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I gave birth in Ukraine during the war and fled when my baby was 7 days old

Mom Galina Diakonenko, wearing a white top, poses with her baby daughter, Sofiyka.
Galina Diakonenko was terrified when she realized her baby was going to be born in a war zone.
Courtesy of Kidscape

  • Galina Diakonenko and her newborn baby were evacuated from a war-torn city in Ukraine
  • The seven-day-old was the youngest child to be rescued from Ukraine by the US charity KidSave.
  • This is Diakonenko's story, as told to Jane Ridley

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Galina Diakonenko, as translated by Natalia Kravchuck. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I was eight months pregnant when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February.

My husband, Yevhen, and I were woken at 4 a.m. by the terrifying sound of explosions. Our home city of Mykolaiv, located in southern Ukraine near the Black Sea, was being shelled.

It was particularly frightening because we knew that our longed-for second child was going to be born in a war zone.

We lived close to a bridge that the Russians were determined to destroy. The building shook as the missiles landed. I worried about my stress and the health of our unborn baby.

I was also concerned about my older child, Alina Hryschuk, 21, who was studying at our local university.

I could have been evacuated when I was 8 months pregnant, but my doctor said it was too much of a risk

Thankfully, she was evacuated to a relatively safe region of western Ukraine. She was rescued by KidSave, the US-based charity I've volunteered for since 2017. 

It has evacuated thousands of families from some of the most vulnerable parts of Ukraine since the conflict began.

KidSave asked if I wanted to leave with Alina. But my doctor didn't want me to do the journey. 

I'm 42 and my pregnancy was high risk. I'd already been in the hospital because the baby was lying so low. My ob-gyn said that I could have a placental abruption at any point. If I gave birth prematurely during the evacuation, the doctor said both of us could die. I decided not to go.

A group of Ukrainians, including a heavily-pregnant Galina Diakonenko, sit around a table in the basement which served as a bomb shelter.
Galina Diakonenko shared a bunker with more than 30 people during the last couple of months of her pregnancy.
Courtesy of KidSave

In the meantime, Yevhen and I had moved into the home of the pastor of our church. The basement — which was shared by at least 30 other parishioners — had been turned into a makeshift bomb shelter. 

"We've been doing everything we can to save this pregnancy," my doctor said. "I'll deliver your baby in the basement if we have to."

She said that I could leave the city once our little one was born.

Our daughter arrived safely but bombs were dropping near the hospital where she was delivered 

The worst thing was running to the shelter after a siren alert. I was exhausted already by the pregnancy. My heart raced. I struggled for breath. My legs shook.

Our daughter, Sofiyka, was born on April 6 at Varvarivka Maternity Hospital in Mykolaiv. She weighed 7 pounds. The Russians repeatedly targeted hospitals in Ukraine. I was scared that a missile would hit where we were.

My doctor wanted us to wait until Sofikya was 10 days old before we joined Alina. But barely a day after Sofikya's birth, there was an explosion at a chemical plant near our home. I grabbed her and ran to the basement. We couldn't wait any longer.

Martial law in Ukraine doesn't allow men to evacuate with their families. Yevhen, 49, is working hard on the streets as a volunteer. But he could be drafted into the military at any time. We know the dangers, but we'll be proud if he's called up.

 He kept telling me that we had a new purpose in life: a new baby who'd arrived against the odds after years of seeming infertility. 

It took two days for KidSave to drive us the 1,000 kilometers to the relatively safe district where Alina was based.  It was hard to sit in the vehicle every day for seven hours while I was nursing Sofikya. I learned that at a week old, my baby was the youngest child that KidSave has rescued from Ukraine so far.

Things feel very different where we are as refugees, but Alina, Sofikya, and I are together at least. Yevhen has managed to visit us for a total of three days, despite the distance. We talk every day on FaceTime.


Yevhen and Galina Diakonenko pose with their newborn, Sofiya, and her sister, Alina.
The Diakonenko family was briefly reunited in western Ukraine but hope to be together forever when the war comes to an end.
Courtesy of Kidscape
I pray for my husband's safety. I cry at night, wondering how things might have been different.  I have nightmares about running into the bomb shelter. If an air-raid siren sounds, I'm taken back to the horrors of our life in Mykolaiv.

But I truly believe that Alina, Sofikya, and I will be reunited with Yevhen for good. We'll be a proper family again.

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