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Meet the parents raising Ukraine's next generation, babies now as old as the war

Anna Mordiukova gave birth to her baby Victoria with a Russian doctor while her village was under occupation at the beginning of the war.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Anna Mordiukova gave birth to her baby Victoria with a Russian doctor while her village was under occupation at the beginning of the war.

Updated November 17, 2022 at 5:00 PM ET

The day Anna Mordiukova went into labor, a Russian tank fired on her house, destroying it and much of the baby gear she had accumulated all winter. Russian forces were occupying the village of Lukashivka, where Mordiukova lived with her family.

She survived the attack by sheltering in the basement, her husband and 4-year-old daughter by her side.

There was no medicine. No supplies. Russian soldiers and a Russian doctor watched from the edge of the unfinished room. A local nurse was there to help keep Mordiukova calm.

She recalls immense pain. Her husband, watching the birth unfold, asked the Russian soldiers to take them to a hospital. The soldiers told them their only option was a facility in Belarus, an ally of Russia, about 2 hours north.

If they went, there were no guarantees they'd ever be able to return to Ukraine.

Amid a barrage of explosions, the family made a decision on that cold basement floor: to stay. The hour when Mordiukova finally gave birth, everything went quiet. The local nurse cut the baby's umbilical cord.

Mordiukova watches her 4 year old daughter play while her baby sleeps. She's staying with relatives since her home was destroyed by the war.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Mordiukova watches her 4 year old daughter play while her baby sleeps. She's staying with relatives since her home was destroyed by the war.

In the first two months of the war, 15,000 babies were born in Ukraine, according to Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine. Women gave birth in basements, bomb shelters and hospitals under attack. Now, those parents are raising the next generation of Ukrainians, children as old as the war, all while they deal with PTSD, power outages and ongoing missile attacks.

Baby Victoria is now more than 7 months old. The Russians were pushed back soon after her birth and Mordiukova was able to go to a hospital. Victoria is healthy and restless. Loud music helps, so Mordiukova plays pop music from her phone as she pushes the stroller down a dirt road, near where the family is staying with Mordiukova's mother-in-law. They don't have a home to go back to right now.

"We're still waiting for the moment when everything ends and we can really breathe out with relief," she says. "It's stressful because you still don't know what is going to happen."

They're still traumatized by what happened on that basement floor. Mordiukova doesn't like being alone and her daughter, who hid with them in the basement and watched the birth, gets spooked at any new or loud sound.

"You want to forget it, but it is something you cannot forget," Mordiukova says. At the same time, she named the baby Victoria, representing a victorious future for Ukraine, she says. "At least we are here, alive, and still in Ukraine."

It's a sentiment that resonates with many new families across the country.

"I always thought about myself as a Ukrainian citizen," explains Nelya Hilenko, who gave birth to a baby named Tadei in March, "but his birth just made me more sure about this."

Nelya Hilenko gave birth to Tadei in March in Zhytomr after they fled Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Nelya Hilenko gave birth to Tadei in March in Zhytomr after they fled Kyiv.

When the war started, Hilenko, who had a high-risk pregnancy due to health issues, was in a Kyiv hospital preparing for a scheduled C-section. But with the city under attack, she unhooked herself from the IV and gathered all her documents and medical records. Her husband, with their toddler Matvii in tow, picked up pregnant Hilenko and drove west, to the city of Zhytomyr, where her husband's family is from.

They found a hospital there, where Hilenko gave birth to baby Tadei via C-section. But soon after, the hospital came under attack; nearby missile explosions shattered all the windows, and doctors rushed her to the basement shelter. "The shelter was my post-op. It was my hospital room. It was everything," says Hilenko.

Hilenko protectively holds her son Matvii while he plays at their apartment in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Hilenko protectively holds her son Matvii while he plays at their apartment in Kyiv.

Eight months later, Tadei is teething and beginning to crawl. Sitting in their apartment's living room, Hilenko talks about similarities between living with a newborn and living in a war. The most obvious one for her: Everything is in the present.

"He sleeps, and then he eats, and then he sleeps," she says, shaking a rattle while Tadei watches. "I'm here. I'm in this moment right now, right here. And I know what I live for." Being present helps protect her from worrying about the war. "You read the news. You hear the air raid sirens. You never know where the missile will hit," she says, "but kids distract me from everything. I don't have time to think about anything else."

She often imagines what she'll tell her son when he's grown up about the beginning of his life – about his birth and the war.

"The thing I want him to understand is how precious his life is," she says.

But recent power outages and missile attacks in central Kyiv, have made that harder and harder, and Hilenko and her family are considering leaving Ukraine. No power means no elevator to their apartment on the 24th floor, no hot water, and no cooking. Last month, she watched from her window as a nearby apartment was struck by a Russian missile. It brought her right back to the beginning days of the war and Tadei's birth. Now, they're thinking about heading to Poland.

A little victory for a family during war

"All the moms who gave birth during the war, they are super moms," Tatyana Polishchuk says laughing. She and her husband Volodymyr are walking to the playground with their baby Ania, born in April.

Like so many new parents, they obsess over the cute things she does, they argue about who she looks like more ("I gave birth, it's not fair she looks like her dad!") and they can't help but share endless photos and videos ("Watch this video of her laughing at a ball!").

Tatyana Polishchuk and her husband Volodymyr Polishchuk tend to their baby Ania at a playground outside their apartment in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Tatyana Polishchuk and her husband Volodymyr Polishchuk tend to their baby Ania at a playground outside their apartment in Kyiv.

They're wanting to slow down time and revel in every moment with Ania, who they call their little cabbage, but they also want to speed up time, to get to a time when there is no more war, when power outages are no longer an issue.

"When I was pregnant, I imagined my life completely different," Tatyana says. She gave birth in a hospital shelter in Kyiv back in April and she's been having panic attacks on and off since. She has a hard time sleeping, but she isn't sure if it's from feeding the baby or her nightmares from living through a war.

And the war is never far from her mind.

When she's breastfeeding, she sits with her back to the window just in case there's a missile attack or an explosion. "I cover her with my body," Tatyana says. She's constantly thinking "protect the baby." In a particularly scary moment over the summer, she wrote her husband a letter outlining her hopes and dreams for Ania, in case she was killed in a Russian attack.

Tatyana Polishchuk tends to her baby, wrapped in warm clothes in a stroller on a walk in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Tatyana Polishchuk tends to her baby, wrapped in warm clothes in a stroller on a walk in Kyiv.

Despite all that, they plan to stay in Kyiv through the winter, even with the power outages. Their extended families are also in the city. "We have made a decision to stay together," she says. "We were born here, we live here, why should we leave our home?"

When she considers what she'll tell Ania about this time, she's torn. "I don't want her to know much, but I'm not gonna lie to her," she says. "A child should know their history." But she doesn't want her daughter to know hate, she says.

Wiping away tears, she adds, "I don't even want her to know the word war."

Tatyana Polishchuk sits in the playground where she takes her baby Ania for fresh air every day.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Tatyana Polishchuk sits in the playground where she takes her baby Ania for fresh air every day.

Her husband, Volodymyr, who is holding Ania bundled up in an orange snowsuit, says he's been wowed by the brain's ability to normalize fear; to allow them to feel extreme joy and extreme sadness at the same time. "This baby," he says looking down at her, "that's our little victory in this war."

Tatyana nods in agreement. "If I was asked, 'there's going to be war, would I still have a baby?' I would still say yes, I would give birth," she says, "every time I see her smiling or hear her laugh, that makes me thank God for everything I have now."

Hanna Palamorenko contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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