September 27, 2022


No casualty of war appears without suffering some kind of loss: A house gutted. A loved one has disappeared. A life he grabbed.

However, no one loses as much in war as children – scarred by its ravages for life.

In Ukraine, time is running out to prevent another “lost generation” – the often-used expression not only for young lives, but also for children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to shift the front line or suffer greatly deep psychological scars to be healed.

The online ticker at the top of a Ukrainian government page, “Children of War,” flashes a grim and steadily rising toll: Dead: 361. Injured: 702. Missing: 206. Found: 4,214. Deportees: 6,159. Returned: 50.

“Every one of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children is traumatized,” said Murat Sahin, who represents the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10 per cent or 50 per cent of them are OK – they all experience it and it takes years to heal.”

According to humanitarian agencies, more than a third of Ukraine’s children — 2.2 million — have been forced to flee their homes, with many displaced two or three times, as land is lost. More than half of Ukraine’s children – 3.6 million – may not have school to return to in September.

But even as the war enters its sixth month, child advocates say there is time to make meaningful changes in how young people emerge from conflict.

In Lviv’s maternity wards, mothers pray that the fighting will end before their babies are old enough to remember. In eastern Ukraine, activists search for children who disappeared on the front lines. Across the country, aid workers and Ukrainian officials are scrambling to repair bombed schools and begin 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 can get to kids as soon as possible and help them deal with what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen,” he said, “then they’ll be able to deal with their emotions.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

This resilience is evident in the way the children have adapted to their daily lives—crayoning and painting on the wall of a damp basement where they are held captive, or devising a game based on the frequent checkpoints they are subjected to. They mimic the grim reality they witness in 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 every day.

Even so, there is the cost of incurable psychological trauma. And the results are not only mental, but also physical.

Children exposed to war are at risk of “toxic stress,” a condition caused by extreme periods of adversity, said Sonia Kush, Save the Children’s Ukraine director. The effects are so powerful that they can change brain structures and organ systems, lasting well into children’s adulthood.

Offering a hopeful path through the war is not just for the children of Ukraine today, Mr. Shahzamani said. It is also for the future of the country.

The War Child team recently surveyed the children and grandchildren of those who lived through World War II and found that families even two generations later were affected by war trauma.

“The war is between generations,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to work for children’s wellbeing and mental health.”

Education is critical to 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 in the midst of pervasive uncertainty.

More than 2,000 of Ukraine’s roughly 17,000 schools have been damaged by the war, with 221 destroyed, according to United Nations statistics. Another 3,500 have been used to shelter or help the seven million Ukrainians who have fled to safer parts of the country. No one knows how many will be open when the academic year begins a month from now.

Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Social damage is even harder to repair. Thousands of families were torn apart as brothers and fathers were conscripted or killed and children were forced to flee, leaving grandparents and friends behind. Aid workers have noticed a growing problem of nightmares and aggressive behavior in young children.

Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 91,000 children in orphanages, more than half with disabilities, Mr. Sahin said. No account has been published of how much this number has increased since the war began.

One of the most important unknowns of war is the number of children who were orphaned or separated from their parents. But in addition to the orphans, Moscow has also forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, according to Ukrainian officials. Many are believed to be children separated from their parents.

Now, Ukrainian activists are using clandestine networks inside Russian-controlled territory to try to get information about these children – and, if possible, bring them back.

There is hope for orphans too. A new effort led by the Ukrainian government and UNICEF has encouraged some 21,000 families to register as foster families. Already, 1,000 of them are trained and accepting children.

“It’s just the beginning,” Maryna Lazebna, Ukraine’s minister of social policy, said recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building something new, not rebuilding the past.”



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