Ukraine’s children live through terror and face long legacy of Russia’s war

Unicef says more than half Ukraine's child population displaced during month of fighting

Tatyana and her children can rest now after a gruelling 1,200km journey from eastern Ukraine to Lviv near the Polish border, but air raid sirens often wail even in this safe-haven city, straining nerves already badly frayed by a month of war.

“I’m relieved that we made it here but I still can’t relax, especially when I hear that siren,” she says in a Lviv language school that is serving as a shelter for people on the move.

"I hope we can catch a bus to Germany today with another family from our hometown, Lyman, " Tatyana adds, as young daughter Karina and son Artyom listen quietly by her side.

The children are tired and seem shy, but Karina suddenly pipes up before Tatyana can say whether they intend to return one day to Lyman.

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“We will!” declares Karina and her brother nods vigorously in agreement, and their vehemence makes their mother laugh and briefly seems to lift her fog of worries for the family.

Huge numbers of children in Ukraine have been affected by the chaos that Russia unleashed on February 24th, when it launched a military campaign that has now killed thousands of people, displaced millions and devastated residential areas of several cities.

Unicef says 4.3 million children – well over half Ukraine's entire child population – have fled their homes due to the war, fuelling fears over the long-term impact of disruption to healthcare, inoculation programmes, education and food security.

There are also concerns that Ukrainian mothers and children – including unaccompanied minors – could be at risk of exploitation as they arrive in new countries, often with little money, no contacts and in urgent need of assistance.

Millions of children are also witnessing terrible things – and hearing them discussed and replayed on television and social media – which may stay with them forever.

Evacuation

Yuliya and her family arrived in Lviv after being evacuated from Shevchenkove, a village 40km northeast of central Kyiv that Russian troops occupied on about March 8th.

“You talk about it,” Yuliya tells her daughter Viktoria with a tremor in her voice. “I can’t do it.”

“The gas supply was on-and-off, and they were blocking the phone signal and internet, and the shops were closed for two weeks so it was hard to get food. There wasn’t even any bread or cereal,” says Viktoria, who looks no older than 14.

“A Russian column came into our village and shot at our house. They were shooting at lots of houses and all the windows shattered. We hid in the basement. Even in the basement we were told to lock the doors because of looters,” she explains, the dark stories rushing out of her.

“They killed two people in a car and wouldn’t let anyone get their bodies for two days. Eventually people were allowed to get them out and they were buried in their neighbours’ allotment.”

Ukrainian news outlets reported on March 8th that Yuliya Vashchenko and Serhiy Esipenko were shot dead in their car by Russian troops in Shevchenkove, and that fighting prevented rescuers reaching the site.

“It’s simply inhuman,” says Yuliya, who escaped to Lviv with Viktoria, two younger daughters called Olga and Masha, and her mother Tanya.

“As the Russians took villages in our area they turned off the water, electricity, lights and heating, and they put landmines in the streets to force people to leave,” Yuliya recalls.

“It was like a horror film,” adds Olga mechanically, as if repeating something she has heard adults say.

Then her own bright voice returns as she declares: “We have to go back to our cat. And we also have a little parrot. Our grandad is still there now looking after them.”

The family is determined to return to Shevchenkove “as soon as it is safe,” says Yuliya.

“We’re sure we’ll go back!” Viktoria adds.

Lifelong impact

Children can seem more resilient than adults to this great upheaval, able to slip away into their imaginations, play games with siblings and new friends and find comfort in the arms of parents who can only think about what is lost and how to protect all they have left.

But it is clear that the impact of Russia’s invasion will affect many of these Ukrainians for their entire lives, and some families may never return to their homeland.

"The war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since the second World War. This is a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come. Children's safety, wellbeing and access to essential services are all under threat from non-stop horrific violence," says Catherine Russell, executive director of Unicef.

“Children urgently need peace and protection. They need their rights . . . Essential infrastructure on which children depend, including hospitals, schools and buildings sheltering civilians, must never come under attack.”

Russia bombed a maternity hospital in the southeastern port of Mariupol on March 9th, killing several people including a pregnant woman who was photographed being carried from the rubble, and whose baby also died. Moscow denied committing an alleged war crime and claimed actors were used to stage fake footage at the site.

Ukrainian officials say at least 128 children have been killed and more than 172 injured during Russia’s invasion, and scores of schools, kindergartens and colleges have been destroyed and hundreds damaged; Lviv filled its main square with empty strollers earlier this month to mourn the youngest victims of the invasion.

"This is the terrible price of war that Ukraine is paying today. We call on all adults around the world to stand with a single shield to protect Ukrainian children and give them a future," Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi said in urging the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

In the basement

Sisters Viktoria Sulima and Natalya Fyodorova fled with their children to Lviv from the neighbouring industrial cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine.

“We spent the best part of 2½ weeks in the basement, with only occasional water supply, light and gas. Rockets were flying overhead,” says Sulima.

“When the gas came on, I would quickly rush to our flat to cook something and bring it back to the basement. There were maybe 30 or 40 of us in our basement, including some people from other districts whose buildings were hit by shells.”

Fyodorova said that in her area of Lysychansk “there was no heat or light or water for a week, and no mobile signal. People were going a long way and risking their lives just to charge their phones. They were getting water by melting snow from the roof of the building.”

Both women described the bravery of people who delivered food and water to their cities and of the terror of trying to escape along “safe corridors” for the evacuation of civilians, where trains, buses and cars would often come under fire.

“The military and volunteers are risking their lives to help and evacuate people. But sometimes it’s impossible. People gathered at the evacuation point but then had to run back to the basement because shelling began. Evacuation trains and buses have been shot,” says Fyodorova.

“You hurry home from the basement and then, on your way back, even though everything seems quiet, you suddenly freeze and shake and can’t move, because you know something could land and explode anywhere, at any moment,” recalls Sulima.

While the sisters speak, Sulima’s daughter Yevheniya sits between them, silently turning the pages of a book. Even the mention of her birthday does not make her look up.

Sulima opens a photo on her phone of Yevheniya smiling for the camera in the basement of their building in Severodonetsk. A plastic box of sliced fruit and biscuits sits on a black bin liner in front of her.

“That was March 5th, when she spent her fourth birthday in the basement,” says Sulima. “We lit a candle to try to make it a celebration. It was all we could do.”