Amid war and destruction, children in Ukraine bear heavy burden as families struggle to carry on
With home life, schooling upended, experts say trauma 'devastating' for children
The playground in Kostyantynivka is lovingly maintained, even amid the vagaries of war and the eastern town's crumbling post-industrial landscape.
A set of colourfully painted concrete lions greet children and their parents who enter its winter-crusted confines in search of a few moments of normal.
Situated across the street from the Eastern Ukrainian town's music conservatory, the tree-lined park has everything you'd expect: slides, a turnstyle, yellow-painted climbing structures and swings, one of which desperately needs a shot of lubricant on a recent sleepy Saturday.
Under a weak, grey sky, parents with strollers, the elderly and a few couples went about their lives, the happy cries of children mingling with the nearby deep rumble and thump of artillery rounds.
No one flinched. No one looked up. No one seemed to notice. Everyone carried on, heads bowed as though it was the routine soundtrack of life.
On that day, Russian and Ukrainian artillery — less than 20 kilometres away — held a duel, one of the seemingly never-ending clashes in the maelstrom that has been the nearby Battle of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donbas region.
"Life is hard right now," said Lairisa, a grandmother, with a kind face and brown eyes that seemed constantly on the verge of tears. "There are explosions every night. In our building, we do not have windows in the hallway."
She stands outside of the music conservatory arm in arm with her 13-year-old granddaughter, Dariya, who is calm, matter-of-fact and hard-eyed. Both of them requested their last names not be used for safety reasons.
"I don't usually talk about the war with my friends, but when we do talk about it, we usually talk about how scary it is," said Dariya, who is in the seventh grade and attending classes online.
Saturday is usually spent at the music conservatory, but on this day, the two of them are also picking up relief food supplies in a bright yellow box stamped with the blue Ukrainian trident.
Lairisa simply bursts with praise for her granddaughter, saying how she is a calming presence during attacks when they take to the shelters. She said she doesn't know how to explain to Dariya why the war is happening.
'I don't think about the future'
She is not alone. Many parents — still processing their own trauma — often struggle to know what to say about the horrendous violence that permeates their lives.
Lairisa's granddaughter is a good student, a creative soul who is fond of music and the arts, she added, hence the music lessons.
Asked about her dreams for the future, Dariya responded: "I don't think about the future."
Like their parents and grandparents, children along the front line and elsewhere in Ukraine have been reduced to living in the moment.
Dariya, in some respects, might be lucky because she still has a home to go to. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of children in Ukraine have been displaced from their homes, either within the country or as refugees in other countries.
The war has disrupted the schooling and the lives of more than five million young people, risking an entire generation, UNICEF said in a statement published on Jan. 23.
Other organizations remain equally concerned.
"The war in Ukraine has been devastating for children," said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović. "Council of Europe member states should redouble their efforts to protect and support the children who are suffering as a result of Russia's brutal war in Ukraine."
Children are, on an almost daily basis, being traumatized by the capricious violence. Some are being wounded and killed. The Ukrainian government estimated last week that the war — which began when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 — had taken the lives of 1,388 children.
Friends have been scattered by war
There are no artillery exchanges taking place outside of evacuation shelters in Dnipro, 240 kilometres west of Kostyantynivka.
Life for the children there, though far from normal, carries on in the bright, clean, refurbished but crowded former Soviet-era school.
Families, fleeing the violence in the east, use the shelters as a waystation while they register and look for work and their own apartments in the city. Tucked in tight quarters, in dormitory-style rooms, the children, with their new friends, unleashed their energy in a large playroom that doubles as their school.
Tumbling among the large beanbag cushions and somersaulting across the room is 12-year-old Sophia (who also asked that we use only her first name due to safety concerns), who was evacuated to Dnipro with her parents from the eastern town of Severodonetsk.
She said there's always time for play, even amid the constant threat of air raids and rocket attacks on the city.
