Words by Lauren Clarke, News Editor at ITV News, video report by Martha Fairlie
She was the 10-year-old Harry Potter fan with a beaming smile and pink hair whose image became a symbol for the suffering and the loss of innocence. In the early days of the war Polina Kudrin and her parents were among the first victims killed as they tried to flee to safety. Polina’s seven-year-old brother, Semyon, died in hospital a few days later. Their 13-year-old sister, Sophia, was left fighting for her life - unaware she was the sole surviving member of her family.
More than three weeks on, Sophia is in Rome being treated for her injuries after a charity stepped in to help. ITV News has been to see Sophia and her grandmother, Svetlana Kudrin, who spoke to us about helping Sophia through the trauma. “We dream about the moment when we can go back home, and when the war is over,” Svetlana Kudrin tells us.
But home for Svetlana and her granddaughter will never be the same again. 1,400 miles from her home in Kyiv, Sophia is being treated to remove a bullet lodged in her spine after the car her family was travelling in was shot at. It was their final journey together. Days before war broke out in Ukraine, Sophia was like any other 13-year-old - happy, hopeful and enjoying life with her family and friends.
Sophia demonstrates that she can now use a phone and kick her shoes off
Russia's invasion left her being treated for near fatal bullet wounds in a basement-cum-makeshift hospital. Doctors feared the worst for Sophia, but thanks to the work of Ukrainian charity Mother and Child, the 13-year-old was transferred to a paediatric hospital in Rome.
Sophia’s grandmother, grieving silently for the loss of her son and family, told us that while Sophia hasn’t been formally told what happened to her and her family, she thinks the teenager senses it.
“She understands everything, I think, but it is a forbidden topic for now - we don’t touch it,” Svetlana said.
“She talks about everything nice, we listen to music and watch cartoons.”
When describing Sophia, Svetlana paints a picture of an athletic girl, who loved drawing, computers and sports. She’s convinced Sophia can and will make a full recovery one day. But that will only be the beginning for this courageous, young girl.
Like a true teenager, her grandmother explains, Sophia’s first goal was to learn to use a phone again. And it's a goal she has quickly mastered.
When Sophia first arrived in Rome, she could only communicate with her eyes, but Svetlana tells us she never gave up, and her spirit to live helped pull her through.
Now, just a few weeks later in hospital, Sophia has made huge strides; she can kick off her shoes, wiggle her toes and cross her legs. The speed of her progress has impressed her doctors.
This recovery is in part thanks to the woman behind Sophia’s life-saving evacuation from Ukraine to Italy - Alla Melnychuk. Before the war, Alla’s job was to help newborns and children receive specialist treatment and surgery, but now her mission is to rescue children with horrific war injuries.
She tells us she’s inundated with calls from desperate doctors and bereaved families in Ukraine asking for her help.
“I didn’t sleep for more than two hours during the first ten days of the war,” she explains.
"I had messages from parents whose children had died, or from the doctors saying that whole families had died. It felt like my life turned into hell.” But the calls keep coming.
While we were with her, Alla was contacted by a doctor asking about transport for a two-year-old child who had lost their legs in a bomb blast.
Another terrified resident frantically texted her from a city surrounded by Russian forces, begging for help to rescue a girl with a bullet in her head.
“It is impossible to look these children in the eyes, because they have seen the deaths of their families. Many lost their mother because they were protecting their children with their own bodies,” Alla says, trying not to cry.
“Many of them do not know that they have lost their families.”
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Alla and her charity, Mother and Child, has helped bring close to 30 sick and injured children from Ukraine to Rome for treatment.
The charity is now fundraising to help continue organising transport for more children like Sophia.
“We can’t give Sophia back her mum, dad, brother and sister, and we have more than 20 children like that here,” Alla explains.
“We can’t reverse what has happened, but we can help them with treatment, support, and help them physically to stand on their feet.” Sophia is not strong enough to confront the horrors of what this war has taken from her - her focus is her recovery and giving herself a fighting chance. Svetlana says they will have to make a new life - but what that will look like, she has no idea.