Bombs shrieked overhead as Anastasia Piddubna’s contractions quickened. The war had robbed the hospital basement where she was in labour of both power and water.
The only warmth to protect her from the -5c degree chill blasting through holes in the walls was a coat flung over her shivering body; the only light in the makeshift birthing centre in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol was the torch from smartphones.
Having been evacuated here after surviving Russia’s barbaric attack on the city’s Maternity Hospital No. 3 last March — an atrocity described by President Zelensky as a war crime — Anastasia had been in labour for almost 20 hours.
Her baby was too big for a natural birth, doctors warned, but they had nothing with which to perform a Caesarean section.
‘I was told the baby could not survive. I was giving birth under fire, with my hands over my ears because it was so loud,’ says Anastasia, 26. ‘I felt desperate, realising my baby was in such danger. I was praying to God to help me — and this miracle happened. My body found a way to push him out naturally.’
‘I was told the baby could not survive. I was giving birth under fire, with my hands over my ears because it was so loud,’ says Anastasia Piddubna. The 26-year-old is pictured with her son, Damir, now 11 months old
Her son, Damir, is now 11 months old, gurgling in the background with his grandparents as Anastasia talks to me via an interpreter on a video call.
She weeps as she recalls the terror she felt at what should have been such a euphoric moment: ‘You’re supposed to be happy that you’re giving birth, but you can’t guarantee you’ll stay alive, so how can you keep your baby safe?’
Tomorrow marks a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, destroying swathes of the country, tearing apart families and killing more than 9,000 civilians.
But amid the carnage, life still begins, of course, as the striking pictures of babies being pulled from the earthquake rubble in Turkey and Syria recently reminded us.
According to Save the Children, around 900 babies have been born in Ukraine every day since the war started. Often they arrive in unimaginable circumstances. There have been 703 attacks on the country’s health infrastructure, including on hospitals and maternity wards, stripping a once developed country of basic medical supplies.
Even when births are straightforward, bringing up a baby in a country ravaged by war is anything but. On this bleakest of anniversaries, I found Ukrainian mothers still reeling from their shattered expectations of parenthood. But their babies have offered hope, too — a ray of light in the darkness. As Anastasia says: ‘This baby kept my family going.’
She was eight months pregnant when Russia invaded, about to take leave from her career as a radio presenter and living with her sales manager husband, Vladyslav, in Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine.
They’d thrown a gender-reveal party that showed they were expecting a boy and had spared no expense on toys and baby paraphernalia.
But Mariupol, a major strategic city for the Russians, was one of the first areas to come under attack.
Seraphine Chykiriakina, 24, a translator, gave birth a day after a kamikaze drone attack, forcing her into a Kyiv hospital bomb shelter with her newborn
As shelling started, the terrified couple fled to Anastasia’s parents’ house in another neighbourhood, to be safer. ‘I didn’t want to leave Mariupol,’ says Anastasia. Besides, she adds, ‘it was already impossible — they were shooting all around.’
At the beginning of March, friends sent her a video to show her entire property had been destroyed by a missile. ‘Only the walls remained,’ says Anastasia who explains with no self-pity that she quickly had to ‘get used to’ a life without possessions: ‘I understood that my baby and being alive were what mattered.’
With every bombing, the family rushed to the basement. ‘There was constant stress. I needed a place where I could wait safely for the baby to be born,’ Anastasia says. ‘The only option was to go to hospital early.’
She’d been in the bomb shelter in Maternity Hospital No. 3 for four days when the Russian air strike hit on March 9, leaving scenes that horrified the world. It killed three people, including a child, and injured 17.
Anastasia, sitting in the freezing shelter with her ten-year-old brother, recalls hearing a ‘huge’ noise, ‘and behind me was a wooden door that fell on my head and shattered.
‘There was dust everywhere. People were shouting and moaning. I was praying my baby’s heart hadn’t stopped’.
Pregnant women and new mothers were pushed in from wards upstairs. Her parents and husband had been in the yard outside the hospital, preparing food, and were also rushed to the shelter.
‘My mum was unconscious. My husband was covered in blood. We could barely see each other but I could hear his voice telling me that everything was OK.’
After several hours, Anastasia was evacuated. ‘Everything was on fire,’ she recalls. Her husband drove her and her brother to another hospital, through scenes the Red Cross would later describe as ‘apocalyptic’.
Such was the chaos, Anastasia wasn’t sure if her parents, taken to another hospital for treatment, had survived. She, Vladyslav and her brother remained in the hospital’s basement with no news from the outside world until she gave birth to Damir on March 22, after which they stayed there for another 19 days. ‘We were in a damp mouldy basement. Our baby was yellow. There was no joy, no daylight. I was constantly in fear,’ Anastasia says.
So on April 10, they cleared their car of glass that had fallen into it from shelling and drove with Anastasia’s brother to a camp set up by Russia, under international pressure, to allow civilians to evacuate.
