Daria, a 7-year-old little girl, was anxiously waiting to recite a Christmas poem in Romanian. She was born in Kherson and came to the Republic of Moldova in July, together with her mother, who was born here. She attends the school “downtown”, in Cojușna village, enrolled in the first grade. She tells me she’s learned almost the entire alphabet, up to the letter “Ș”, and shows me she can already read Romanian. There are 34 kids in her class. She made new friends in school, and her favorite subjects are mathematics and Romanian, Daria also says. She also introduced me to her new friend, a recent arrival at the refugee center. “Her name is Gulnash, it means sun”, Daria explains. “She is 7, but she is in the second grade”. Gulnash came from Odessa, two weeks ago, with her mother, her little sister and her brother. The girls say their fathers stayed behind and they miss them.
Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, over eighty thousand Ukrainian citizens have found refuge in the Republic of Moldova. Most of them are housed by local residents or live in temporary refugee centers. Ninety of them (58 adults and 32 children) are living in a makeshift refugee centers in one of the two schools in Cojușna, a village close to Chișinău. Many have stayed here since the start of the war, 10 months ago. They came from Odessa, Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk.
In the school I used to attend, classrooms have become a home to mothers and grandmothers who fled the war with their children and grandchildren. One of the rooms of the old high school has been turned into a study, fitted with 15 computers and tablets, where pupils attend online classes according to Ukrainian school curricula. Classes have been suspended, however, due to shelling and blackouts in the neighboring country.
Marina, a refugee from Mykolaiv: “My son stayed behind, and I feel like I’ve betrayed him by leaving him there”
The first thing Marina tells me between sobs, is that she left her son back in Ukraine. Aged 69, Marina left Mykolaiv on March 20, and her emotions still get the better of her: “It’s my son, I feel like I’ve betrayed him by leaving him there… He was in the first line of defense near Donetsk”, the woman says, tears running down her cheeks.
Marina arrived in the Republic of Moldova in the first days after the war. Her relatives and friends are all in Ukraine, she says. “My brother’s daughters are still there, he is gone, so is his wife… I have a niece there with her 7-year-old daughter. Another niece, who lived close to me in the Karabelnyi district, has a 5-year-old boy. I have godparents, my husband’s relatives, many of them stayed behind. All my friends are still in Ukraine. My daughter-in-law is now in Lviv. My son stayed, he was working in the port. When they attacked the port, they repaired the railway. They loaded big trucks headed to Odessa, during the war. That was in the earlier months. After that, they (the Russians) destroyed everything”.
It’s hard, but those who stayed behind get used to hardships, Marina says. “I went home, but life is very hard back there. I asked about the heating, and the boys told me there’s no one left. The soldiers live in the administrative building. Power outages are frequent. The power is hardly on where my daughter-in-law lives. They live on the ninth floor in an apartment building. The whole building shakes, and the kid is scared, they keep him on sedatives… He is scared… He understands everything that’s happening, they tell him the truth, the kid deserves to know what’s going on. He knows everything. He turned 13 in July… It’s a terrible business. I talk to my friends on the phone, and they tell me one neighbor died, and then another one… All the young men are now gone – one died in Donetsk, another one was killed… Our godson has been fighting in Donetsk since May… My niece’s husband is also deployed to the frontline in Donetsk”.
“They’ve destroyed our infrastructure, our schools, our institutions, our homes”
The war has brought pain and destruction to Ukraine’s cities. “They’ve destroyed our infrastructure. They’ve destroyed many schools, institutions and homes”, Marina also says. “Our family physician lived further down the street, and they used to hide in the basement because their roof had been destroyed. One shell hit another friend’s house. We came here on March 20, and a few days later my friend, Lena, called, saying that Nadia died. She was hiding in the basement. She was already dead when her daughter found her. Her heart failed and she passed away. Many people died in the shelling. A lot of houses were destroyed, their windows broken. My son bought a house, completely new and restored, and the windows on the second floor got blown away, a shell had hit the first floor. Our neighbor, Raya, stayed in the shelter with her son since the start of the war”, Marina says and she bursts out crying again.
Marina decided to spend the winter in Moldova. “The adults are working, some of us are working online. We go out in the village, to the store, sometimes to the city when necessary. It’s hard to get medicine, as we need a lot of drugs”, Marina says. “I went to see a play at Chekhov Theatre. The first time we didn’t manage to give flowers to the artists. The second time we went to see a play we gave them a bouquet”.
Some of the refugees managed to find a job in the village, others in Chișinău, which is not far. According to official records, 946 Ukrainian citizens are employed in the Republic of Moldova, most of them in Chișinău, and work as programmers, engineers, seamstresses, vendors, waiters, cooks, doctors or teachers.
