The 15 children have lived here ever since, under the care of the orphanage’s director, Volodymyr Sahaidak, 61, and under the supervision of Russian soldiers.
But the Russians were unaware that there were about a dozen other local children – including Katia – living in the same neighborhood. Whenever the Russians came, the teachers would hide the children in their rooms, Katia recalled, “for a nap.”
Now the teachers were afraid that the Russians would find those children and take them away. So a small group of staff came up with a secret plan to sneak the kids out and hide them in their own house.
As Ukrainians liberate towns and villages previously occupied by Russian forces, residents have shared countless stories of Ukrainian children being taken away.
Where the children are eventually taken – and the circumstances of their movements – is often difficult to confirm. But many of the children resemble Katia and her peers – orphans or children with learning disabilities, who were already in public care. They are the youngest, most vulnerable Ukrainians and wartime has been particularly dangerous for them.
Joy ride: Kherson cheers as the first post-occupation train pulls in from Kiev
One of the orphanage’s teachers, Halyna Kulakovska, 44, had heard stories like this in the nearby town of Kherson, a regional capital that was occupied by the Russians in early March. Kulakovska said she had heard of dozens of newborns taken from a daycare center in the city and six students forcibly evacuated from their dormitories. Kulakovska wouldn’t let that happen to the children in her care.
Kulakovska and Sahaidak, the director, helped most of the 12 or so Kherson children in their center reunite with relatives and relatives. There were only three children left: Katia and two boys, Vlad, 16, and Misha, 9. The Washington Post identifies the children by their first names only to protect their privacy and safety.
Katia, Vlad and Misha spent 11 days hiding in a nurse’s house near the orphanage. But as the Russians prepared to withdraw from the area, Kulakovska feared they would find out their whereabouts, as they were still close by. So she decided to take them to her own house in the city of Kherson.
“I didn’t have time to think about it,” Kulakovska said. “There is a Ukrainian wordtreba, that means, “You have to do it.” I had to do it. I am responsible for the lives of these children… we had to protect them.”
Before the war began, 52 children lived in the Pink Wall Orphanage, a center for social and psychological rehabilitation in the Kherson suburb of Stepanivka. In Ukraine, parents who feel they cannot take care of their children physically or financially can temporarily hand them over to the state.
At the beginning of the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, many children were picked up by relatives. Some kids who were old enough managed to apply to colleges and leave. But the remaining dozen students had to live with the sound of constant shelling just one village away.
Ukraine faces tougher struggles to extend battlefield victories
During a recent visit by Post journalists, a set of Legos still lay on a table in one of the home’s common areas, right next to a cracked window, marking a spot where an explosion sent shrapnel flying at the orphanage. Six boys were sleeping in the next room at the time.
One of them was 9-year-old Misha, who remembered a teacher telling him to fall to the floor quickly.
“It was just a strange feeling,” he said. But he said he was not afraid.
The boy’s father is in jail and his mother has died, his teacher said; although the 9-year-old seems to believe his mother is still alive.
The children got so used to the sound of explosions that they knew how to determine if the shelling was close – and whether to keep playing football or run inside. But after the Russians entered the city, the air suddenly grew quieter.
“They were uncomfortable when it got quiet,” said one of their teachers.
Katia vividly remembers the day the soldiers arrived. Two Russians in military uniform – one of them bald and with a beard – entered the center that day, along with the 15 children from the Mykolaiv region, their headmistress and her husband.
The children said they had been living in a basement for three months and that three girls from their center had died after being hit by cluster munitions.
The Russians told the orphanage staff that they had brought them to get them away from the front lines and into a safer area. When they first arrived in Stepanivka, the children thought they were in Russia. They were scared, didn’t want to be hugged or touched, Kulakovska said.
“But once they heard Ukrainian, they were able to relax,” says Tetiana Drobitko, 56, one of the orphanage teachers. The children watched cartoons for the first time in months. They puzzled together with the Kherson children.
But whenever the Russians showed up, the Kherson children would rush to their rooms to hide.
One Monday, a Russian soldier walked into their computer room and was furious to find a toy ship on which a teenager had scribbled a phrase with an expletive that became popular in Ukraine early in the war: “Russian warship, go…yourself. “
In mid-October, as the Russians prepared to evacuate, in anticipation of a withdrawal from Kherson, Sahaidak said he knew he couldn’t stop them from taking the Mykolaiv children with them. But they can at least try to prevent the local children from being taken away, he said.
The town of Kherson was still under Russian control when Kulakovska took the children to her apartment, across the street from a building she knew Russians lived in. So she gave them rules to follow: always stay close to her when they leave the house. Never mention the orphanage. Avoid talking to strangers, and if anyone asks, say that Kulakovska was their aunt. Even Kulakovska’s neighbors were told that the children were her cousins.
Covert Kherson resistance fighters undermined the Russian occupiers
On November 12, the teacher and three children were walking in their neighborhood when they saw Ukrainian flags in the streets. Kherson was freed.
For weeks, the teachers and children wondered what had happened to the group from the Mykolaiv region. They assumed the children would end up in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
During their journey, Sahaidak used the Telegram app to secretly keep in touch with the headmistress of the Mykolaiv children, who was trying to find a way for the children to escape the Russians. He also teamed up with an American volunteer to track the group’s whereabouts. On Friday, he was stunned to learn from the headmistress that she and her group had somehow managed to make it to Georgia.
Sahaidak declined to share additional details fearing it would jeopardize their safe return home. But he said he expected the children to return to Ukraine soon.
Sahaidak said he hoped the children would return here, to the orphanage they called home for months, where their clothes are kept in plastic bags.
“They’re our children too,” he said.