LVIV, Ukraine — On the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s war on Ukraine, I traveled to a small orphanage on the outskirts of Lviv, home to 30 children, most of them evacuees from Ukraine’s most threatened regions. I knew that even before the war, some 250 children a day were placed in the country’s orphanages. Ukraine has long had the highest rate of child institutionalization in Europe. As of 2021, Ukraine had some 750 orphanages employing 68,000 people. According to UNICEF, close to half of all children across Ukraine’s orphanages are physically or developmentally disabled.
Nine of 10 children are “social orphans,” meaning that they were removed from parents battling addictions, or who have criminal records, or who were unwilling or unable to care for them. Ukrainian law permits the removal of children for such factors. It also allows for children to be taken from families because they are poor, and by far the most children in Ukraine’s orphanages before the war were there because of poverty.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threw the country’s orphanage system into chaos. Some of the institutions faced severe staffing shortages. Dozens of orphanages from the eastern and southern regions were relocated to safer areas. In the tumult, many children were left stranded across the Russian-occupied territories. According to UNICEF, some 26,000 out of 100,000 children who were sent home when the war started remain unaccounted for. The fear is that the invading army deported the missing children to Russian territory or to occupied Crimea.
I met Diana, a 10-year-old girl who had been evacuated with two younger siblings from the east in the first weeks of the war. The siblings had been separated, and, alone, Diana could not stop crying. Her mother, who suffered from alcoholism, was found to have failed to provide proper care for her three children, and Diana’s father had reportedly disappeared. Even so, Diana clings to the hope that her mother might one day show up to claim her.
The orphanage that houses Diana and the other children is a relic of the Soviet era. The rooms lack ventilation. The air is thick with the odor of children’s sweat and the remains of a communal lunch. The walls in the small, low-ceilinged rooms are covered with children’s drawings. Toys are scattered everywhere. When there is heat, the rooms are too hot. When the electricity is off, the rooms quickly become too cold. Electricity and heat are spotty, as they are all over the war-riven country, given constant Russian assaults on the energy infrastructure.
In a room painted institutional green, Andrii Mudrak, 24, who is working toward his masters in psychotherapy and was brought in to help the severely short-staffed and underfunded orphanage, watches a movie with the children. A group of girls vie excitedly for a visitor’s attention. A little boy chases an old white dog down a dark, cold hallway, the walls of which are lined with paper flowers made by the children.
“In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a million children living in the streets,” says Helena Malenchuk, deputy director of the Lviv children’s shelter, an orphanage. “Most of them had been abandoned by their alcoholic and unemployed parents. The children had to resort to begging. Some were living in the sewers. The authorities decided to open several hundred institutions like ours.”
Malenchuk says that, over the past year, conditions inside Ukrainian orphanages across the country have badly deteriorated. On the second day of the war, the Ukrainian authorities suspended all adoptions, and the numbers of missing and unrecorded children have swelled.
For the past 37 years, Miroslava Lipitska has been running a boarding school for disabled children in a dilapidated Austro-Hungarian-era palace that is slowly caving in on itself in downtown Lviv. The school has always doubled as an orphanage — more so during the last year, when greater numbers of social and actual orphans were mixed into the ranks of disabled children. There are 113 children there now, many of whom have come from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Volunteers found them in the streets and the local train stations. Some of the children lost their fathers on the front line and never knew their mothers.
Among the latest to arrive were Max from occupied Melitopol and a sad little boy in military fatigues from the Donetsk region, very near the war’s front line. On the day of my visit, air raid sirens sounded nearly constantly. The sad boy came running down the stairs seeking assurances that he was safe.
Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning journalist, war correspondent, and playwright, and the author of seven books.