On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Svetlana found it hard to believe that what she was watching on the news was really happening.
Things were calm in her home town, Bila Tserkva, a historic city on a winding river 80km (50 miles) south of Kyiv.
Then the explosions began.
Svetlana and her husband dragged their mattresses into the corridor of their apartment building and huddled there with their three children. The noise of the sirens was constant and they didn’t sleep for days.
Thousands of miles away in Australia, Emma Micallif was frantically messaging. The two women are intimately connected because Svetlana is pregnant with Emma’s second child. As rockets fell on Bila Tserkva Emma felt angry and helpless.
For six months the two mums had chatted back and forth using a translation app. They shared pictures of their children, discussed the things they liked to bake with their kids or moaned about the stress of pandemic home-schooling.
Now they were trying to co-ordinate an evacuation.
“I thought having cancer was stressful or having a baby while having treatment was stressful or having round after round of IVF and it not working was stressful,” Emma says. “But it just does not compare.”
With the help of the surrogacy agency, Emma got in touch with two other parents who had surrogates in Ukraine. They found a bus that would take the three women and their 10 children on an 18-hour trip to the Moldovan border.
When they finally got to the Moldovan capital they were crammed into a small apartment. Emma was horrified when she heard that there weren’t enough beds. “Our lovely, pregnant Svetlana was sleeping on the floor,” she says.
But Svetlana was too devastated to care. She had left her husband behind in Ukraine and her mother had fled to Germany. When her mother calls she just cries down the phone.
“It hurts so much that this war is tearing families apart,” she told me. “I feel safe in Moldova but my heart is in Ukraine.”
More than 2,000 children are born through surrogacy every year in Ukraine, the majority to foreign couples. The country has around 50 reproductive clinics and many agencies and middle-men who match couples – known as “intended parents” – to surrogates.
Ukraine is a popular choice because of the way its laws on surrogacy are written. In many European countries, including the UK, when a surrogate gives birth she is listed as the mother on the birth certificate. If she is married, her husband will be listed as the father. In Ukraine the intended parents are listed as mother and father. That means getting the baby a passport and bringing them home is much simpler.
The agency that Emma and Svetlana are using is small – it is currently managing nine surrogacies – but Ukraine’s biggest agency currently has 500 surrogates at different stages of pregnancy.
Forty-one babies in its care are stranded in Kyiv, because their intended parents, from all over the world, have been prevented from collecting them by the war. Many of these children are being cared for in a basement nursery in Kyiv as Russian forces sit outside the city and shell it.
Every day more children are born, but since the invasion only nine sets of parents have risked the journey to Kyiv to pick up their babies. Another five have arranged remote pick-ups. “If nothing changes in the near future, we may have 100 babies under our care,” says Denys Herman, the agency’s legal adviser.
The company has been grappling with whether to move the babies out of Kyiv to a safer location in western Ukraine, but transporting them in a war zone also carries risks.
It’s not just Denys Herman who has a problem with stranded babies.
Nastya was saving up to buy a house in Kharkiv, where she lives with her two young boys, and coming to the end of her second surrogate pregnancy. When the war broke out she was only weeks from her due date and went into labour to give birth to twins a few days later.
“We spent the entire time in the hospital in a bomb shelter,” she says. Kharkiv was under heavy bombardment and the hospital’s basement was packed from wall to wall with mattresses and baby cribs. She camped out in a storage room with her two children, sleeping on sofa cushions on the floor, underneath shelves piled high with files and paperwork.
“But the doctors were wonderful, I am very grateful to them,” she says. She gave birth to two healthy boys.
A week later she left the hospital. Kharkiv was still under attack and the foreign parents couldn’t get there to collect the twins.
So, together with some staff from her agency, Nastya, her two sons and the new-born twins travelled across Ukraine. She cared for the babies while delivering them to their parents at the border. That was more than a week ago, and she hasn’t heard from them since.
When Emma envisages the family she wants, she thinks of the drive from her home in Canberra to her parent’s place in Sydney. She imagines looking into the back seat and seeing a gaggle of children. Instead, she has one. “It just feels like a hole in my life,” she says.
Five years ago while she was pregnant with her son, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The tumour was growing at an alarming rate, helped along by the hormones she produced in pregnancy. It was a rare medical event and when her son was born doctors crowded into the delivery room to observe.
“He came out perfect, he didn’t have to go into the neonatal ICU, so I felt very lucky,” she says. When her son was only five weeks old, she started intense radiation and chemotherapy which damaged her reproductive organs.
“I went into early menopause at 29. So that was delightful,” she says wryly.
In the five years since her cancer diagnosis, Emma’s every waking moment has been consumed by thoughts of how to conceive her second child. She and her husband went through 13 cycles of IVF which were traumatic and expensive, but none of the embryos would ultimately take. “Surrogacy is never anyone’s first pick but it comes as a result of a deep loss beforehand,” she says.
