KYIV, Ukraine — In a dusty stairwell, hidden from the shelling that has become the grim background noise of the Ukrainian capital, Ludmila Yashenko meddles with the babies. There are 19 of them, sleeping or cooing in neatly made cribs, regularly fed from baby food containers.
The kitchen has a bottle sterilizer, while the nursery has a changing area with nappies. Mrs. Yashenko and other nannies let the babies bounce on their laps and straighten their bibs, even while watching television, wide-eyed, to hear the latest news about the war.
Death and destruction reign in Ukraine, but in this basement there is new life, albeit new problems.
The babies were born as surrogate mothers, with their biological parents still outside the country. Due to the war, the citizenship of the newborns is unclear, as is the question of who their legal guardians are, as Ukrainian law requires their biological parents to be present to confirm their nationality.
The question is also how and whether they can possibly be brought to safety.
Elsewhere, surrogate mothers-to-be are trapped by the fighting. Couples abroad have no idea how they are going to pick up their babies. An agent who connects future parents with Ukrainian women fled Kiev with two of her clients’ newborns.
In the basement in Kiev, Mrs. Yashenko and the other nannies look after the babies, though they become increasingly concerned about the war raging over her head.
“Of course we cannot abandon the babies,” said Ms. Yashenko, 51. Her husband and two sons, all soldiers in the Ukrainian army, have urged her to leave Kiev.
“They want me to leave, but I can’t abandon my colleagues, I cannot abandon my job, I cannot abandon these babies,” she said. “I’ll stay here until everything is back in place.”
Ukraine is one of the relatively few countries that offer surrogacy to foreigners. By some estimates, the industry is the largest in the world; Lawyers associated with the company say about 500 women in Ukraine are now pregnant as surrogate mothers for foreign clients.
Couples in the United States, Europe, South America and China who cannot have children of their own have turned to Ukraine. Proponents say that surrogacy is safe and provides an irreplaceable service to such couples.
The business thrived in Ukraine largely because of poverty. Surrogate mothers here typically earn about $15,000 per child. Ukraine does not allow surrogacy for same-sex couples, or for couples who want to choose the sex of their child.
Fourteen companies offer the service in Ukraine, including BioTexCom, the largest, which runs the cellar nursery in Kiev.
Albert Tochylovsky, the owner of BioTexCom, said in an interview that he faced a difficult choice when setting up the cellar nursery. The other option, he said, was to drive about 40 women who were fleeing at short notice through Ukraine during the fighting. He promised to take care of the babies.
But Mr. Tochylovsky was also concerned about the choice he had made. “Maybe I made the wrong decision,” he said. If the situation worsened, he said he would close the nursery in the basement and try to evacuate the babies.
Some people in the company have already fled with babies, although the legal implications of this are unclear. Svitlana Burkovsa, who has worked as an agent for surrogacy arrangements, said she took two newborns to the western city of Uzhhorod, near the border with Slovakia.
“The babies are fine,” she said. “A nanny I hired and I take good care of them. I have no choice but to take care of them now.” The customers are two couples in China.
Ms. Burkovsa also keeps track of two pregnant surrogate mothers hired by other clients. They are close to their due date but stuck not far from Kiev, she said. She tries to move them to a maternity ward in western Ukraine in time to give birth.
Overseas surrogacy typically relies on a careful choreography of travel and legal services, all of which are now disrupted by war.
Anna, an expectant surrogate who, as others have quoted, spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, has not left Kiev because her husband has enlisted as a volunteer soldier and she wants to be near him. She also takes care of her own son, she says by phone.
“I really don’t want to leave him. But I have to save two lives: one inside me and the other nine years old and running around their apartment, she said.
The biological parents of the baby she is carrying are from China, she said. Although they have an interest in her safety, they are now unable to make decisions about her movements.
“I hope the war will be over by the time I go into labor,” she said.
Ania, 26, who has two children of her own, is pregnant for the second time as a surrogate mother. The first time, the baby could not be picked up immediately by customers due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. “I’m just out of luck,” she said.
She is now 31 weeks pregnant with twins and lives near Lviv after fleeing Kamianske, in central Ukraine. Her clients, she said, want her to move to Western Europe. But she doesn’t dare to do this, because she may have to register as a legal guardian of the babies under the less permissive surrogacy laws that apply outside of Ukraine.
Frederic, the twins’ biological father, shares the same fears as Ania about the legal uncertainties. He and his wife are from France, where surrogacy arrangements face greater legal hurdles.
In November, when the alarm was raised about the possibility of war in Ukraine, Frederic insisted that the surrogacy agency let him contact Ania directly. He and his wife went to Ukraine and now live together near Lviv with Ania, her husband and her two children.
“We feel very lonely in this process,” said Frederic. One of their many problems is that all the documents proving that he and his wife are the genetic parents of the twins have been left behind in Kiev.
“Have you heard of a family with the same problem as ours?” he asked.
In the basement of BioTexCom in Kiev, the babies sleep in numbered cribs. A doctor visits regularly for a check-up. The space is clean and well lit. Their swaddles are in prints of pink elephants or flowers.
“The parents are very concerned about the situation in Ukraine,” said Ms. Yashenko, the nanny. “They are just waiting for the end of this senseless war.”
Sometimes, she said, she feels like she’s asleep and wants to wake up in Ukraine before the war. “This is just a nightmare,” she said. “I want to wake up.” But she said the basement was safe and she would stay with the babies.
Ms. Yashenko had a message for the parents of the babies: “They are taken care of, they are fed, they are loved. We have everything we need.”