Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Ukraine’s Mothers Are the Heart of the War

Women separated from their husbands have become a symbol of the country’s moral standing.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Women and children from war-torn Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive in Poland at the Medyka border crossing on March 4, 2022 near Medyka, Poland.
Women and children from war-torn Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive in Poland at the Medyka border crossing on March 4, 2022 near Medyka, Poland.
Women and children from war-torn Ukraine, including a mother carrying an infant, arrive in Poland at the Medyka border crossing on March 4, 2022 near Medyka, Poland. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

LUBLIN, Poland—Liza Bodnaruk was 15 when she met Igor Moroz, a 17-year-old senior in school. They skipped classes together and hung out at the beach in Odesa, Ukraine, a city on the Black Sea built by Catherine the Great and a favorite among tourists. They quarreled and made up and made promises. It was love at first sight. They thought marriage was too old-fashioned, but they eventually tied the knot a month before their son arrived. Everything was going well, and they had even saved up to buy a new house, when suddenly the Russian president declared war on their country. 

The moment Liza heard the first airstrikes crash through the quiet winter skies in late February, she was confronted with the hardest decision of her life: stand by her husband and her country to fight the Russians or run from the bombs as far as she can to protect their 4-month-old baby? Liza and Igor, childhood sweethearts, had to split, and it has been tears all the way since. 

“I cried, and he cried, and we kept crying, it was so hard to leave him there,” she recounted in early March. He has had to stay back to defend the shores of Odesa like most other men between 18 and 60. Odesa is seen as the cultural capital of southern Ukraine and prided itself on its strong economy: 70 percent of Ukraine’s imports and exports are handled through its port. But since the Russian invasion, Odesa has turned into a front line. Ukrainian forces have laid tank traps, mined the beaches, and erected concrete barricades in wait for the enemy. 

LUBLIN, Poland—Liza Bodnaruk was 15 when she met Igor Moroz, a 17-year-old senior in school. They skipped classes together and hung out at the beach in Odesa, Ukraine, a city on the Black Sea built by Catherine the Great and a favorite among tourists. They quarreled and made up and made promises. It was love at first sight. They thought marriage was too old-fashioned, but they eventually tied the knot a month before their son arrived. Everything was going well, and they had even saved up to buy a new house, when suddenly the Russian president declared war on their country. 

The moment Liza heard the first airstrikes crash through the quiet winter skies in late February, she was confronted with the hardest decision of her life: stand by her husband and her country to fight the Russians or run from the bombs as far as she can to protect their 4-month-old baby? Liza and Igor, childhood sweethearts, had to split, and it has been tears all the way since. 

“I cried, and he cried, and we kept crying, it was so hard to leave him there,” she recounted in early March. He has had to stay back to defend the shores of Odesa like most other men between 18 and 60. Odesa is seen as the cultural capital of southern Ukraine and prided itself on its strong economy: 70 percent of Ukraine’s imports and exports are handled through its port. But since the Russian invasion, Odesa has turned into a front line. Ukrainian forces have laid tank traps, mined the beaches, and erected concrete barricades in wait for the enemy. 

At the Przemysl train station on the Poland-Ukraine border, Liza rummaged through the bags—stuffed with all she could pack and carry—for a milk bottle and a toy for the baby. Her mother, who accompanied her, held her grandson wrapped in multiple blankets. “We have no money, we are carrying very little,” her mother, Natalia Bodnaruk, said from the other side of the barricade separating Ukrainian families and journalists. “We are headed to Germany to a friend’s home, but we don’t know how long we can stay there and how we are going to survive.” Liza speaks a little German but is not well educated. She hopes to find a job at a department store to earn a living and look after her family until she can return home and reunite with Igor. 

But Liza and Ukrainian mothers like her who are Europe’s newest refugees are terrified about whether they will ever be able to return home and reunite with loved ones they were forced to leave behind. The story of Ukraine’s war effort against a much bigger army is also a story of broken hearts and separated families. It is a tale of the silent suffering of mothers separated from their partners, limping to safety with their children and a few belongings toward an uncertain future in strange countries.

Nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Europe so far, and most of them are women and children, according to the United Nations. A large number of these women are mothers. At every border crossing from Ukraine into Europe they are lugging their children in one arm and bags in the other, at times walking miles in freezing temperatures to safety. Their agonizing journeys, the fear they feel for their children and for the men they have had to leave behind to fight, and the anxiety of what lies ahead are imprinted on their faces. While they are trying to be self-possessed most of the time, memories and worries are often pouring out in a stream of tears on their cheeks. 

