In conflict-ridden eastern Ukraine, a contact line stretching 472 km separates government-controlled from non-government-controlled areas. Children living in proximity to the line face daily threats from shelling, mines and unexploded ordnance. Meet two families, living on opposite sides of the line, but both struggling to make it through winter.
Maryna and Tetiana may live on opposite sides of the conflict line in eastern Ukraine, but they both know what it is like to fear for their families. They both have had to shelter from the shelling. And they both worry every day for their future.
“Just yesterday a shell fell on the neighbouring street,” says Tetiana, a mother of three. “It was very scary at night, the windows were shaking and the house was jumping. My youngest, Ania, wakes up on nights like this and asks: ‘Mom, are they bombing again?’”
This is the fourth winter they and thousands of other families have struggled through amidst a protracted military conflict. Their walls are pierced with shell fragments and they have no windows to speak of, just polyethylene film that lets in the cold and damp.
Emotional scars of war
Maryna, who lives with her daughter’s family in non-government controlled Donetsk, is just a kilometer from the contact line. Anxious to escape the fighting, they were living with acquaintances out of town. Now, after running out of money, they have been forced back home, where the shelling continues unabated.
“The house is small and old and there is shelling, but it is our house,” says Maryna, whose five grandchildren all huddle on a bed by the wall when the blasts start. “The children have gotten used to it already, they calmly go into their hiding place and are not scared. But, of course, I think that all of this shelling leaves them emotionally traumatized.”
The electricity and mobile network often stop working, and heating comes from a single stove. Sisters Karina, 7, Sofia, 6, and one-year-old Ilia usually spend their evenings playing with their pet tortoise and rat, while the eldest children, Sasha, 10, and Alika, 11, try to focus on their homework or help to gather firewood between the shelling.
Even when the shelling stops, financial worries keep the adults awake at night. Coal is expensive, and only the children’s father can find work. Their small television set is connected to an antenna made from tin cans and pieces of wood.
“We receive some small social benefits for the children and sometimes some humanitarian aid,” says Maryna. “This is enough only to get food and clothes for the children, and to buy coal. They are getting bigger, and of course, they need a computer, but we are not even thinking about it now. Right now, their entertainment is their pets and cartoons.”
Water under fire
The family’s home has had no running water for four years, after piping was damaged by shelling. The children regularly accompany their mother to a well to collect water.
“We go every day, sometimes several times,” says Karina. When it rains, the family rushes to fill their yard with buckets and bowls.
“I don’t know why, but our well water now tastes bitter. Before cooking with it or drinking it, we boil it and let it sit for some time,” she says. “I think this is because of shelling – something got into the water.”
“War surrounds the children”
On the other side of the contact line, Tetiana and her three children are also struggling through the freezing winter.
“In December, we bought a ton of coal and a second-hand jacket for our son from acquaintances, as we had no money to buy a new one,” she says. “I had almost no money left for January, and I need to choose between buying diapers for my child or a New Year tree.”
Tetiana, her husband, mother and three children live in one of the most dangerous places in eastern Ukraine. The suburbs are constantly shelled, despite the official ceasefire. On the street where they live, every second house is partially damaged and abandoned, with wood planks across the windows and fruit trees not picked since last autumn. Her son, Vitia, 11, is used to spending nights in his family’s basement during heavy shelling. There is no heating, so the family wrap themselves in blankets and wait until it gets quiet.
“I don’t go to school now, because we’ve had no electricity for three days, and it’s cold to study at school now,” says Vitia. His school relies on electric heaters to keep students warm. When there is no electricity, they study from home under a distance learning program.
Vitia often helps his parents stock up firewood for the winter. He and his nine-year-old friend Vania have made wooden machine guns and, together, they play ‘war’, mimicking the sound of shooting as the real bullets ricochet in the distance.
“So it goes,” says Tetiana, sadly. “War surrounds the children everywhere here.”
This winter UNICEF, with support from the Government of Germany, has provided coal, boilers, heaters and generators to keep schools and medical institutions warm near the contact line in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is most severe. Some 75,000 vulnerable children and adults in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have benefitted during the cold months.