Little time is spent thinking about her life back home, Sophia said, except for wondering where her friends from Severodonetsk might be and whether they are all right.
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Her friends, along with their families, have been scattered to the wind by the war. While she tries to stay in touch, it is tough and often frustrating — and she worries about them.
But what frightens Sophia the most are the constant air raids. "During those times, I think about how not to die here," she said.
Elsewhere in the shelter, Volodymyr Krylov, a children's boxing coach from Kremmina, talks with his son, Artem, about the future. He proudly holds his phone showing a photo of Artem at a junior boxing tournament in Kyiv, taken last fall.
"My son dedicates all of his victories to the Ukrainian Armed Forces," Krylov said.
Artem, who is also 12, confidently talks about how — one day — he will be a world boxing champion, but when the subject turns to the war, he looks down at the floor.
"I don't talk about the war because when I do it is sad," he said. "I just want this to all be over so I can go home to my kittens and my grandmother."
Ever the boxing coach, Krylov said he tells his son it's all about victory and believing in it.
Going to a shelter is now 'normal'
Further to the north and west in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital is hundreds of kilometres from the savage fighting in the east, but it still faces missile attacks. It is a far cry from the day early in the war when the Russians were beaten back from the gates of the city.
Mariia Ionova, a European Solidarity Party MP in the Ukrainian parliament, has a 15-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. She carries a video of her son, perched in a booster seat in the car, singing a popular Ukrainian victory song, until he insists she turn off the camera.
"All this year, I feel I'm more a politician than a mother," Ionova said, shedding light on the other burden parents carry — balancing their precarious lives with the desire to be there for their kids.
It's hard, she said, witnessing the confusion, hurt and frustration as her children try to process what's going on around them. It is especially heart-wrenching for her son, Oleksandr.
"He's asking why, why, why are they sending the police rockets? — his naming for this. Why are they killing people? Why? Why?" Ionova said. "So, this question is still on because he cannot understand why."
What she is seemingly worried about is that the longer the war goes on, the more he gets used to it. Ionova said she's seen a change in her son over the last year and how he has become used to air raids.
"When he is going in kindergarten, he goes to regular kindergarten, and he goes to shelter, now for him, for him, it's normal," she said.
More children looking for help
Child psychologist Tetiana Aslanian has been treating children traumatized by war since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and the eruption of fighting in the eastern Donbas region.
She said she has watched carefully the evolution of the mental crisis as it spread throughout the country following last year's full invasion.
Requests for help, either online or by phone, have skyrocketed — and with some parents being unwilling or unable to talk about what's happening, an unusual trend is taking hold.
"We have been finding many more children searching for help by themselves — calling our help lines without their parents knowing," Aslanian said. "It's very new to our society, and it's very important for you [and the world] to know and understand that."
Most alarmingly, she said, the number of children who speak of possibly taking their own lives during therapy has been extraordinary.
"We have a part of our clients, teenagers who turn to us saying they are thinking about death," Aslanian said. "They don't have enough resources to live through what is happening to them. They are not supported by their family or they lost someone."
Children are finding other ways to express themselves — mostly through art.
Lena Rozvadovska, a children's advocate, journalist and head of the charity Voices of Children, has been collecting samples of the artwork. CBC News has also photographed dozens of pieces of children's art in places like Kherson and Kharkiv, some of the hardest-hit areas of the war.
She said she understands how parents are struggling to explain the inexplicable to their children.
"That fact that we are adults and the war is a real problem for us because our past is destroyed, our house is destroyed, our plans for the future are destroyed," said Rozvadovska, who has also for years been tracking the plight of children caught in wartorn areas of Ukraine.
"For children, it depends on which age they are, [but] if they want to play, they will find the way to play even if there is a world around them on fire."
What's important, she said, is to reassure children that there are people who care, there is help available and there is a future.
"For the younger generation of children, it is important they have somebody whom they can receive some support and understanding that even with the war, you can live, you can dream and you can plan," Rozvadovska said.