I’ve never liked my daughter’s stroller. I put it on the baby registry without trying it in person and when it arrived the dimensions felt wrong. The button that was supposed to facilitate one-handed folding did not facilitate one-handed folding. But over the weekend I saw a photograph of this stroller — the same style and color — sitting on the platform of a Polish train station, and this was the thing that finally obliterated what was left of my journalistic steel and made me sob about Ukraine.
More than a million Ukrainian refugees have now poured into neighboring Poland, most of them women and children. When Polish mothers learned of this, it seems, they went to the railway stations and border crossings where the refugees were arriving, and they began dropping off baby strollers. A photojournalist covering the conflict snapped a picture of seven empty ones waiting at the Przemysl Glowny station. In other images at other stations the strollers are filled with blankets and baby necessities. Some strollers look newer and some have a bald-tire scruffiness to them — these strollers have seen some miles, they’ve carried some exhausted young legs.
The strollers on the train platforms in Poland are needed because Ukrainian mothers arrived in Poland with only the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms. The trains or buses that evacuated them were too crowded for these women to bring their own strollers, perhaps, or maybe the women were forced to leave too quickly to have time to fetch them.
Or maybe it’s this: If you are a Ukrainian mother, maybe when an explosive device turns your neighborhood into rubble, when you see your fellow citizens fall in the street, when you learn exactly what munitions explosions smell like — maybe when that happens, your instinct is to grab your baby and hold him close to your own body as you run for your life, not to push him away in a pram.
The strollers on the train platforms in Poland are a symbol of what women know about war and their place in it. These Ukrainian mothers have arrived without husbands or partners because the men of Ukraine, ages 18 to 60, are prohibited from leaving. The men are staying to fight in the army. That is what men have always done in wars: They have fought and died.
Women in war have been forced to flee, or to hide, or they have been raped, or they have fled and hidden and then been raped. Their bodies have become territories on which battles are fought. They have been the family protectors; they have been charged with keeping children safe using only these bodies as armor.
The strollers on the train platforms in Poland are the artifacts of war that we do not talk about. They are not the sorts of supplies mentioned when the Ukrainian president goes on a Zoom call with American members of Congress to beg them for military aid; they are not negotiated in the language of sanctions and artillery.
Typically the leaders who start and end wars are not in a position to understand that prams are war supplies too. And yet mothers would know to ask this. Every mother would know.
Shortly after seeing the photographs of the strollers in Poland, I read about a maternity ward in Kyiv that had moved its pregnant patients to an underground bunker. There, soon-to-be mothers labored in darkened hallways as the city above them exploded. Women delivered newborns via Caesarean section and were then immediately “rushed from the ward to underground passageways,” according to Reuters, “to protect them from bombardment.”
In Zhytomyr, at another makeshift maternity ward, the shock of a nearby explosion caused a woman to go into labor as she huddled in terror with the other expecting patients.
In a Kharkiv hospital, new mothers rocked their infants in a room where mattresses were piled against the windows as protection from shrapnel.
Families in these hospitals told reporters that as terrifying as it was to give birth in a bombarded hospital, they were even more afraid of what would come next.
Where would they go? Where would they take their new infants, and where would they raise their new families?
While they were worrying about this, women in Poland were leaving their houses pushing strollers. These Polish women were thinking about the war, but not only in terms of what kinds of guns or bombs Russian President Vladimir Putin had, or who might defend Ukrainian airspace, and how Ukraine needs pilots and the pilots need warplanes.
They were also thinking about the way that a baby can make a bed out of a stroller. They were thinking about the way that the whirring motion of a moving stroller can make a baby stop crying, and make her head tilt heavy against the waterproof nylon until she falls asleep and her breath comes out whisper-soft. They were thinking about the mothers of Ukraine. The fact that they have traveled so far, and their children are so heavy, and their arms are so tired.