Ukrainian children are victims of war
Ukraine is at war. The eastern part of the country is troubled by extensive warfare, and thousands of people have been affected, including children. The war in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the unrest that followed the Maidan protests last winter, has left its mark on a whole generation of children in Ukraine. Child psychologist Robert Coles points out that a nation's policies become part of children's everyday psychology. National crisis are no exception, quite the contrary. Ukrainian children are very heavily affected by the situation in the country.
Children at war
According to local health authorities, 35 children were killed and 87 injured as a result of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine before 30 September. On 5 November, a sport field was hit by grenades, and two boys were killed. Many more children have lost parents and family members because of warfare. For children who are still living in war-affected areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, everyday life is anything but normal. Children are at risk of being killed by unexploded ordnance, and both the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and UNICEF report about several damaged school buildings in the area. Many children have had their education interrupted, and there has been established alternative internet-based solutions. Children in war-affected areas are living in shelters, and are confined to stay indoors. Many children do not have access to clean water and live under poor sanitary conditions.
Ukrainian authorities stated in mid-October that more than 417,000 people are internally displaced in Ukraine, as a result of the unrest in Eastern Ukraine. At least a third of these are children. These children are troubled by uncertainty, grief and traumas, and according to UNICEF many children do not get the attention they need, due to lack of child psychologists and a support system for children in crisis. Some of these internally displaced children are separated from their parents. Ukrainian children who have been evacuated from orphanages in the most war-affected areas are extra vulnerable.
In a rapid psychological assessment of 204 children conducted by UNICEF in Donetsk region in May 2014, almost every other child told that they experienced fear, anger, sadness or had sleep problems. The report concludes that children in the region are strongly affected by the war.
Parents at war
The war in Eastern Ukraine affects all children in Ukraine. Children who live in areas of the country not directly affected by war are living with a real fear that their closest ones must participate in the war. For many, their fear is converted to an intolerable pain at the loss of a parent or sibiling. More than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in combat, and over 3,000 are injured, many of them fathers and mothers.
Further, many Ukrainian children lost a parent during the dreadful days in February when over 100 protesters were killed in Kyiv, and during that tragic day in Odesa on 2 May when 46 people were burned to death or shot.
Children's understanding of the unrest in Ukraine
Many Ukrainian children express strong emotions regarding what is happening in their homeland. Children's drawings and poems have been collected all over Ukraine and sent to Ukrainian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Children have raised money for the Ukrainian army, like 10 years old Taras who gave his birthday money to purchase bulletproof vests for Ukrainian soldiers. Children have supported Ukrainian soldiers through song and dance. Children of Prykarpattja have even formed their own battalion, whose weapon is singing. The child-battalion have raised money for bulletproof vests for the army.
In collaboration with UNICEF Ukraine, a number of Ukrainian children have made short films in which they express their thoughts about what is happening in Ukraine. Children have also been involved in social ads against war.
In early May, the newspaper Gordonua.com published an article containing interviews with 20 Ukrainian children, who were asked the question: "What is really going on in Ukraine now?" The children express different views on what the Maidan demonstrations were, for instance a place where people can voice their opinions, or that it is a city in Europe. Moreover, the majority of the children think that there is a war going on between Ukraine and Russia, and that Russia has taken Crimea from them. Some of the children say they do not know why, other children say it is because Russia wants to be a larger country. Common to them all is that they want peace in their country.
The talk-show 'Ukraine talks' on Kanal Ukrajina dedicated a program for Ukrainian children affected by the war. Here we meet five-year-old Sasha from Luhansk, who was shot after by separatists, while shouting 'look at him run'. Sasha would not eat or speak for several days. 17-year-old Andrij and his younger brother from Sloviansk, who lost their sister in a bomb attack. Volodja and his little sister from Ivano-Frankivsk, who lost their father when he served as an officer in the Ukrainian army. We meet children from Sloviansk, who tell of traumatic experiences, and who dress the talk show host in the Ukrainian flag. We hear from a survivor of the Beslan tragedy, and how he has lived with the tragedy the past ten years. We hear comments from children about what they would do if they had a magic wand, for instance the girl who says she would sacrifice her life if only others could live. We also meet psychologists commenting throughout the broadcast, and who give advice on how to talk to children, and what to tell them. Finally, we meet the Ukrainian soldiers who helped Sasha to speak again.
In late January, I interviewed Maksym, a boy of seven years living in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. This was before the tragic events that took place in February, when over a hundred demonstrators were shot and killed during the protests in Kyiv. Maksym told me about his thoughts about the demonstrations, and the impressions he was left with. During the conversation with Maksym it became very clear to me how much children actually pick up on what is happening in Ukraine, and that the reasons behind are not necessarily the most important to them. While adults tend to legitimize, dismiss, debate or undermine understandings of why things have evolved as they have in Ukraine, my impression is that children focus more on the specific consequences for those affected in one way or another. Later Maksym become something of a national celebrity in Ukraine, as a result of a drawing he sent to the Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, and later printed on large posters in several Ukrainian cities.
The Internet TV channel Hromadske.tv posted in mid-May two reports from a kindergarten in Kyiv, where the children created a flashmob in support of an independent Ukraine, and explained what war is. Children who are interviewed tell that they want to live in a free Ukraine, their country of birth. They are worried about the war, and are concerned for all the victims of war. Without specifying, the children express that the only solution is that those who started the war also ends it. The patriotism which children express and the way they express it, I clearly noticed in an essay contest I initiated for Ukrainian schoolchildren in 2007 (I have discussed how Ukrainian children talk about their homeland here).
Support for Ukrainian children
Several measures are being implemented for children affected by war in Ukraine, both by Ukrainian authorities and organizations, and by international organizations, although these measures in general seem to be too few and not extensive enough. For example, more than 200 children from Eastern Ukraine and children of parents who participate in the anti-terrorist operations in Eastern Ukraine was at summer camp in the outskirts of Kyiv. Crimea has had a long tradition of being home to a variety of summer camps for Ukrainian children, and as a result of Russia's annexation of Crimea Ukrainian children have had to travel elsewhere for summer camps this year.
There are also international aid projects for Ukrainian children. UNICEF and EU ECHO are present, and help with clean water and infrastructure. The Swedish government has allocated 1.1 million euros to measures for children and families in Donetsk. The Norwegian organization Open Heart, which has engaged in charity work for exposed Ukrainian children for many years, has now intensified its assistance to Ukraine. The same applies to other international aid organizations. Norwegian authorities support a project to strengthen children's rights in Ukraine, a project which started well before the past year's events.
In the best interest of children
No matter where the bombs come from, it is children who suffer most. Children need a safe and predictable environment, and this must be given precedence over all other considerations. We should learn from children when it comes to seeing the consequences of the horrors of war, and not so much its causes. The main message from the children is that the war must end. Children should not have to deal with the terror of war, children should not have a reason to form a 'child battalion', children should not have to be willing to sacrifice their lives in order for others to live, and children should not have a need to express their frustration by seeking revenge through their children's drawings.
Maidan Norway organizes in cooperation with an Ukrainian institute at Lviv Polytechnical University an essay competition for Ukrainian children. We will monitor the situation of children in Ukraine regularly, and post updates on our website.