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From surviving in basements in Ukraine to safety in Moldova

For weeks – and in some cases months in a row - underground spaces, storage rooms and small basements in Ukraine substitute as bomb shelters. Spending time underground beneath houses, in metros and parking lots are protection measures known all too well across the country after war broke out on 24 February 2022. Millions are displaced since then – internally and across borders where most refugees are women, children, and elderly. Some enter neighbouring Poland, Romania, and Moldova – bordering the western and southern parts of Ukraine. Here, DRC works to support refugees and enhance efforts to accommodate them in government-run centers.

Private photo, Mykolaiv,Ukraine 2022

Posted on 13 Dec 2022

Written by Alexandra Strand Holm

‘There was just enough space to fit in nine people in the tiny basement – and some had also brought their small pets with them. We – my parents and I - spent two weeks there, crammed together during some of the worst bombings in Mykolaiv we had seen since the war began. All the time, we heard the shelling. Sometimes we went out to do a little shopping in some of the markets and shops that were still working at the time.’

Anton*, 17-years-old, is happy about being away from the bombing, and sad about being too far from the home, friends and life in Ukraine that he misses. He and his parents left Ukraine mid-March when the bombings intensified in the area near Mykolaiv city where they lived. They drove through Odesa and were allowed to cross the border into Moldova where they parked their car. Anton is below 18 and his father 66, meaning both just outside the age limits that would otherwise oblige them to serve the army. Women in Ukraine are so far exempted from conscription and can freely leave Ukraine.

‘We came to Chisinau and were given a room here at the Refugee Accommodation Center,’ says Anton in fluent English. The spent some time at the shelter but flew to the United States where they have relatives and friends. After almost five months there, money ran out, they needed a car to get around, and eventually they decided to return to Moldova to also be closer to home in Ukraine.

Creating more space

The Refugee Accommodation Center has capacity to host 220 people. Space there has nearly doubled since DRC supported the center with new bunkbeds, washing machines, stoves and cooking utensils and other items that allow for the refugees to better manage their daily lives. They will be able to stay there as long as needed, they are told, and with no end date set by the hosts.

‘We have what we need here for now. There is space for us, warm water, and food,’ says Anton’s mother. ‘There are also house rules to make sure that we all contribute to keep the place cleaned and in good order,’ she tells.

The Government of the Republic of Moldova runs 66 Refugee Accommodations Center across the small country of 2.6 million people, with only the center in Chisinau being from before the war in Ukraine broke out. It used to be a kindergarten since it was constructed in 1978, and later, in 2003, turned into the national refugee asylum center of Moldova.

Abandoned countryside school turned into refugee shelter

In the village Cojusna in Straseni district, around one hour’s drive from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, the classrooms of a former primary school are now turned into dorms each for six people and offering space for 100 refugees in total. Currently 74 refugees are hosted here, all from Ukraine and most from Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa. 62 of them are Ukrainian nationals, and 12 are from the Roma population, a large ethnic minority in the region.

This center is one of the recently established official Refugee Accommodation Centers across Moldova under the coordination of the national Crisis Management Centre. The center is managed by local authorities from where one person is delegated to monitor the needs in the centre on behalf of Municipality. Local volunteers help the residents with cooking and other daily needs.

The former primary school was closed some time back – before the war in Ukraine - due to a lack of students in the area that is remote and located away from nearby towns. Refugees are free to move around and can take public transport into Chisinau where they need to go to find specific services, including health and medical treatment options.

There was constant bombing. We heard the rockets nearby and a garage close to our place was destroyed.

/  Helena, refugee from Ukraine

Looking for safety and medical treatment

Irina*, 33, from Odesa is at the center in Cojusna with her three children, the boys being 2 and 12 years old, and a girl at 11. They fled Odesa when the shelling increased and was no longer bearable. Her daughter was in pain and needed treatment, potentially also surgery, and so, Irina and her husband decided that she and the children should go. Her father drove her and the children to the border to Moldova and as they crossed, they were directed to the Refugee Accommodation Center in the school in Cojusna.

Both Irina and her husband were jobless since he lost his job as a driver after the war started, and the family had run out of other options than to look for help abroad and make sure that at least the children were relocated and sent to safety. Irina and the three children returned to Odesa from May to October although it was still far from safe. But it was home and summer at the time. Soon after, the infrastructure started being destroyed also there, affecting electricity, water, sewage and heating – all needed, not least as cold winter is approaching. Back once more in the shelter in Moldova, Irina is hoping not least to find help and treatment for their daughter.

A few days without attacks

Helena*, 47, from Mykolaiv is another of the refugees from Ukraine hosted at the school on Cojusna. She too has memories of spending weeks in a basement before she and her son, 15 years old, her mother and her grandmother fled to Moldova.

‘There was constant bombing. We heard the rockets nearby and a garage close to our place was destroyed. In our nine-story block, where our apartment is, we ended up spending most of the time in the basement where it was dark and cold even back then. It was too much for my grandmother. She died shortly after we arrived here in Moldova. My husband spent even longer in the basement. Now, he too has left Mykolaiv and taken his parents and my father to a rented apartment in Lviv in western Ukraine where he is looking after them. He is still very much marked by the long time in the basement. Of the first 275 days of war, there were only 30 days without shelling in Mykolaiv.’

Ready to fight   

Back in the Refugee Accommodation Center in Chisinau, Anton’s father has heard news about their house back in Ukraine, in an area that was recently hit by 10-15 rockets. He is still not sure how much damage is done, and how much of it is left. He hopes to soon be able to return home, but still has no idea when that will be possible.  

Anton turns 18 in November 2023. By then he will be asked to join the army, unless the war has ended. He wants to return to Ukraine and fight for his country, he says – and he is not worried about the risk or danger. ‘I’m not afraid of anything anymore’, says Anton.

*Names changed.


Verica Recevic | DRC Moldova Response Manager | DRC Moldova | [email protected]

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