History teacher remains in Mariupol, Ukraine, to care for children left behind

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(LONDON) — A 33-year-old teacher remains in Ukraine’s southeastern city, Mariupol, to care for children trapped there amid the conflict.

The strategic port city is in dire condition. Food and water are scarce, shops have been looted, fuel is sold for over 30 times more than what it used to be two weeks ago, and dead bodies are left behind on the streets without anyone clearing them.

“I stay in town no matter what. I said I won’t leave my children even if I’m killed,” Oleksiya Kayokhtin, who said he has taught history for ten years in Mariupol, told ABC News.

In a latest strike on the city, a children’s hospital and maternity ward in the city were destroyed Wednesday afternoon by a Russian airstrike, Ukrainian officials said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova denied the hospital was hit by Russian forces, and claimed that Ukrainian forces were using it for “firing positions.”

Kayokhtin spoke with ABC News standing near a mobile connection tower — the only way to establish a cellphone connection now in Mariupol.

“When I heard Putin’s announcement of war on February 24, we evacuated a whole orphanage to Zaporizhia — 130 kids and two buses of women and kids,” Kayokhtin said.

Soon after, attacks intensified and Russian forces took control of some of the city’s roads. But still, Kayokhtin said that he refused to evacuate the town despite many of his friends advising him to leave and offering help to do so. Instead, he said he started to find a way to secure the life of the children who were not evacuated.

He said with help from a local businessman “who has a big bomb shelter” they took the kids to the shelter, as well as senior and disabled people.

Currently there are 400 kids, among them 100 who are disabled and in wheelchairs, he said.

“The children are frightened, very frightened… They often cry. This morning during another airstrike they burst out crying again,” Kayokhtin said.

With buildings in ruins after shelling, and many dead and left under debris, some children have also been left stranded on the streets. Kayokhtin said he takes these children to the shelter.

“Those who are left without parents ask, ‘Where’s mom, where’s dad.?’ The adults say that it will end soon, that we have to stay here for a moment. We don’t pressure the kids asking where their parents are, maybe they ran out and never returned… We don’t ask them a lot of questions not to cause a trauma,” he said.

The immediate need that Kayokhtin says he is working hard on is providing food and warm clothes for all the people in the shelter.

“We need warm clothes because the basements are damp and cold. The shops were looted, so we gave the kids all we had to warm them,” he said.

“When we manage to get some flour, we add some water and bake dough in pans,” he added.

With the shops looted and the closed roads, prices have soared, it has become very difficult for Kayokhtin, his children and everyone else left in town to survive.

“We try to buy [food] under the table, but you can be even killed for food in the streets. People take water from the river so it’s OK for now, but if someone notices that you have food… this is horror, you will be attacked,” he described the situation.

Another struggle, he said, is emerging from their bunker to find and buy food, bringing them in contact with military forces on the street. He said it is also difficult to secure fuel.

“Gas stations were blown up. We managed to get petroleum 1000 UAH (over $30 USD) per liter,” the teacher said. Oil prices were around 30 UAH per liter before the war broke.

But these are not his only concerns.

“We were driving past the so-called DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic), bringing bread. And the troops started shooting for some reason, although there’s a sign of humanitarian aid on our car,” Kayokhtin described one of his drives outside to get food. “Somehow God helped us, we drove to the side and the projectile exploded just 50m from us,” he added.

The history teacher says is helped along with two other people who have stayed with him in the bunker– a medical worker and a driver — both volunteers.

He says all they hope for is an end to the war, so they do not need to leave the country and their children are safe.

“I hope I will stay in my native land and continue teaching,” Kayokhtin said.

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