Along with other people, the war in Ukraine has displaced thousands of orphans. On January 6 every year, the World Day of War Orphans is observed in order to raise awareness of their difficult lives.
When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022, the country had approximately 105,000 orphans – over 1 percent of the Ukrainian child population – under its care. They became defenseless victims of Russian aggression.
Amid the chaos, many of these children were released to their families and guardians, or were sent abroad in order to prevent them from remaining behind in the midst of hostilities.
These included 49 boys from an orphanage in Lviv located 250 kilometers from the Slovak border.
However, their transport here was not easy and free of danger.
On the very day of the invasion, Russian missiles struck an army base near Lviv, the children panicking and forced to hide. When Russia started to strike other cities and the war drew close, the children grew restless. Two days after the invasion started, the Salesians who ran the orphanage realized that the war would not end soon and they would have difficulties taking care of the children, not to mention keeping them safe.
Head of the Ukrainian Salesians, Provincial Mykhayl Chaban, then contacted Slovak priest and former provincial Karol Maník, who did not hesitate and immediately decided to help. In just a day they organized a bus that transported the children to the Slovak-Ukraine border. Air-raid sirens went off just as they were about to depart.
The trip took ten hours, reaching the border in the evening. They then had to endure the necessary administrative issues due to being war refugees and arriving without legal representatives. The children finally found themselves safe in Slovakia in the early morning of the next day.
At the same time, people both known and unknown to Karol Maník spontaneously offered help for the beleaguered Ukrainians. Together, they filled a bus with material aid and food that was sent to Ukraine.
After a difficult journey the boys spent their first days in the peaceful village of Drienica, eastern Slovakia, in the kind care of the Salesians.
In summer, most of the boys returned to Lviv because their caretakers considered that the situation had become sufficiently safe. Twelve boys decided to stay in Slovakia and to this day are happily living and being taken care of in Salesian homes. They want to finish their education and learn to become car mechanics, cooks and masons. Two are in the ninth grade.
But the sad reality is that the number of orphaned children in Ukraine has risen since the war started. Many saw their parents die in front of them after shelling hit their towns.
Slovakia has taken in dozens of more orphans in addition to these boys. These include children from orphanages in other Ukrainian cities, those who came alone because their parents had to stay behind, or in the company of relatives such as grandparents. The experienced UNICEF team that had handled the migration crisis in Italy even came to Slovakia to share best practices.
The senseless war that Russia started has caused immense pain, leaving an untold number of children without a safe childhood. The Slovak government, Slovaks themselves, NGOs and church representatives are doing everything possible to end the suffering of innocent war victims as soon as possible.