The day after the evacuation, “Kadyrovites” broke into our institution — the story of the Mykhailo Horodetsky Children's Home in Vorzel, near Kyiv
The story of the Mykhailo Horodetsky Children’s Home in Vorzel. You heard about it in the news at the beginning of March. Over 50 children under the age of 4 lived here for two weeks during the Russian occupation, including those who need palliative care.
Buildings of the Children’s House in Vorzel in the Kyiv region are located on both sides of Klenova street. Everywhere there are playgrounds, gazebos, planted young bushes and trees, as well as older pines. Some things, such as the gates and the roof of one of the buildings, were damaged by the shelling of the Russian occupiers, but they have already been restored. Do the patches on the slate give away that there was a real war here? On the contrary — there is absolute silence, peace, and pacification.
“Many people who came here feel that this is, you know, some special place. When you go through all this. Well, I do not know. Some unusual place, after all, this is a cozy corner. And everyone feels it.»
These are the words of Lyubov Lisukha, acting chief physician of the institution, and I agree with them. When we met, we walked around the territory of the Children’s House for a long time. It is very beautiful there and absolutely everything is made for children. Multicolored pavilions, gardens, small plots of land, where teachers planted some plants, and children watched all this. However, that was… before the war…
Bad premonitions and a prophetic dream
I cautiously approached this topic and asked Ms. Lyubov about her premonitions of a Russian invasion. Apparently, like most Ukrainians, she had them. Especially when, a few days before February 24, the internet in Vorzel significantly deteriorated.
«Well, of course, there were some of these bad premonitions, but no one expected that it would be this full-scale. Anxiety, of course, that something would happen, was experienced by all people. I also had some premonitions, maybe for a few days, when the Internet started to work poorly. And, in general, I want to say that last year, starting from October, November, and December, we had big power outages. Very often there were disconnections that were incomprehensible to us. I wrote many letters to DTEK. After all, I have children who belong to social services, so they have to do something to prevent this from happening,» says Ms. Lyubov.
However, it is difficult to say whether it was these were the first signs of a future Russian invasion. After all, Vorzel, thanks to its exceptional natural and climatic conditions, is an «appetizing» piece of land for developers. The next alarming sign for Lyubov Lisukha was a dream of one of her co-workers. An elderly woman approached the manager and told them that she dreamed of tanks driving down their street. Then the woman felt embarrassed. However, no one talked about evacuation and that was reassuring.
«Until the 24th, questions regarding our evacuation were not raised. Everything was in working order, we all worked.»
«Boryspil and Hostomel are being bombed, planes are above us»
On February 24, Lyubov Lisukha, like all Ukrainians, woke up to explosions. Russian troops began a large-scale invasion. The woman lives in Kyiv and drives almost 40 kilometers to Vorzel every morning in a company car. That morning she also got into the car without hesitation.
«And after some time, my employees started calling me to say that Boryspil is being bombed. ‘Do you know that there are planes flying over us here? Is something flying here over Hostomel? They are probably bombing Hostomel.’ Then they called and said: ‘Dear Mykhailivna, we can’t go to work… the train stopped at 6 in the morning.’»
Lyubov Lisukha tried to calm her colleagues. She said that if it is not possible to get to work now, then the workers should stay in a safe place. She herself, through traffic jams, got to the children,»state» children whom she loved as her own. That morning, many people left Kyiv, and instead of the usual 30-40 minutes, Mrs. Lyubov drove to work for several hours. Sometimes it was necessary to break the rules and drive in the opposite lane. She was in a hurry, but still arrived on time. Neighboring Hostomel was already practically occupied by Russian troops… Martial law was introduced in the country. The acting head doctor of the institution immediately issued an order for the Children’s Home to operate during martial law.
«We solved important issues in an hour: ensuring children’s health, their maximum protection — everything we could do. Everything was discussed, including food and water supplies, issued from the warehouse. Everything was done to the maximum. We had to glue the windows, pull the beds away from the windows, then tape them — and all this was done.»
Mrs. Lyubov was constantly in contact with the authorities. They, of course, raised the issue of evacuation, although everyone understood that it would not be easy. There were 50 boys and girls in the Children’s Home at that time. One child was being treated in a hospital and was immediately evacuated from there. Among the children, there were 16 infants and 10 more children needing palliative care. Also, it was necessary to evacuate the personnel. Meanwhile, the surrounding situation was changing very quickly.
«I do not unilaterally address the issue of evacuation. This is done by the Ministry of Social Policy, the Ministry of Health Protection, and the Kyiv City Administration. This and the police escorts the children, and most importantly, the State Emergency Service does as well. It has to be done correctly, to address the where and everything else. However, already on the 25th, at 10 in the morning, all the bridges were destroyed.
You see, the situation changed every half an hour to an hour — it was impossible to predict. The same goes for talking about an evacuation plan. For example, it would have been designed to evacuate taking a certain route – not because the bridge was not blown up, this we could not know. I didn’t have communication, radio communication, to tell me anything for certain. Well, there was nothing like this!”
