They have left their homes, their friends and their schools far behind, with only a few favourite toys to remind them of their old, familiar lives.
Now, these Ukrainian children have found safety in an unexpected place.
Children’s drawings are tacked to the walls alongside bus timetables and a small poster advertising veterinary services. A hand-drawn arrow points to the nearest WC. Further down the corridor, a washing machine rumbles away.
Children's drawings are tacked to the walls inside the MoldExpo exhibition centre. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
This is MoldExpo – an international exhibition centre in the west of Chisinau, capital of the Republic of Moldova.
Normally, the centre plays host to major events such as food fairs, technology exhibitions and fashion shows. But today it is fulfilling an even more important purpose.
For MoldExpo has been converted into a temporary home for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
The centre can accommodate up to 450 refugees and is run by Expo staff, supported by volunteers. It’s a striking example of the hospitality being shown by the Moldovan people as they mobilise to meet the enormous and sudden needs. Photo: Paul Ireland/NRC
On a recent visit to Moldova, we met some of the children – and their parents – who have found sanctuary here.
Here are their stories.
“I told him we were going to the seaside”
Oxana, 35, and Yura, 4, from Mykolaiv
“Yura understood that it was a war. The problem was that we needed to stay inside all the time. For him it was important to go outside, because he has a lot of energy.
Yura, 4, plays in the corridor outside the cubicle he shares with his mother. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We understood that we needed to leave when the bombing was a few kilometres from our homes. When people started to be shot at while they were driving their cars. I knew we needed to go because my boy needs to be safe. I did not want to regret it afterwards.
“The scariest thing was to hear the planes flying near the ground. That sound is awful.
“It’s fine here at MoldExpo. We have food, water and a bed. The volunteers here are so friendly. They help us with our documents. They support us and tell us to sleep and that we are away from danger now. This is exactly what we need right now.
“For my boy, it is great that he has a lot of places to play here, and also that there are a lot of children. He likes to play with cars, to play with other children.
“It is great that he has a lot of places to play here,” says Yura’s mother. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“He didn’t want to leave Ukraine, because he understood that his grandmother wouldn’t come with us. I was anxious. I told him that we were going to the seaside for a holiday. And now he is okay with our trip.
“We want to return to Ukraine. But it all depends on the situation.”
“The only thing I brought with me is my notebook”
Sasha, 14, from Odesa
“Odesa is about the atmosphere. Those who have been to Odesa, they know what I am talking about. I didn’t want to leave my house or my country.
“I like to spend my time boxing and playing volleyball. I was at school on 24 February, and we had a plan to go to a regional volleyball competition.
Sasha, 14, shows his sketchbook of drawings. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We decided to leave when we saw the warships on the horizon. My mum said that we needed to go.
“We left our house and went to our relatives about 100 km away from Odesa. After a week we returned. When the situation got worse, we decided to leave the country.
“The only thing I brought with me is my sketchbook with my drawings. I try to draw people, anime-style. For me, this is how I spend my free time: sport and drawing.
One of Sasha’s drawings. “I try to draw people, anime-style,” he says. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“I want to play volleyball really well and play for a famous team.”
“I only have my toy panda”
Tatiana, 8, from Bucha
“In Bucha is my friend Solea and I miss her.
“I like to play, to paint nature and to go for a walk with my parents.
“Panda is the toy that I like the most,” says eight-year-old Tatiana. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“I only have my toy panda. Panda is the toy that I like the most. Her eyes and nose sparkle.”
“I have a photo so my daughter can see who her father is”
Stela, 25, and Mihaela, 1, from Odesa
“I told the children all the time that everything was fine. We boarded up the windows and slept on the floor on mattresses.
Stela, 25, with her one-year-old daughter Mihaela. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“My days were grey, without sun or positive emotions, and full of fear.
“We decided to leave home because it was really scary to sleep. The noise of the fighter planes was so horrible at night. For the last ten days I struggled to sleep because of the noise of the planes. It was at night, but all day as well.”
“I have with me my husband’s photo and a toy mouse which was a present at New Year three years ago when I was pregnant. This mouse is the only thing that I have from him.
“This mouse is the only thing that I have from my husband,” says Stela. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We broke up, but I have this photo to share with my daughter so she can see who her father is.”
“Mark is a child of the war”
Zinaida, 65, and Mark, 1 month, from Mykolaiv
“I am here with my daughter and my grandchildren. We have been here for four days.
“I am a business owner and have a store in Mykolaiv. We were ready to plant seedlings and grow vegetables for our store. But then the war came…
Zinaida, 65, with her one-month-old grandson Mark. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We lived underground for about seven days. It is really hard with small children. When the bombing stopped for a few minutes, we tried to find water and medicine before returning underground.
“We decided to leave when we got the chance. We left our home without any of our belongings. At MoldExpo we were given clothes, food, and a bed to sleep on. The volunteers are friendly and ask all the time if we need anything. We help each other.
“Mark is a child of the war,” says his grandmother Zinaida. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“Mark is a child of the war. We will tell him about the war like my grandmother told me about the war. I want him to live in Ukraine, to defend the country like our soldiers.”
“One day I want to have an exhibition of my paintings”
Artur, 12, from Bucha
“I was scared of the noise of the fighter planes. There was a lot of noise, and the car alarm started going off. The windscreen was shattered by the bombings near our house, 700 metres away.
“We had had our bags packed since autumn. On 22 February we had this fear that something would happen.
“I like to paint nature,” says Artur. Photo: private
“I miss my friends. I don’t know if we will see each other again. I have been texting them, as some of them don’t have an internet connection. And I have my mobile phone with photos.
“Our house was bombed. We only have our documents.
“One day I want to have an exhibition of my paintings. I like to paint nature.”
“We try to be strong when the children see us”
Tatiana, 39, and Alisa, 10, from Mykolaiv
Tatiana, 39: “I am with my daughter Alisa, my mom, sister and niece Dasha.
“My town Mykolaiv was bombed. I was really scared. We can distinguish the different sounds – when Ukrainians are shooting, when it is a plane or a grenade. But we try to be strong when the children see us.
Tatiana (left) and her family prepare to make their way to Chisinau after crossing the border. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We closed up our house and left. We asked our neighbours to take care of our dogs and cats. We need to keep our children safe.
“When we arrived in Moldova it was like when you leave a dark forest and see the sun. Now we are safe, but we are afraid that we don’t have concrete plans for the future.”
“Now I feel safe,” says Alisa. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
Alisa, 10: “I left home with my hamsters. I left my grandmother in Ukraine. I was afraid because of all the noise. Now I feel safe. I am in 4th grade and I like maths. I want to go home.
“Anea asked to bring her kite with her”
Sasha, 29, and Anea, 6, from Odesa
“We decided to leave our country on 26 February, when the war started, to keep our children safe. My husband can’t fight because he has health problems.
“Anea asked to bring her kite with her. The kite is her favourite toy. She needs to go to school this year, but I don’t know if she will be able to go.
Alisa flies her kite outside the MoldExpo centre. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“We want to go home. Our parents told us to return. But I can’t – I have children.
“Anea understands that she isn’t at home and that we can’t go back because of the war. She didn’t see the horrors, because we left.
“The kite is Alisa’s favourite toy,” says her mother Sasha. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
“For three days we were silent and stayed inside without talking. Now we can smile.
“We will return to Odesa and play with the kite on the beach.”
Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC