KYIV—On Christmas morning, a popular app that notifies Ukraine’s residents of danger showed the entire country as a red zone—Russia was shelling again. Heavy anti-aircraft booms could be heard somewhere on Kyiv’s outskirts, and authorities warned of fighter jets in the air above Belarus that could carry hypersonic missiles. But despite the ongoing missile strikes and significant power shortages that have plunged the city into darkness, Kyiv is doing its best to create a warm and loving Christmas mood for Ukraine’s children.
Several Santas brought Christmas presents to Kyiv’s major children’s hospital, Ohmatdyt, this week. “There are at least 720 children at our hospital. Many of them were wounded during the war,” the hospital’s head doctor, Volodymyr Zhovner, told The Daily Beast on Christmas day.
One of his patients, 13-year-old Katia, lost her mother to a missile strike on a railway station in Kramatorsk earlier this year. Katia was still weak and moving around in a wheelchair after her latest surgery earlier this month. During an air-raid alert, she moved into the hallway of the hospital—it’s safer to be between two walls, she said. “My hometown is under constant attacks, it’s too dangerous to return there,” Katia told The Daily Beast. “I currently have no home to go to, so my Christmas wish is to get my own apartment in Kyiv one day,” she added.
The head of the Foundation of Ukraine’s Humanitarian Development, Natalia Zabolotna, has been working as a Santa Claus, delivering huge Christmas gifts all week at the Ohmatdyt hospital, where hundreds of children are dealing with brutal physical injuries like missing limbs from Russian artillery attacks—and, often, the pain of having lost beloved family members as well. “Katia is a very intelligent girl, she loves to draw. She is terrified of losing her shelter at this hospital, so she is happy to continue her treatment,” Zabolotna said. “We see too many Ukrainian kids who have lost everything, both their families and homes.”
Earlier this month, Zabolotna called for her Facebook friends to help and many donated Christmas gifts to the hospital. The children enjoyed opening their new giant toy animals with cozy blankets hidden inside their bellies.
On Christmas Eve, Ukraine reported that 450 children had been killed in the war and 867 wounded. Fourteen-year-old Artem Gomonyuk is one of those recently wounded. Before the war, Artem was playing clarinet, saxophone, and he had just started taking piano classes. But a Russian air strike on his city of Kherson on November 21 terribly injured Artem. He could not move his leg—it turned blue due to poor blood circulation—and there was shrapnel in his stomach. The strike also wounded his mother, Olena—she was standing by his piano when the missile hit the street.
A series of complicated surgeries, performed first in Kherson and then at at the Ohmatdyt hospital, have given Olena and Artem hope that he might one day walk on his leg again. “This is a real Christmas miracle—the doctors have saved Artem from amputation, he is recovering,” Olena told The Daily Beast in an interview on Sunday.
Artem and Olena were upset about their home town suffering from artillery strikes again: “No children should ever see the war, no children should be suffering from this war, but nothing stops Russia from attacking civilians, families and kids even on Christmas.”
Outside the hospital, crowds of adults and children gathered around the Invincibility Christmas Tree on Soviifska square. It was the only brightly illuminated spot in Kyiv’s dark downtown. The city’s official symbol and coat of arms decorated the tree top, shining brightly and proudly in the dark with blue and yellow lights. A girl in a pink winter coat was posing for pictures in front of a sculpture called Children Should Not See the War. “The Christmas tree gives me hope and warmth. I don’t want to walk away from here,” 10-year-old Liza shared with The Daily Beast.