An 11-year-old Ukrainian boy who fled his war-torn country alone – with only a plastic bag, a passport and a telephone number scrawled on his hand – has been hailed as a hero by Slovakian authorities.

His safe escape from Zaporizhzhia, a city that narrowly avoided a nuclear catastrophe on Friday after a projectile set part of a massive power plant on fire, is a rare bright moment in an increasingly brutal conflict.

“Little Hassan is only 11 years old, but in his way he has shown huge determination, courage and fearlessness that sometimes adults don’t have,” Roman Mikulec, Slovakia’s interior minister, wrote on his official Facebook page Monday after a meeting with the boy, who traveled hundreds of miles by train on his own.

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Once he was safely over the border, customs officials and volunteers used a telephone number written on his hand to contact his relatives in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, and they were reunited.

In a tearful video post released by Slovakian authorities, his mother, Yulia Pisetskaya, said she was a widow and was unable to leave Zaporizhzhia because she was caring for her mother, who couldn’t move on her own.


“I am very grateful that they saved the life of my child,” Pisetskaya said in the video message Sunday, according to a translation posted on Facebook by the Slovakian Embassy in London. “In your small country, there are people with big hearts.”

Inside Ukraine, the situation is increasingly grim. Efforts to establish evacuation corridors for noncombatants have faltered in recent days, even as the Russian onslaught has left hundreds of thousands of residents without water, heat or natural gas.

The number of civilian casualties, including children, is rising. At least 27 children have been killed and 42 wounded, UNICEF said. Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, but a growing number of Western officials are raising questions about possible war crimes.

More than 1.7 million refugees have left Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, according to data from the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Hundreds of thousands are children. The exodus is set to become Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis in this century.

UNICEF and the U.N. refugee agency are urging neighboring countries to quickly identify and register unaccompanied and separated children fleeing Ukraine because those without parental care are at “heightened risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.”

In Hassan’s case, Slovakian authorities said they had “kept him warm and provided him with food and drink, which they packed for his next trip.” The Slovakian Interior Ministry said on Facebook that the boy “won everybody’s hearts with his smile, fearlessness and determination, worthy of a real hero.”