Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Ukraine’s Kids Are Literally on the Front Line

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children suffer shellings, shootings, and psychological trauma.

By , a freelance journalist based in Bratislava, Slovakia.
A woman stands among debris in Ukraine.
A woman stands among debris in Ukraine.
A woman stands among debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on Feb. 17. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

KRASNOHORIVKA, Ukraine—Sasha, 12, and his older brother, Sergey, 16, were on their way to soccer practice in early February when they heard automatic weapons firing near their home in Ukraine’s front-line village of Krasnohorivka.

“We had to run home like we always have [to] when they shoot,” Sergey said. “I like to play outside, but I never know if someone will shoot me dead.”

Sergey and his siblings are among the 378,000 children in need of protection and assistance on Ukraine’s front line, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (Parents asked to withhold the last names of their children to protect their security.) After nearly eight years of simmering conflict, children remain among the most vulnerable groups unable to leave the war zone, suffering intermittent shelling, maiming and death from unexploded ordnances, and the occasional return of higher-intensity fighting to a conflict long thought frozen.

KRASNOHORIVKA, Ukraine—Sasha, 12, and his older brother, Sergey, 16, were on their way to soccer practice in early February when they heard automatic weapons firing near their home in Ukraine’s front-line village of Krasnohorivka.

“We had to run home like we always have [to] when they shoot,” Sergey said. “I like to play outside, but I never know if someone will shoot me dead.”

Sergey and his siblings are among the 378,000 children in need of protection and assistance on Ukraine’s front line, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (Parents asked to withhold the last names of their children to protect their security.) After nearly eight years of simmering conflict, children remain among the most vulnerable groups unable to leave the war zone, suffering intermittent shelling, maiming and death from unexploded ordnances, and the occasional return of higher-intensity fighting to a conflict long thought frozen.

On Feb. 17, the Ukrainian front-line village of Stanytsia Luhanska was shelled with heavy weapons from the occupied Donbass territory, and civilian infrastructure was damaged, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said on Twitter. At least three people were injured during the incident, aid workers told reporters, and one shell crashed through the wall of a kindergarten.

According to the OCHA, 250,000 children now regularly experience shelling and are exposed to land mines and unexploded remnants of war, making them more prone to injuries and mental health issues. In eastern Ukraine’s war zone, 12 conflict-related civilian casualties were recorded among children by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) last year alone. Three boys and one girl were killed because of land mines and unexploded remnants of war while eight more were injured during explosions and shelling, making this zone particularly dangerous for its youngest population, who are frequently exposed to mines while traveling to and from school.

During the past eight years, multiple children and teachers have been killed while in school. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 7-year-old boy was killed when a kindergarten was shelled in Bakhmut in 2015, and in August 2015, a 56-year-old female school guard succumbed to shrapnel wounds. In March 2020, a 17-year-old girl was injured by shelling at a school in Oleksandrivka.

And there are psychological wounds as well.

Ignacio Leon-Garcia, head of the OCHA office in Ukraine, told Foreign Policy that a boy he met in a settlement near the contact line in November 2021 “asked his grandmother if it was his fault that the shooting had started again. He thought he may have done something wrong in school, and that was why the shelling started,” Leon-Garcia said.

Due to countless incidents in recent weeks and months, teachers in schools have to improvise to protect their children’s safety. In the front-line village of Novomykhailivka, volunteers recently decided to paint drawings on the walls to teach children how to avoid mines while playing outdoors. In one school in Krasnohorivka, therapists had to teach children basic breathing exercises to protect them from panic attacks. 

“We have installed special sound isolation in the school so that pupils won’t hear shelling and shooting while in class,” said Elena Lyubchenko, a biology teacher. “Children already see and hear everything in their houses at the contact line. We try to protect the school so that they can have at least one safe place in their lives.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said on his recent visit to Ukraine that “what you see is that all hope for the future is gone for youth and children.” Egeland added that he had visited a school in Krasnohorivka, where out of five schools that were operational before the war, only two remain, as most of the teachers have now left their positions.

Katya, a 14-year-old girl in Novomyhkailivka, said that recent security incidents and shellings remind her of the beginning of the war, triggering high amounts of stress. “Throughout December 2021, I heard shellings so often that it felt exactly like when the war started,” she said. “If you ask me about my future, I only know one thing for sure: that I must leave. All my schoolmates only talk about leaving.” 

Children like Katya are now affected by fighting and security incidents. The long-term psychological effects of such trauma for children remain worrisome. “Teachers report signs of psychosocial distress among children triggered by loud noises, and recent estimates suggest that more than 1 in 4 children require psychosocial support,” Alyona Budagovska, a spokesperson for People in Need, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) present on the front line, told Foreign Policy.

But for some children in front-line villages, schools remain their only safe shelter. “Ever since the war broke out, we have seen children coming to school only to hide in our basement,” said Irina Fedorchenko, director of a primary school in Pervomaiske. “If the shooting is ongoing, we have to ask the children if they want to go home despite the bullets or if they prefer to stay at school.”

On the other side of the contact line, where there are few U.N. agencies and international NGOs, limited data is available on the needs of children, but it is likely that young people in separatist-controlled regions are facing similar, if not worse, difficulties. 

The problems don’t stop at school. In many of the front-line villages, infrastructure and public transport are virtually nonexistent, and mothers claim it can take them up to 10 hours to bring their children to the nearest doctor or hospital when they are sick or injured.

In the front-line village of Zolote 1, a few miles from the contact line, Irina, a mother of two, said that since no pediatricians are present in her town, she often has to travel for hours, changing buses and waiting for a ride to get her child to the nearest doctor. “This is awful, especially when the child is sick and has a fever while it is 10 below outside,” she said. “As a single mother, this situation is unbearable.” (She declined to give her last name.) She added that her children often become ill as a result of drinking contaminated well water; she can’t afford bottled water. 

On his February visit to Ukraine, Egeland said, “While the whole world is watching this region now—including leaders in Moscow, Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv—the people living on the front line say they want peace and are exhausted.”

“The top military and political leaders who are sitting their offices in well-heated, safe capitals should come to places like Opytne and Donetsk to sit and freeze with the vulnerable people,” he added. “Maybe they will understand that this escalation is senseless.”

Sara Cincurova is a freelance journalist based in Bratislava, Slovakia, covering human rights and humanitarian issues.

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