They then spent a week driving to Holland, where Vladyslav had family connections. ‘Damir was in my arms. Every day we drove for 12 hours,’ says Anastasia, whose parents later joined them in the western Netherlands, where Vladyslav now works in construction.
An image from March last year shows the aftermath of a shell bombardment on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine
She has seen a psychologist but has yet to fall asleep without thinking of war. ‘This is a wound that will never heal’ says Anastasia, who dreams, above all, of bringing up her son in Ukraine.
Yet despite the horror of her baby’s entrance into the world, many will consider Anastasia one of the lucky ones. Life for new mothers who remain in Ukraine is all too often one of power cuts, food scarcity and the buzz of fear.
Those usual rhythms of early motherhood — trips to the park, bonding with other mums at play groups — are a world away.
Women are often forced to flee to other areas of the country, like Iryna Prikhodko, 30, who was eight months pregnant when war broke out in Kharkiv, a city on the north-eastern border heavily targeted by Russia.
‘The stress was constant. There was no water or electricity,’ says Iryna, who lived with her husband in a flat on the outskirts and recalls shelling all day and all night throughout March.
‘We moved into the entrance to try to keep safe,’ she says. ‘At night there was such a huge explosion the whole building shook. We held hands, told our son he would survive, and be born healthy, and everything would be fine.’
As her due date approached the couple drove for four days to Vinnytsia in western Ukraine, where they had family. After Konstantin was delivered by Caesarean section on March 13, Iryna says, ‘there were tears of happiness’. But there were also air-raid sirens, each one forcing her to hurry into a basement shelter in another building, despite her recent surgery.
‘I was in pain. It was freezing. Children were crying, and apart from rocking your baby, you didn’t know what to do,’ recalls Iryna.
Heavily pregnant mother-to-be Mariana Vishegirskaya walks down stairs in a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol in March
Since returning to Kharkiv after the Ukrainians defeated Russian forces there last May, she has accepted a grim new normality.
‘We don’t go anywhere except the shops,’ says Iryna. ‘It’s strange and sad. Our son doesn’t understand this tragedy yet, but as parents, we will teach him what is good and what is evil.’
Katerina Mykhalko, 26, from Kyiv, was six months pregnant when war started. She has an older daughter, Christina, six, and refused to leave Ukraine.
‘I didn’t want to leave my husband,’ she explains.
It was three months after giving birth to daughter Stephania in Kyiv on June 8 before she had her first post-natal appointment, and she still struggles to find baby food. ‘I am angry that people are dying and children are suffering,’ she says.
Her baby, however, is her greatest reminder that ‘life goes on’.
For months, Kyiv successfully defended itself from the worst of the devastation.
But on October 17 that all changed when Russia launched 28 kamikaze drones, purportedly in response to the bombing of the bridge between Russia and Crimea a week earlier.
The attack happened a day after Seraphine Chykiriakina, 24, a translator, had given birth, forcing her into a Kyiv hospital bomb shelter with her newborn.
‘I was crying, broken inside,’ says Seraphine. She had found out she was pregnant a fortnight before war broke out last February.
She and her husband Denis, 31, a logistics expert, watched Kyiv empty from their fifth-floor flat. ‘It was like an apocalyptic city,’ she says. The couple began sleeping in their car in the basement to feel safer. Food shortages meant walking several kilometres to find something to eat.
‘Being pregnant made me more vulnerable. I worried the stress would hurt my baby,’ she says. ‘I had nightmares about my baby being under missiles.’
When her son, Leon, was born on October 16, she recalls: ‘I felt relief, that he was so beautiful and healthy.’ Yet at 8am the following morning, as she slept in a maternity hospital in central Kyiv, a deafening missile landed nearby.
A nurse rushed in and told everyone to run to the bomb shelter underneath the hospital. Hours after giving birth, Seraphine says, she could barely walk, let alone run. ‘It was still too painful for me to sit. There was first aid for the babies, but no food.’
When they were allowed home, she says, ‘we thought: ‘Thank God we’re alive.’ Yet a week later Russia attacked Ukraine’s energy sites, leaving 1.5 million homes without electricity every day, ‘sometimes two,’ says Seraphine.
Daily power cuts still mean Seraphine can’t heat food. ‘Thank God I am breastfeeding because I can’t imagine how mums prepare milk,’ she says.
Her dreams of something as simple as taking Leon to baby swimming lessons have gone — ‘before the war we had so many opportunities, but none of the pools is working’ — and the danger to the young (the UN estimates that at least 1,170 children have been killed or injured in Ukraine since last February) is ever present.
‘Sometimes I’m afraid to go out,’ says Seraphine. ‘One day we were walking and there was an airstrike nearby. The baby shuddered and screamed, and I started crying.’
Still, she won’t contemplate leaving the country and man she loves. But nor does she expect the fighting to end soon.
She adds, despairingly: ‘I don’t want my son to grow up in war.’ A sentiment that is surely echoed by every parent in Ukraine.
Additional reporting: ANASTASIA KOMAROVA