KHERSON — The sound of children’s footsteps echoed along a school hallway in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson as pupils gathered to board a coach marked “Evacuation”.
Ms Nadiya Kondratkova stood surrounded by suitcases, her crimson lips trembling and her eyes filled with tears. This was the first time she had parted from her daughters.
“They have to get some rest far away from the explosions and sirens,” Ms Nadiya said, explaining her decision to send them away.
“They’re exhausted,” she told AFP. “They can’t sleep any more and they scream at night.”
The city has suffered daily attacks since it was recaptured by Ukrainian forces last November, after eight months under Russian occupation.
It lies on the Ukrainian-controlled west bank of the Dnipro river, the de-facto front line between the two warring sides.
But as Ukrainian troops launch attacks east of the river and Russian strikes intensify, parents now face a daunting choice: face the bombs as a family or get at least their children to safety.
Amid the growing danger, local officials set up a programme to temporarily evacuate children to a holiday camp nestled in the idyllic mountains of western Ukraine.
“Our task is to get the children to a place of safety for a few months,” said Kherson official Anton Yefanov, standing next to a bus preparing to evacuate 65 children on top of the more than 280 already taken to safety.
“We’ve been feeling it’s getting more dangerous because there is more and more shelling,” he said.
Thuds of distant explosions sounded in the distance, while families of the evacuees chatted, alternating between laughter and tears.
“I don’t know when I’ll see them again,” Ms Kondratkova said.
“I’m afraid to be in Kherson but I’m used to that. I lived through the occupation.”
‘FORGET THE WAR’
Ukraine says over 500 children have been killed since Russia invaded in February last year, a grim milestone in the more than 20-month conflict.
Yet not all families in Kherson are willing to separate, despite the calls to evacuate.
Mr Volodymyr and Mrs Maryna Pсhelnyk, both in their 40s, said they preferred to keep their children with them, “even if it is dangerous”.
Their 11-year-old daughter Dariya darted around dressed as a witch for Halloween outside their flower stall in the city’s central market, while Mr Volodymyr applied red makeup around the eyes of her six-year-old sister, Anna.
“I am death, I hide in the shadows!” Dariya chanted, wrapped in a black cape.
“We celebrate Halloween to forget the war,” Mr Volodymyr said, smiling.
“They miss their friends. Many have gone abroad and to other cities.”
The girls, draped a sheet printed with cobwebs and bats, ran around bumping into elderly neighbours out shopping.
“It’s difficult to be a parent at the moment. It’s difficult to explain to a child what’s happening without traumatising them. We tell them to be more careful, to listen out for the sirens.”
He and his wife try to take their children to playgrounds “before the sirens,” he said, “so that they don’t forget there is warmth, cheeriness, happiness, and not just tragedy and death.”
Children are a rare sight in Kherson. A few fly kites in play areas protected by sandbags or go out with their parents after dark when there are fewer air raids.