24 February 2023 - Ukraine

Sheltering under sacks and facing grave danger every day – children in Ukraine deserve a childhood too

Halyna* comforts her niece Olha*, 10, who recalls living close to the frontline, while Halyna's daughter Polina*, holds her brother (OLEKSANDR KHOMENKO/ Save the Children)

Halyna* comforts her niece Olha*, 10, who recalls living close to the frontline, while Halyna's daughter Polina*, holds her brother (OLEKSANDR KHOMENKO/ Save the Children)

It’s been a grim 12 months for families in Ukraine. 

Almost 500 children have died, with up to 1,000 injured; more than 3,000 educational establishments have been damaged or completely destroyed, severely impacting the education of over 5 million children. And, even as I write, a UN Commission gathers evidence to present next month to prove that grave violations have been committed against children in Ukraine.  

Since the war escalated a year ago, millions of boys and girls in Ukraine have led tumultuous, unpredictable lives. They have faced danger and emotional distress daily. Their families have been torn apart, with over 8 million people fleeing Ukraine to seek safety in Europe.  

Yet despite the ever-present threat of violence permeating the lives of children in Ukraine, what struck me on my recent trip to Kyiv, was families’ resilience. 

In a town in Kyiv region, I met Halyna*, her four children and her niece, Olha*.  

During our chat, 10-year-old Olha became emotional as the family spoke of how, in March last year, the war inched closer to their home, until they found themselves living right beside the front line. Confronted with violence at such close quarters, the family had to hunker down. 

Olha took shelter in the basement of her grandparents’ house, where she huddled under sacks and clothes. Her experience mirrors that of millions of children across Ukraine this past year, who have been forced to shelter in subterranean spaces as missiles rain overhead. Indeed, our report, A Heavy Toll, shows that families in Ukraine have spent over 900 hours underground since the war escalated in February 2022.  

Olha and her family survived a month’s bombardment.  And while everyone was physically unscathed, emotionally the conflict took its toll. 

Her cousin, Danylo*, age 9, hasn’t been sleeping well; he started screaming in the night a couple of months ago. 

Danylo is currently seeing a psychologist to help process the trauma. He is also attending a ‘Child Friendly Space’ run by Save the Children, along with his siblings. These quiet, tranquil spaces provide a secure area where children can enjoy a few peaceful moments as the conflict continues.  

“Children can divert their attention away from everyday life in the [child friendly] space, get to know other children, and communicate. They do not consider what was previously happening, but rather what is currently happening,” said Danylo’s mother, Halyna. 

Halyna also told me about her children’s resourcefulness while under siege. Every day, she asked her two eldest sons to leave the house to fetch water; every day, she feared they would never return. 

“We only made it because of my eldest sons, Oleh* and Dmytro*. Boys seem to handle all this better. It's like some kind of adventure for them…They supported me. We endured everything and realised that the most valuable thing is family.” 

It’s unimaginable to think what children in Ukraine have endured this past year. With no sign of war abating, the international community must continue to support families and address humanitarian needs in the country.  

In the year to come, increasing immediate, flexible funding to child protection programming will be vital. It will also be paramount to channel money into activities focusing on mental health and well-being, and to support children’s education.  

With many schools shut or destroyed, over 1.5 million boys and girls across the country are forced to study online. But even remote learning has been severely disrupted – according to a Save the Children survey, more than half of children have missed schooling due to blackouts. 

The impact of war on Ukraine’s educational system has been profound. The country once had an academic setup on par with its regional neighbours - now, learning outcomes are among the lowest in Europe. 

To help children access online learning, Save the Children is well on the way to establishing 100 Digital Learning Centres across Ukraine. We will also continue to train teachers, develop  offline  apps so children can enjoy reading at any time, and distribute ‘Education Kits’ with pens, colouring pencils and notepads. 

But responding to a fractured education system and supporting the psychosocial needs of children in Ukraine is not a short-term response: families will need the help of the international community for the foreseeable future.  

In Ukraine, those who are hit hardest are those the least responsible — the country’s children. So, in the year ahead, let’s make sure they can enjoy as normal a childhood as possible.

*Names changed to protect identities 

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