Playgrounds have become a war zone in Ukraine. Children hear rocket attacks, they lose their parents – or they die in bomb attacks themselves. Experts report dramatic consequences.
Little Vlad is wearing a blue jacket, he has pulled on the hood and his hands are sinking into the pockets of his jacket. The six-year-old looks sad – he stands in front of his mother’s grave. The photo of the child of the Ukrainian Bucha went around the world.
Ira, Vlad’s mother, is one of the thousands of civilians killed during the war. Photos show his sons placing canned food on his grave. According to media reports, the woman died in early April from starvation and stress caused by the Russian invasion.
Vlad is now growing up without his mother, sharing the fate of many Ukrainian children who have suffered casualties – or other devastating effects – from the war in Ukraine over the past seven weeks.
UNICEF: At least 142 children killed in war
The figures are alarming: since the beginning of the Russian invasion, at least 142 children have been killed, according to the United Nations children’s fund Unicef. In reality, the numbers are likely to be significantly higher, according to the aid organization. Ukrainian justice spoke Tuesday of at least 186 children and young people killed and 344 injured.
Almost two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have had to leave their homes since the end of February. 2.8 million people have been internally displaced and two million have fled abroad, said UNICEF emergency relief program manager Manuel Fontaine. It was “simply amazing”.
A protest action in Finland: More than 140 children have already been killed in the war in Ukraine. (Source: imago images)
Of the Ukrainian children who have not yet fled, nearly half are at risk of starvation. The situation is worse in cities like Mariupol and Cherson, Fontaine said. The Ukrainian President’s wife, Olena Selenska, also spoke in a BBC interview about the suffering of children: for many, it is a question of survival.
“The situation is awful”
Toby Fricker, who has been strengthening the Unicef team in Ukraine for three weeks, also confirms these depressing descriptions. A few days ago, he returned to Lviv, the hub of Unicef aid in Ukraine, from Zaporizhia and Dnipro. Ukrainian refugees from contested areas arrive there. “The situation is horrible,” he told t-online. “It’s a massive tragedy, especially for women and children.”
In the heavily besieged port city of Mariupol, people had to stay in basements for weeks to protect themselves from attacks. Tens of thousands of civilians are still waiting to be evacuated, including many children. “Food is scarce and there is no access to drinking water,” says Fricker. “Children are particularly suffering from the atrocities of this war.”
A child crosses Mariupol on a scooter: the city is particularly disputed, tens of thousands of inhabitants are waiting to be evacuated. (Source: Itar-Tass images/imago)
Fricker: War has become normal for children
Together with Unicef, Fricker ensures that children fleeing besieged cities are safe – and feel it too: “They can play and rest here”. During this time, mothers or other relatives would be helped to plan their journey or life in their new place of temporary residence.
“It is particularly tragic that war has already become normal for many children and young people,” says Fricker. A 16-year-old told him in Lviv that he was no longer afraid. “You get used to the sounds of rocket fire and bomb attacks – because they are always present, every minute of the day,” explains the assistant.
Mothers want to give security to children
Fricker sees the shock of mothers and children. Most of the women fled because of their children, whose safety is their top priority. “Some mothers tell their children that they are going on a trip and that the rockets are fireworks,” says the assistant.
Other mothers gave their children to relatives or even strangers to bring them to safety outside war zones. When children are separated from their families and arrive at refugee assembly points without a reference person, it is important to get as much information as possible about their origin, says Fricker.
In this context, a photo of a little girl with her details written on the back has attracted attention on social networks.
Julian Erjautz has also seen the consequences of war for children: he was recently on the road for six weeks as emergency aid coordinator for SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine and the Polish border area.
He points to another problem: because of the war, children are prevented from going to school for weeks or even months. Education is a crucial factor in the development of children. “School is all about social interaction and education – but in times of war, it’s mostly normality,” says Erjautz. Millions of children currently lack this normalcy. Few would be taught online.
Medyka in Poland: Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrive in the neighboring country. (Source: ZUMA Wire/imago images)
“The cohesion of the Ukrainian population is enormous”
Assists like Toby Fricker and Julian Erjautz also see positives again and again. “The solidarity of the Ukrainian population is enormous,” says Erjautz. More recently, he met a family in Lviv who sought refuge with his grandmother. “The children were happy because they had not seen their grandmother for two years due to the pandemic. Now they are with her – albeit for sad reasons.”
Fricker also mentions the special solidarity of Ukrainians. In addition, the support of donations from around the world is immense. Nevertheless, according to the assistant, it is important not to forget one thing: “The war will continue, the need for help will not stop.”
“War creates a traumatized generation”
Death, wounds, emotional wounds, destruction: the atrocities of war have a devastating effect on children. “War creates a traumatized generation,” according to a report by SOS Children’s Villages.
The consequences are dramatic: “Children stop eating, they cannot sleep”, explains Darya Kasjanova, project manager of SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine and president of the Ukrainian network for the rights of the child, in the report. . Young children who had started talking were silent again, others who had already gone to the potty were stopping again. For some, the whole body is cramped.
Toys lie in the street in Borodjanka, Ukraine: millions of children have been forced from their homes. (Source: imago images)
Trauma is not only caused by shelling and direct experiences of war, but also by persistent hunger and cold, displacement or loss of home, Kasjanova reports.
Children need a regular daily life
Psychologists warn that the consequences can last long term. Jörg Fegert, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Ulm University Hospital, told SWR: “Some children develop (…) post-traumatic stress disorder with pronounced flashback memories, so something like in the movie reappears.” The consequences could be severe insomnia. However, other children may adapt again after a relatively short time.
According to experts, it is important to give children a sense of normalcy and create a regular daily life. This includes, for example, a lullaby or a bedtime story in the evening. They also need to know that their parents or guardians are also safe, says Kasjanova of SOS Children’s Villages. These are “absolute minimum requirements”.
“They are constantly afraid”
And there is a need for relief for young people too. They are constantly afraid: for their lives, their friends and their family, says Kasjanova. They would have no perspective and no daily life. “You can’t say: tomorrow I’m going to the cinema with my friends.”
Due to the massive consequences for children, psychiatrist Fegert calls for intensive therapeutic care for refugee children who come to Germany. But even with therapy that can support the treatment of what happened, a sad fact remains: millions of children have lost their chance for a carefree childhood.