The men and women bearing guns back home have earned credibility for Ukraine’s struggle and even encouraged foreign troops to join forces. But the images of these women journeying westward have elicited sympathy and added impetus to a usually slow European bureaucracy to come up with a humanitarian refugee policy. A European diplomat from a country neighboring Ukraine who was not authorized to speak with the press told Foreign Policy that while there are many considerations informing Europe’s refugee policy toward Ukrainians, including the threat Europe finds itself under from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the sympathy wave is largely attributable to the makeup of the refugees. “When refugees are women and children, public opinion is pro-refugees. Everyone feels responsible and is forced to do something, not because they are Ukrainians but because they are women and little babies,” he said. “When it’s women and children, the temptation for solidarity is higher.” 

Foreign Policy met dozens of Ukrainian women who said they fled their homes because Russians were either already bombing civilian infrastructure or surrounding their cities to eventually destroy it. Kirova (she only shared her first name) fled from the besieged city of Mariupol—around 60 miles from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. She held on tightly to her 6-year-old son as she walked out of the train from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in the first week of March and said Russia’s attack on her neighborhood and the killings of her neighbors left her with no option. “Russians are bombing our homes and killing civilians,” she said. “I did not want to leave my partner, but I had to first think of my son.” More than 1,500 people have so far been killed in Mariupol in Russian assaults, including three at a maternity ward in the city. Kirova is going to live in the home of a Polish friend with her child for the foreseeable future while hoping her partner somehow manages to stay alive.

Many other Poles, Belgians, and Germans have opened their homes to Ukrainian mothers and their children. 

In Lublin, a city in eastern Poland, Alyna Mikoloychuk was helping her host, Asia Zabrowska, with kitchen chores on March 6. “They are being kind, very kind,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears. Zabrowska said while they were not close friends, anyone could understand and empathize with the hardship of Ukrainian families. Zabrowska’s daughter compared the Ukrainian refugee crisis with the Syrian crisis in 2015. “Had Syrian mothers knocked on our door, we would have been happy to help them, too, but it was mostly Syrian men trying to cross the border, and that made us suspicious,” Joanna Zabrowska said. “Ukrainian men are fighting—I would go join them if I didn’t have an infant to take care of. Syrian men were trying to come here instead of fighting in their country.” It is a common view in Europe that Syrian men tried to migrate to Europe for economic reasons rather than safety. But experts say that Syrians, too, were fighting for their lives under an oppressive regime, and the reason most refugees were men was because the Syrians were first forced to undertake treacherous journeys to Europe and then find a source of income to bring over their families. 

Serena Parekh, author of No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis, said there is a lot of sympathy and compassion for Ukrainian refugees, partly owing to the images of women and children flooding TV screens across Europe. Syrian men, however, were wrongly racially stereotyped as “sexual predators and terrorists,” she said. Parekh added: “In contrast with single, young men from the Middle East, European women with children are completely unthreatening, and, as a result, it’s easier to be sympathetic.”

While mothers have elicited sympathy, female Ukrainian fighters guarding their cities are seen as evidence of egalitarianism in Ukrainian society, a value Europe espouses and promotes. Grandmothers who are too old to fight are baking energy-rich foods, weaving camouflage nets, and cooking fat-laced dumplings that are transported in sealed packets to the front lines. “We can’t just sit at home, we need to do something to help,” said 52-year -old Olena (who only shared her first name) in Lviv on March 13. “We are cooking and making solid food to feed our soldiers, which will enable them to fight.” 

The contribution of Ukrainian women to the war effort is being made on the battlefield, in kitchens, and in reception centers for refugees. They have become the face of Ukraine’s suffering and won the global perception battle for their country. The story of Ukrainian mothers especially is one of longing, uncertainty, and a frail hope that one day they will go back to their homes and gardens and hopefully see their children and husbands they have had to leave behind. 

Liza Moroz said a full-fledged attack on her city, Odesa, is only a matter of time, and she is worried for her compatriots but also for Igor, the love of her life. Will she meet him again? She was speechless, she said, when Igor waved her goodbye from the platform at Odesa’s train station. “Stay safe, my love,” is all she could muster the strength to whisper. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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