Lyubov Lisukha understood that the evacuation would not take place soon, but she did not stop believing that they would be saved. Meanwhile, she did everything to preserve the life and health of the children. They were transferred to a safe room and brought into one group. The other half was in another building. Meanwhile, the Russian military entered Vorzel. They walked along the street where the orphanage is located and looked into every crack. They pointed their weapons at the windows and peered intently. As they did in the dream of one of the workers, Russian tanks were driving down the street. The first column that entered Vorzel were walking by the fence of the Children’s House for almost two hours.
«Later, we realized that we were already under siege. Explosions rang out around us. Of course, we have heard all this. We have no shelter, and the children were in buildings, in this building, and in the first building. Bringing everyone together — such an opportunity was not considered, because first, it is necessary to move beds, move carts… When such shelling already began, there was a certain risk. We got together as a staff and made an objective decision that things would be better as they are for now. It would be better to prepare everything in the same way, in the same way, they hid the children in a room with double walls, so that there could be no damage because there were more babies. And everything was adjusted as much as possible to save the lives of the children.»
Lyubov Lisukha solved problems every hour, focusing on the situation around her. The situation was changing rapidly. At the same time, every day the children and staff heard increasingly loud explosions. The explosions were especially strong at night. There were also periods of silence, but this was even more frightening. The unknown was frightening. However, both the head doctor and the staff sincerely believed that the Ukrainian military would quickly knock the Russians out of the village. Meanwhile, the children felt that something was happening around them, says Mrs. Lyubov:
«Of course, the staff was under stress. Children can feel when a person comes to work calm, and when children feel some tension, some excitement, or something of the sorts. Of course, the older children caught words like ‘war,’ ‘shooting’ and ‘bang,’ that is, they used such words. But the staff tried, and I asked, to not use such words as much as possible, so that the children would not understand. Instead, say ‘it’s just thunder,’ ‘it’s a thunderstorm,’ so that somehow this horror that is happening is not reflected in their memory.»
Of course, the children cried, but the staff did everything to ensure that the children’s psyche was not harmed, Ms. Lyubov emphasizes once again. Children were not allowed outside as it was too dangerous. Only a few people, including the head doctor, could walk between the buildings. They wore a white armband with a red cross on their arm. Everything was done so that the Russian troops did not understand how many people were in the Children’s Home. At the same time, it was increasingly difficult not to go outside, because the occupiers used their weapons to cut off all communications.
«Communication was cut off on the 27th-28th. There wasn’t even lighting. When there was lighting, it was completely different. There was warmth, we could cook, it made tasks easier. And when there was no electricity, it was problematic.»
The locals helped us to survive
Then the locals helped a lot as they brought water from their own wells. The deputy of the district, as well as the Buchansk City Council, brought food products. A restaurant nearby prepared the first meals for the children. A day later, they carried them to the Children’s Home, risking their lives. The smallest children, of course, have their own diets, especially those who need palliative care. The restaurant’s staff first cooked with gas cylinders, and on fires before the evacuation.
«A co-worker brought a gas cylinder, and we did what we could in the kitchen. Then, about 2 days before the evacuation, we made a fire near the first building, and already here, near the fifth, we did the same and heated water. There was no warm water in any of the nearest houses as everything was completely turned off. There was no gas, no water, no electricity — nothing. The residents also had a summer kitchen, where you could heat water — boiling water for feeding. They cooked there as best as they could.»
There was also a shortage of kitchen workers: one woman could not make it due to the constant shelling, and another was suffering from diabetes. It even happened that the staff of the Children’s Home miraculously helped her by offering medicine. Thanks to them, the woman survived.
«We found out after we got her the medicine that she was in such a pre-comatose state. We even had one worker visit her and say: ‘Dear Mykhailivna, I don’t know, she’s probably dying and so the doctor gave a list of the necessities for her.’ Everything we had, everything we could find, we passed on and we did not know even when we evacuated whether she would survive. However, thanks to everything, the person remained alive. There were such moments, … We were worried about everyone,» emphasizes Lyubov Lisukha.
«It is necessary to evacuate the children urgently»
The Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Prosecutor General’s Office, as well as other authorized bodies, knew that there were children in Vorzel. The issue of evacuation was raised, but the Russians did not agree. Departure was very dangerous. The Prosecutor General’s Office was generally afraid of the scenario that the children would be abducted to Russia under the pretext of an evacuation… At that time, the issue of departure was dealt with by the national headquarters, said Daria Kasyanova, head of the board of the Ukrainian Network for Children’s Rights:
«I know that from literally the first days they tried to evacuate this Children’s Home. At the level of the national headquarters, the issue was immediately raised that the children should be evacuated urgently. But it was impossible to take them out of there, as I understand it… No, at first, it was probably still possible to take evacuate them, but there was no readiness and understanding of where to take them or who would go with the children. After a few days it became impossible to evacuate them at all.»
