Children of the Ukrainian War

No casualty of war emerges without suffering some sort of loss: a gutted home. A loved one has disappeared. A torn life.

Yet no one loses more in war than children – scarred by its lifelong devastation.

In Ukraine, time is running out to prevent another “lost generation” – the phrase often used not only for the young lives taken, but also for the children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to change the front lines, or suffer from psychological scars too deep to heal.

The online ticker at the top of a Ukrainian government page, “Children of War,” flashes with a grim and steadily rising tally: Dead: 361. Injured: 702. Missing: 206. Found: 4,214. Deported: 6 159. Dismissed: 50.

“Each of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children suffers from trauma,” said Murat Sahin, who represents the UN children’s agency UNICEF in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10% or 50% of them are fine – everyone experiences it and it takes years to heal.”

According to aid agencies, more than a third of Ukrainian children – 2.2 million – have been forced to flee their homes, and many of them have been displaced two or three times as territory is lost. More than half of Ukrainian children – 3.6 million – may not have a school to return to in September.

Yet even with the war entering its sixth month, children’s advocates say it’s time to make meaningful changes to the way young people emerge from conflict.

In maternity hospitals in Lviv, mothers are praying for the fighting to end before their children are old enough to remember it. In eastern Ukraine, activists are looking for children who have disappeared across the front lines. Across the country, aid workers and Ukrainian officials are scrambling to repair bombed schools and begin psychological support.

“We believe in the resilience of children,” said Ramon Shahzamani, president of War Child Holland, a group that focuses on psychological and educational support for children in conflict areas.

“If you’re able to reach the kids as early as possible and help them deal with what they’ve been through and what they’ve seen,” he said, “then they’re able to deal with it. their emotions.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

This resilience is evident in the way the children have adapted their daily lives – from scribbling pencil drawings and painting on the wall of a damp basement where they are held captive, to inventing a stop-based game. frequent at the checkpoints to which they are subject. They mimic the dark reality they witness during the war, but also find ways to escape it.

In the Donbass, a 13-year-old girl named Dariia no longer flinches or runs when a shell hits nearby, so used to the terror that erupts daily.

Even so, there is the cost of unhealed psychological trauma. And the effects are not only mental, but also physical.

Children exposed to war are exposed to “toxic stress”, a condition triggered by extreme periods of adversity, said Sonia Khush, director of Save the Children Ukraine. The effects are so powerful that they can alter brain structures and organ systems, and last well into children’s adult lives.

Providing a hopeful path through war is not just for Ukrainian children today, Shahzamani said. It is also for the future of the country.

The group War Child recently surveyed the children and grandchildren of those who lived through World War II and found that even two generations later, families were affected by wartime trauma.

“War is intergenerational,” he said. “That’s why it’s extremely important to work on children’s well-being and mental health.”

Education is key to psychological support, Ms. Khush said. Schools provide children with peer-to-peer social networks, guidance from teachers, and a routine that can provide a sense of normalcy amid pervasive uncertainty.

More than 2,000 of Ukraine’s roughly 17,000 schools were damaged by the war, while 221 were destroyed, according to United Nations statistics. Another 3,500 were used to shelter or help the seven million Ukrainians who fled to safer parts of the country. No one knows how many will open when the academic year begins in a month.

Credit…Mauricio Lima for the New York Times

Social destruction is even more difficult to repair. Thousands of families have been torn apart as brothers and fathers have been conscripted or killed, and children forced to flee, leaving behind grandparents and friends. Aid workers have noticed a growing problem of nightmares and aggressive behavior among young children.

Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 91,000 children in institutional orphanages, more than half of whom were disabled, Sahin said. No count has been published for how much that number has climbed since the start of the war.

One of the great unknowns of the war is the number of children orphaned or separated from their parents. But besides orphans, Moscow has also forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, according to Ukrainian officials. Many are believed to be children separated from their parents.

Now, Ukrainian activists are using clandestine networks inside Russian-controlled territories to try to get information about these children – and, if possible, bring them back.

There is also hope for orphans. A new effort led by the Ukrainian government and UNICEF has encouraged around 21,000 families to register as foster families. Already, 1,000 of them have been trained and take in children.

“This is only the beginning,” said Maryna Lazebna, Ukraine’s minister for social policy, recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building something new, not rebuilding the past.”

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