Ukraine War: The heartbreaking moment Ukrainian children with cancer are forced to say goodbye to their fathers and flee the conflict | world news

A war zone is not a place for the vulnerable, not a place for the sick.

We visit the cancer ward of a Ukrainian children’s hospital, where the doctors know this and plan an evacuation operation that is as delicate as it is difficult.

They hope to organize a medical convoy that will take some of the hospital’s sickest children across the Polish border.

It will make children and their families refugees – but it could save their lives.

Although this hospital is in Lviv, western Ukraine, miles from heavy fighting further east, it is still unsafe.

Staff taped the windows to prevent them from shattering in the event of a bombardment, but they know that is not enough.

glued windows in hospital

The war has disrupted the supply of medicines and the regular sirens of air raids make it impossible to maintain care.

One of them goes off during our shoot.

“Now you will see how all patients have to get out of their rooms,” says Yuliya Nogovitsyna, from the children’s charity Tabletochki Charity Foundation. “You can go with them but you better take your coats.”

For the third time today, tired and sick families are rushing to the underground shelter where it is cold, damp and totally surreal.

Families take shelter

This hospital was built in Soviet times to care for senior officials and their families.

In the basement, there is a disused spa.

We see families sitting on the benches of the saunas and perched on camp beds arranged in the now empty large swimming pool.

Sauna
Pool

Areas built as luxuries for Russian rulers decades ago now protect terrified Ukrainian families.

Oksana Babych arrived at the hospital yesterday with her daughter.

They huddle against each other in the subterranean half-light, anxiously waiting for the green light.

“Of all the safe places, this is the safest,” Oksana tells us. “Although I don’t think anyone in Ukraine feels safe now, anywhere.”

Oksana and Elina
Oksana and Elina kiss

Oksana’s seven-year-old daughter Elina was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor late last year.

The mother and daughter initially left their home in eastern Ukraine and traveled to the capital Kyiv for treatment, but when war broke out they were evacuated further west.

“There was surgery, then radiation therapy,” says Oksana. “She’s due for her next tests soon.”

“They said we would be evacuated from here, to Poland first, but I don’t know where we will go from there,” she adds.

In fact, neither family knows for sure yet where they will end up.

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Doctors try to connect them with suitable hospitals which could be anywhere in the world.

Oksana turns to her daughter and says, “We go where they take us, don’t we?”

Elina smiles and nods, a little tired.

The next day, we are back at the hospital: it is the day of the convoy.

Several families are already crowded and waiting in the hallways.

Families in the hallway
Children in the hallway

The sickest children will leave by ambulance, the most stable by coach.

But since the condition of the children can deteriorate rapidly, the whole convoy will be flanked by police cars and diplomatic escorts to be able to move quickly.

“We are responsible for these children,” emergency physician Pawel Kukiz-Szczuciński tells us. “Everything can change, even up to the very last minute.

“Remember, this is a war zone and we are near an area where a missile strike killed a lot of people. So we have to take that into account.

“And of course there’s pressure with that.”

Oksana in the bedroom

Among the families gathered in the filling corridor, we do not see the mother we met yesterday, taking refuge with her daughter in the basement.

We find Oksana and Elina in their room, trying to find the courage to leave.

Oksana’s hands are shaking and she holds back tears.

“I’m afraid of uncertainty,” she says. “I’m just scared.”

It’s all she can handle before turning away to prepare her daughter for what lies ahead.

Back in the corridor, the families begin to descend towards the vehicles of the convoy.

The Vivcharenko family is waiting

Mothers, parents and siblings will also travel, but fathers must stay.

Men of military age cannot leave Ukraine.

It means Mykhalo Vivcharenko is about to say goodbye to his wife Ivanka, four-year-old son Marko and six-month-old baby girl.

Marko with bus

Marko, who recently underwent surgery for a brain tumour, is all smiles as he waves a small plastic bus through the air.

“He’s fine as long as Dad’s here,” Mom Ivanka said, giving him a nervous look. “But we don’t know how it will be later.”

We find out soon.

As his father leaves him, whispering sweet nothings and a tearful goodbye, Marko bursts into tears.

Mykhalo by bus

Mykhalo hugs his wife and baby girl one last time before finding the strength to leave them in the coach.

It’s heartbreaking to watch.

“We hope it will be for the best, that everything will be fine,” Mykhalo said. “We hope everyone will be happy. Even if it’s difficult…everything will be fine.”

As the coach drives off, Mykhalo stands on the sidewalk, waving his hand.

At the very last moment, he gestures in the air, making the sign of the cross.

Mykhalo bids farewell

This war tears families apart, robs them of control and certainty.

But the love and the need to protect remain.

This is what propels families into the unknown, gives them the strength to face the unimaginable.

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