Despite all the disappointing predictions, the employees of the orphanage, led by Lyubov Lysukha, prepared for evacuation: they separately put together the things that the children will wear, wrote the necessary information about the child on the bracelets, and, most importantly, prepared the documents. The soldiers who had contact with the chief doctor said:
«We will only be able to evacuate you when the occupying party gives permission.»
And they gave it! It happened when no one expected it. On March 9, the Minister of Reintegration Iryna Vereshchuk announced the evacuation from the Children’s Home in Vorzel at a morning briefing.
«I personally want to stop at the city of Vorzeli. There is a Children’s House, where 55 children and 26 staff members are currently staying. This is a separate special operation that will be conducted to evacuate this orphanage. We strongly request the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to adhere to their commitments and perform a cease fire from 9 in the morning to 9 in the evening.»
For two weeks, more than 50 state children, together with the employees of the Horodetsky Children’s Home, lived in under the occupation and waited for this day. Lyubov Lisukha says they heard about the evacuation itself from the residents of Vorzel. At that time, there was practically no communication, but the necessary information made its way even through the occupation.
«We did not know on which day we would be evacuated, until the locals started saying that there was a message on the website of the Buchansk City Council that we are being evacuated. I said that I have no information today. So, I’m waiting for some confirmation or someone I can call on how to do it, but many people had already seen it.
Then I called the deputy minister. She confirmed with me that we will indeed be evacuated and they will evacuate us from 25 Kurortna Street. You see, this is a parallel street. It’s a long way to run, with all the kids, and babies, and I don’t have enough people. Therefore, when this confirmation had already gone, I gave the order to quickly dress the children, and everything that was necessary was collected. I said, when we leave, I think we will be given everything we need. The main thing for us is to leave.»
Eventually, carrying babies and children in need of palliative care, the team got to the evacuation site. Emergency personnel and volunteers came as close as possible and helped in the evacuation. At that time, no one guaranteed security, because there were repeated cases when the Russians disrupted the agreed ceasefire. Everyone was walking and thinking — just not this time. The Russian side gave permission only for small minibuses, not allowing comfortable transport for children. Of course, no one paid attention to it then, the main thing was to leave.
«I had a responsible person on every minibus. I couldn’t tear myself away from everyone: I was in one and in the other – another doctor and two more people who were in charge. These are children. We gradually left and they took us away. We passed several checkpoints already occupied by the occupiers, and we were already on our way to Kyiv. Already when we entered the distribution point, we were met there, and told where we were going next. When they called me, they said that we are now going to the third hospital. And then, when we started to move there, we called back, and the police told us that they started bombing Vorzel. This was the time they gave us, until 21:00.»
Mrs. Lyubov says that she once again felt something because she was constantly speeding up the work of the emergency workers. That day, a huge column of people who had also lived under occupation left the entire Buchansk district. They all managed to escape… The very next day, Kadyrov’s soldiers broke into the Children’s Home, where some employees remained.
«It was early in the morning, somewhere around 8 o’clock, according to the staff. The building was still closed. They jumped over the fence and approached the 5th building. The girls saw them and were able to jump out through the backyard to hide somewhere. Some did not make it from those who stayed there. The door to the building was not opened to them, so they broke down the door and entered. There were eight of them. They were without masks and were interested in children. They were told that there are no children here, and to leave the premises. What can you do here in the orphanage.»
The «TikTok troops» were not alone, they were filmed by journalists of a Russian TV channel. «Kadyrivtsi» made sure that there were no children and left. However, it is scary to think what would have happened if the children had not been evacuated before then.
Children’s safety and interests come first
I couldn’t help but ask Ms. Lyubov how the children behaved during the evacuation.
«Of course, the children were a little nervous. Although my children are older. We went on a bus tour, and they adapted. After all, you know how children are children. They understand some circumstances differently. They drove comfortably, they saw all their teachers and all the usual personnel. And then they see that something… After everything, we left and arrived at our destination. We were met by the 3rd hospital.»
The next day, the children went to the west of Ukraine. They are there now. They were provided with everything necessary, and they are looked after. No one knows when they will return to Vorzel. However, I saw that the people were eagerly waiting for them.
This story has a lesson and, fortunately, it has a happy ending. This is a story about the courage of the head doctor, the staff, and the children. They, as well as adults, withstood this test.
Currently, the issue of evacuating children from boarding schools, children’s homes and other institutions is entrusted to the national headquarters. The head of the board of the «Ukrainian Network for Children’s Rights» Darya Kasyanova is also a member of the working group. She says that evacuation issues are considered almost every day. However, it is almost impossible to influence the decisions of institutions regarding evacuations. At the same time, in such cases, the first thing is to take the children to a place where they will feel safe, says Darya Kasyanova.
«I believe that the first task is to provide the children with a safe place. This can be done in Western Ukraine. In any of the regions. Then they can decide what will be in the best interest of the children.»
In my opinion, the most important interest of children is in their parents. And I would really like for every child from the House in Vorzel to find someone to call mom and dad.