A victim of the war appeared without some kind of loss: a gutted home. A loved one has disappeared. A life was taken.
Yet no one loses as much in war as a child—scarred for life by its ravages.
In Ukraine, time is running out to prevent yet another “lost generation” – an often-used expression not only for young lives, but also for those who have sacrificed education, enthusiasm and friendship or suffered too much in order to move the front line Traumatized children are healed.
The online code “Sons of War” at the top of the Ukrainian government page flashes a grim and steadily rising number: Deaths: 361. Injured: 702. Missing: 206. Found: 4,214. Deported: 6,159. Returns: 50.
“Every one of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children has trauma,” said Murat Sahin, UNICEF representative in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10 percent or 50 percent of them are okay — everyone is going through it, and it takes years to heal.”
According to humanitarian agencies, more than a third of Ukrainian children (2.2 million) have been forced to flee their homes, with many of them displaced two to three times as a result of losing territory. More than half of Ukrainian children (3.6 million) may not be able to return to school in September.
Yet even as the war enters its sixth month, child advocates say there is still time to make meaningful changes to the way young people emerge from conflict.
In Lviv’s maternity ward, mothers pray that the fight ends before their babies are old enough to remember it. In eastern Ukraine, activists search for children missing on the front lines. Across the country, rescue workers and Ukrainian officials are scrambling to repair bombed schools and begin providing psychological support.
“We believe in the resilience of children,” said Ramon Shahzamani, president of War Child Holland, which focuses on psychological and educational support for children in conflict zones.
“If you can reach children as quickly as possible and help them process what they’re going through and seeing,” he said, “then they can process their emotions.”
This resilience is evident in the way children adapt to their everyday lives — scribbling and drawing with crayons on the walls of the dank basement in which they are imprisoned, or inventing a game based on the checkpoints they often encounter. They mimic the harsh reality they witnessed in war, but also find ways to escape it.
In Donbass, a 13-year-old girl named Dariia no longer flinches or runs away when shells hit the neighborhood, and she’s used to the terror that erupts every day.
Even so, unhealed psychological trauma comes at a price. The impact is not only mental, but also physical.
Sonia Khush, director of Save the Children Ukraine, said children exposed to the war were at risk of “toxic stress”, a situation triggered by extreme adversity. The effects are so powerful that they can alter brain structure and organ systems and persist into a child’s adult life.
Mr. Shahzamani said to provide today’s Ukrainian children a hopeful path through the war. It is also for the future of the country.
Children at War recently surveyed the children and grandchildren of those who lived through World War II and found that even families two generations later were affected by wartime trauma.
“War is intergenerational,” he said. “That’s why commitment to children’s well-being and mental health is extremely important.”
Ms Kush said education was crucial for psychological support. Schools provide children with social networks among their peers, guidance from teachers, and daily activities that can provide a sense of normalcy in the midst of general uncertainty.
According to the United Nations, more than 2,000 of the approximately 17,000 schools in Ukraine were damaged by the war and 221 were destroyed. Another 3,500 were used to shelter or help the 7 million Ukrainians fleeing to safer parts of the country. No one knows how many schools will open a month from now when the school year begins.
Social damage is harder to fix. Thousands of families were torn apart as brothers and fathers were drafted or killed, and children were forced to flee, leaving grandparents and friends behind. Rescuers noticed growing problems with nightmares and aggressive behavior in young children.
Before the invasion, there were around 91,000 orphanage children in Ukraine, more than half of whom were disabled children, Mr. Shaheen said. How much that number has climbed since the war began has not been released.
One of the main unknowns of war is the number of orphans or children separated from their parents. But in addition to the orphans, Moscow forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, according to Ukrainian officials. Many are considered children separated from their parents.
Now Ukrainian activists are using secret networks in Russian-controlled territory to try to obtain information about the children — and bring them back if possible.
Orphans also have hope. A new initiative led by the Ukrainian government and UNICEF has encouraged some 21,000 families to register as foster families. 1,000 people have been trained and adopted children.
“This is just the beginning,” Ukraine’s Social Policy Minister Marina Razebna said recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building new things, not rebuilding the past.”