Sheltering in a hospital basement, Ukrainian kids long for home

Children who are too sick to go home or flee the capital shelter from Russian missiles in a Kyiv hospital.

Nadia Tymoshchuk, 14, in the basement of Children's Hospital 7 in Kyiv
Nadia Tymoshchuk, 14, in the basement of Children's Hospital 7 in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Nadia Tymoshchuk is eager for yet another round of cancer treatment to end so she can go home to her pet turtle, and hug her brother and sister.

“I miss them so much. I used to be mad at them because they were so noisy, and I can’t stand noise,” the 14-year-old told Al Jazeera in the basement of Children’s Hospital 7 in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

She has been battling gliosarcoma, a rare type of malignant brain cancer, since 2019.

But it recently metastasised, and the metastases started pressing on her kidneys. Nadia was hospitalised for renal treatment on February 9, only to find herself in the hospital’s basement sheltering from missiles after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Her mother Maryna said they have been staying for the past “eight or nine days” in a tiny room lit by quietly droning luminescent lamps, alongside dozens of other patients. Many health workers spend their nights here too. The entrance to the hospital in central Kyiv is manned by a guard with a hunting rifle.

“We are sick and tired of sitting here,” Maryna told Al Jazeera while sitting on her daughter’s bed of three mattresses and covered with a blanket with butterflies printed on it.

Every day in the hospital is a groundhog day devoid of sunlight, marked by medical procedures, meal breaks, and agonising pain.

“She was in so much pain, she was lying all convulsed,” Maryna said.

Kira and Mary Rintik in the basement of Children's Hospital 7 in Kyiv
Kira and Mary Rintik in the basement of Children’s Hospital 7 in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

And every day is marred by the news from above ground.

Russian cruise missiles and artillery pound Kyiv’s outskirts – including the Tymoshchuk family neighbourhood near the Akademgorodok subway station in western Kyiv.

It is a stone’s throw from the towns of Irpin and Bucha where Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) have been battling Ukrainian forces for days.

But devastating news about the growing death toll and devastation of the invasion have been tempered by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian military and “territorial defence”, squads of civilian volunteers.

The blitzkrieg Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently planned has failed, and so far, Russia’s move on Kyiv has stalled.

But the resistance does not necessarily translate to peace of mind.

“Even if I am at home, I won’t be calm,” Nadia said.

Meanwhile, medical doctors in Kyiv are pessimistic about Nadia’s treatment because no hospital in Ukraine can provide her with a new round of chemotherapy.

“The doctors said, ‘go abroad, no one can help you in Ukraine,’” Nadia said calmly.

An Italian clinic has agreed to admit her, but her departure by train to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and onwards towards Italy was postponed by the evacuation of civilians from Irpen who jam-packed most of the westward-bound trains this weekend.

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‘Nowhere to go’

When the war started, Hospital 7 was treating two dozen children. Now, only five are left – and some have nowhere to go.

Kira Rihtik, 10, arrived at the hospital with a severe pneumonia that started three days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

To her family, their eight-storey apartment building in the western Kyiv district of Borshchahivka felt like a bomb magnet.

“The explosions were so strong that the entire house was shaking,” Kira’s mother Mary told Al Jazeera.

Her daughter’s pneumonia was exacerbated by three nights in a freezing underground parking lot, where the Rihtik family and dozens of their neighbours hid from the bombing.

“We only came up [from the parking lot] to let the child get warm,” Mary said.

Borshchahivka is suffering from food shortages, and many elderly residents were saved by volunteers who arrived with supplies, she said.

After three days of hell, the hospital feels like a haven.

“I have everything I need,” Kira, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Waiting for the weekend,” told Al Jazeera.

But once the treatment is over, Kira and Mary will have to return to Borshchahivka.

“We are scared to leave [Kyiv], there’s nowhere to stay in Lviv,” Mary said, referring to a city in western Ukraine that is a gateway to Poland for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

“We have nowhere to go.”

Source: Al Jazeera