Twelve-year-old Serhiy Shurokoriad uses a matter-of-fact tone to describe what happened to him on the fifth consecutive day of artillery shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, near the Russian border.
"We dropped to the ground under the bed and put our hands behind our heads. It was right on our land," he said.
"The missile hit our building after a plane dropped it. Our windows and doors were blown out and the roof caved in."
Shurokoriad is one of 39 children taking shelter here. They are among the most vulnerable of the nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children who've been forced to flee in just six weeks of the Russian advance, according to the United Nations.
"In my 31 years as a humanitarian, I have rarely seen so much damage caused in so little time," Manuel Fontaine, director of emergency operations at UNICEF, told a UN Security Council briefing on April 11.
Pesotska saved 29 children, plus two of her own, from Chernihiv, a city encircled and besieged by Russian forces for more than a month and bombarded daily. She shepherded the kids onto a bus in a convoy that took numerous detours to get south to the capital Kyiv, where they boarded a train heading west.
Keeping children in government care safe
They were among the nearly two-thirds of Chernihiv's pre-war population of 280,000 to flee while it was under siege.
It was a trying and dangerous journey of more than 800 kilometres to the centre in western Ukraine where they have been sheltering since mid-March, with five of the children still in diapers, and Pesotska the only social worker accompanying the kids.
"I had no other choice [but to take them myself] because of the war," Pesotska said. "Nobody could force the other social workers to leave their families because a lot of them had elderly relatives to look after, people who were disabled and couldn't move."
The parents of the children in institutional care were given the chance to take them back as the war broke out, but most declined.
More displaced children expected to arrive
The care centre in Ukraine's Ivano-Frankivsk region can house a hundred more children and the officials in charge are bracing for other displaced young people to arrive from cities still under siege, such as the southern port city of Mariupol or Mykolaiv, on the Black Sea.
The youngest boy Pesotska saved is three-year old Mishka, who was whisked from a Chernihiv hospital that was urgently evacuated right before the bombardments began. The social worker spent days rocking him in her arms, in the basement of a church where she and the other children were hiding after they left their institution.
These days the toddler runs around his new home, blissfully unaware of the Russian attacks that brought him west, laughing cheekily and playfully kissing Pesotska on the cheek when she calls him a troublemaker.
But for the older children, the scars of the war aren't easily erased.
The mountainous area gets severe winds, and Pesotska said the sound of the wind blowing through nearby trees evokes terrifying memories of missile planes flying overhead.
"The trauma is still with us," said the caregiver, despite the fresh air and lack of air raid sirens. "We're very comfortable here but our souls are there."
Children made their own way to safety
Lera Tymchishyna, 15, is still in constant fear.
"A bomb could drop at any moment," she said. "With every rustle or every door slamming, I start trembling."
Tymchishyna was orphaned six months before the war began, but the instinct to survive pushed the pain of the sudden loss of her mother to the back of her mind.
The teenager, as the eldest in her group home, was asked to help take care of the little ones as they fled Kharkiv, a city that has sustained major damage after near constant shelling since the invasion began.
Tymchishyna told CBC News of seeing Russian troops in nearby villages as her group made their way out of the Kharkiv area, driving past fields full of bodies, but she remained unfazed.
"I was not worried about myself because I needed to take care of the [younger] kids, and get them to safety," she said.
At first they were accompanied by their social workers, until they weren't.
"They drove halfway and then they abandoned us," the 15-year old said. "I felt uncertain because I was alone with nine kids to take care of, and all the documents — everything — on my shoulders."
Two of the nine children were babies less than a year old. And yet, Tymchishyna added with a resigned shrug, she wasn't surprised the caregivers abandoned them.
"In war, everyone is worried about their own families," she said.
Tymchishyna made it to the children's sanctuary with the help of kind strangers who guided the unaccompanied children to temporary shelters set up in schools in cities along the way. She eventually arrived with seven other children. She left the two babies with a foster family in the central-eastern city of Dnipro.
"It's very hard, I cannot believe that it's the 21st century and we have a war," the teenager said. "It's incomprehensible."
Pining for adoption
Tymchishyna desperately yearns to be adopted by a family outside of Ukraine so she can leave the country and stop being afraid of every little sound.
But many of the other children repeatedly ask when they will go home.
Serhiy Shirokoriad, the 12-year old who came from Kharkiv with Tymchishyna's help, is convinced his city will be rebuilt and that his mother will take him back "at the end of the war and this will happen for all the kids here."
His social workers don't have the heart to tell him that is unlikely.
Pesotska, as she led the children in singing an old Ukrainian folk song about two merry geese, talked at once of how safe the children are at the new centre and of how she is determined to go back east.
She watched the withdrawal of Russian troops from her hometown of Chernihiv carefully, keeping track of the progress to secure the region and remove landmines left behind. She's hoping the situation remains calm.
"I'm willing it to be," she said with a sigh. "If people will help us to rebuild our centre, we all want to go back home. That is our hope."
The building's structure is still intact, even if the windows and the doors have been blown off and there is shrapnel damage everywhere.
"All that we have is there," Pesotska said.