Emma and her husband, Alex, struggled to find a surrogate in Australia where only altruistic surrogacy is allowed. When they first heard about the option of Ukraine they were hesitant but they were reassured by other Australians who’d had a good experience.
With their first surrogate, two attempts at pregnancy didn’t take, causing further heartbreak. When they were matched with Svetlana and she got pregnant right away it felt like the battle was finally over.
“It was such a relief that we could stop fighting. We’d been in a state of fight or flight, as husband and wife, for so long.”
Before the war, the whole family had planned to travel to Ukraine. Emma had hoped to spend time with Svetlana so that she could tell her new child about her birth mother. With the baby due in a month that’s unlikely to happen now.
But for some intended parents the war is making the relationship with their surrogates even closer.
Christine (not her real name) woke up on the day of the invasion and felt sick. Her surrogate was in Zaporizhzhia, in the south-east of Ukraine, which would make headlines a few days later when its nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, was attacked by Russian forces.
Her surrogate, Tatiana (also not her real name) left for Poland that day with her six-year-old son. Christine marvels at her strength.
When she asked Tatiana if she was interested in coming to England Christine wasn’t sure how she would react. But she was delighted. “We can come next week,” she said. She is one of only four or five women applying for a bespoke visa created by the Home Office for surrogate mothers.
“The past few days have been unbearably traumatic in what’s already been a traumatic year,” Christine says.
Last January she and her husband lost a child, a daughter who was born prematurely and died at five weeks old. At one point during the delivery her husband was told he might have to choose between Christine and the baby. She was advised not to try again but she did and miscarried again. “Because I was impatient and grieving and wanting it now, we looked abroad.”
They found out Tatiana was pregnant in January this year. “It was kind of too good to be true,” she says.
On Sunday Christine flew to Poland to meet Tatiana for the first time. Both were nervous, but relaxed when a Polish doctor said the results of the first scan were good.
Now they are working hard to get to know each other, using Google translate. “Yesterday, we had a discussion about our spiritual beliefs, whether we believe in clairvoyance and all those things. It’s not just all about pregnancy,” she says.
The visa will last three years and Christine and her husband have invited Tatiana to stay with them for as long as she wants to, beyond the birth of their child.
Surrogacy is legal in the UK, but under English law the surrogate’s name will be on the birth certificate, along with Christine’s husband’s. Legal parenthood will then have to be transferred from Tatiana to Christine.
If the baby is born in a third country there are even more legal complications. And that’s left Svetlana, Emma and Alex with a dilemma.
Surrogacy is not permitted in Moldova. If the baby is born there, Svetlana will be its legal guardian. She could place it for adoption but then it could be years before Emma and Alex are allowed to take their child home.
So together they have come up with a plan for Svetlana to deliver the baby in a city close to the border.
Svetlana has mixed feelings about going back to Ukraine. “There’s shooting everywhere, homes are being reduced to rubble and the Russians are shelling maternity hospitals, kindergartens and schools,” she says.
On the other hand, she is desperate to see her husband, who can’t leave the country under the terms of Ukraine’s martial law.
For Emma, the idea of Svetlana returning to a war zone is hard to take. “If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d say ‘No, I wouldn’t do that.’ Because it’s just not what we should be doing. It’s not what should be happening,” she says.
One possible snag is that it could take weeks for the baby’s birth certificate to be issued. If that happens Emma and Alex are not sure what they will do.
The war has left thousands of surrogates and intended parents in equally terrible positions.
Cyrille, who is French, struggled to get in touch with his surrogate in Kharkiv for two weeks after the invasion. When eventually he did, he helped her to come to Paris where he hopes she will stay until she gives birth in August. But she has left her children in western Ukraine with their father, who didn’t want them to leave.
Natasha, a surrogate in Cherkasy is 10 weeks pregnant with the baby of a couple in the US. She is tormented by sirens, shelling and morning sickness. “This is not life, it’s a nightmare,” she says.
Just a few days before the war, I spoke to another surrogate who is pregnant with a baby girl for a couple in Spain. Maryna lived close to Svetlana in the town of Uzyn. When we spoke she was getting ready to move to Kyiv for the last two months of her pregnancy.
“Kyiv is always going to be a safe place because it’s so far from the Donbas,” she said.
Even after Russia invaded she struggled to imagine how bad things could get. “I really hope that a brain will appear in Putin’s head and he will start to withdraw his troops. Because Ukrainian and Russian mothers didn’t give birth to children so that they would fight.”
Just after Svetlana arrived safely in Moldova, Emma felt a moment of bittersweet relief.
“She sent me a photo of her youngest daughter with a soft-serve ice cream from McDonalds and a balloon and the biggest smile on her face. And I just completely broke down,” Emma says.
It reminded her of what every child should be doing, enjoying her life safely, with her family.