No victim of war emerges without suffering some form of loss: a home removed. A loved one disappeared. A life torn away.
Yet no one loses so much to war as children – scarred by its ravages for a lifetime.
In Ukraine, time is running out to prevent another “lost generation” – the often-used term not only for young lives taken, but also for children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to switch front lines or suffer too deeply psychological scars. to be cured.
The online ticker at the top of a Ukrainian government site, “Children of War,” flickers with a grim and steadily rising number: Dead: 361. Wounded: 702. Missing: 206. Found: 4,214. Deported: 6,159. Returned: 50.
“Every single one of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children is traumatized,” said Murat Sahin, who represents the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10 percent or 50 percent of them are OK—everyone experiences it and it takes years to heal.”
According to humanitarian organizations, more than a third of Ukrainian children – 2.2 million – have been forced to flee their homes, many of them displaced two or three times as territory is lost. Over half of Ukraine’s children – 3.6 million – may not have a school to go back to in September.
Still, even with the war entering its sixth month, children’s advocates say there is time to make meaningful changes in how young people emerge from the conflict.
In Lviv’s maternity wards, mothers pray for the fighting to end before their infants are old enough to remember. In eastern Ukraine, activists are searching for children who disappeared on the front lines. Across the country, aid workers and Ukrainian officials are scrambling to repair bombed schools and start psychological support.
“We believe in the resilience of children,” said Ramon Shahzamani, the president of War Child Holland, a group that focuses on psychological and educational support for children in conflict zones.
“If you’re able to reach kids as quickly as possible and help them deal with what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen,” he said, “then they’re able to deal with their emotions.”
That resilience is evident in the way children have adapted to their daily lives – scribbling with crayon and paint on the wall of a damp basement where they are held captive, or inventing a game based on the frequent checkpoint stops they are subjected to. They mimic the grim reality they witness in the war, but also find ways to escape it.
In Donbas, a 13-year-old girl named Dariia no longer flinches or runs when a shell hits nearby, so used is she to the terror that erupts daily.
Yet there are the costs of unhealed psychological trauma. And the effects are not only mental but also physical.
Children exposed to war are at risk of “toxic stress,” a condition triggered by extreme periods of hardship, said Sonia Khush, director of Save the Children in Ukraine. The effects are so powerful that they can change brain structures and organ systems, and last long into children’s adult lives.
Offering a hopeful path through war is not just for Ukraine’s children today, Mr. Shahzamani said. It is also for the sake of the country’s future.
The War Child group recently studied the children and grandchildren of those who lived through the Second World War and found that even two generations later, families were still affected by war trauma.
“War is intergenerational,” he said. “Therefore, it is extremely important to work with children’s well-being and mental health.”
Education is essential for psychological support, Ms Khush said. Schools provide children with social networks among peers, 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 have been damaged by war, while 221 have been destroyed, according to UN statistics. Another 3,500 have been used to house or assist the seven million Ukrainians who have fled to safer parts of the country. No one knows how many will open when the academic year starts in a month.
The 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 have been forced to flee, leaving grandparents and friends behind. Aid workers have noticed a growing problem with nightmares and aggressive behavior in young children.
Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 91,000 children in institutional orphanages, more than half with disabilities, Mr. Sahin said. No figure has been published for how much that number has increased since the war began.
One of the greatest unknowns of war is the number of children orphaned or separated from their parents. But apart from the orphans, according to Ukrainian officials, Moscow has also forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia. Many are believed to be children separated from their parents.
Now Ukrainian activists are using secret networks within 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. 1,000 of them have already been trained and are taking in children.
“This is only the beginning,” Maryna Lazebna, Ukraine’s Minister of Social Policy, said recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building something new, not rebuilding the past.”