Maria, a refugee from Odessa: “When they announce our victory, I’ll be going back home on foot”
Also in March, Maria arrived in the Republic of Moldova with one of her daughters and her 4-year-old grandson. “We decided to leave for Vanya’s sake. We left everything and just went. We crossed the border on the 13th, with my daughter and grandson. We’ve been living here for 10 months”, Maria says.
She remembers the first day of war to the finest detail, but she finds it hard to accept that such atrocities are still possible in the 21st century. “When the war started, our neighbor on the upper floor, who is hard of hearing, asked me what all that noise was, if there was someone moving furniture around the apartment. Half an hour later, my brother from Mykolaiv called, telling me to keep calm and that the war had started. How could there still be a war, we’re living in the 21st century? He tells me they’ve bombed the entire country. I refused to believe it… My daughter called me later, telling me to get my passport and go with her, and we’ll figure out what to do next… No one could believe what was happening… This is the 21st century! This war has been going on for so many years. They’ve been shooting at us and we’re not doing anything about it… They’ve captured one territory, then another. He (Putin) is doing what he wants, he comes to you in your own home and tells you to leave because he likes your kitchen. This is what he does “, the woman argues.
After a few weeks of living in fear at the sound of the raid sirens, the two women decide it is time they left. The kid was too scared of everything that was happening for them to stay. “We stayed for a few days, the sirens kept blaring. I told my daughter I wouldn’t go anywhere, but I got terrified. I looked out the window seeing cars pulling in, people loading their luggage, grabbing their pets… How were we supposed to stay? We went to stay with our in-laws, in the Odessa region, in Bolhrad, things were calmer over there… We stayed for a couple of weeks, then we returned to Odessa, but they started attacking the city. They destroyed the Riviera shopping center, which was one block away. It was then that my daughter said it was time to go, because Vanyushka, my little grandson, had started to stutter and pee the bed at night in terror. Whenever the siren went off, we would stand under load-bearing walls, covered in our blankets and scared. He was all shaking and asked us: “Grandmother, please make it stop, make it stop!”, Maria recalls.
“Putin is fighting the people. He attacks us, but we’re getting stronger”
Maria says the war has united people, and that this tragedy is understood only by those who’ve experienced it. “You grab your backpack and run to the basement. But this is what brought people together. Our neighbor comes to check if we’re home, if we need anything. Another one asks if we’re leaving… Some say they’re leaving, others are staying, and those who go away give us everything they had in their fridge”.
Maria still has a daughter and a son back in Ukraine, both with families of their own. “They go to work, sometimes they work from home. The children stay home, and when the siren goes off they hide under the bed and turn the TV volume to max. Irochka works in the neighborhood, and when the alarm goes off, she darts home”, says Maria, who talks to them on a daily basis. “We talk on the phone every day. Whenever I hear of a new attack, I call them to ask where they are, I want to see them on videocall. When I realize they’re not in our house, they tell me they went over to some friends, that they’ve bombed the airport nearby”.
Maria is proud of being Ukrainian and proud her people are resisting the Russian aggression. She told us about the atrocities the Russian army leaves behind.
“Putin is fighting the people. Normally, in a war one army fights another, but he is fighting the people. He leaves us without light, without gas. He destroyed our kindergartens, schools, administrative buildings. They attack us, but we’re getting stronger. I am happy to be Ukrainian, that we have this God-sent president. If they hadn’t attacked us when they did, they would have done so at another time. They would have taken Ukraine, then Moldova, Poland, one by one, whichever country they wanted. The world’s second most powerful army is wicked and heinous”, the woman points out.
“We left, but my brother and his wife still live in our apartment, and my sister lives with her husband in my daughter’s apartment. They’re from Mykolaiv, from the district where they shot people… Ola’s husband went back and what did she see? A hole in the inner courtyard, 5-6 totaled cars, only the carcasses were left. The upper and lower floors of the residential building had been destroyed. I can’t remember how many people were killed there… The windows and doors were all broken and nailed shut. Only non-drinkable water was running in the building. The elevators were all out of order. No heat, no electricity. It was horrible”.
Her children have asked her to stay in Moldova, because Ukraine remains the target of Russian shelling, and one never knows which building is going to get hit. “I didn’t want to go to Poland or Germany. No, it’s better here in Moldova, with our people, part of my heart is there, the other part here. As soon as I got here, I stayed here, in this very room, with my grandchild”.
“You hold on fast. You pretend to be a hero in front of the children, but in fact it gets to you”, Maria also says. Like the other refugees, Maria and her family anxiously await the day their country is liberated so they can return home. “When they announce our victory, when we win the war, I want us to bake a huge cake, the size of Ukraine, for everyone”.