For children growing up in eastern Ukraine, danger is never far away

In one of the world’s most heavily mined regions, simple childhood games can have devastating consequences.

By Yulia Silina
Ukraine. A boy looks out of the window of his home.
27 November 2019

KRASNOHORIVKA, Ukraine – Eleven-year-old Sasha is in the kitchen of his family home in, enthusiastically kneading some dough with one hand. His face beams as he talks about how much he enjoys cooking.

“I bake pies. And I’ve got a signature dish – a salad with cheese and chicken. I invented it myself,” he says. “Everyone in my family likes it.”

But Sasha admits that cooking is a hobby born of necessity. Venturing too far outside can be dangerous in Krasnohorivka, a town in eastern Ukraine that has been left battered by more than five years of conflict.

Many of the buildings in the town centre have been badly damaged by shelling. The surrounding fields, meanwhile, are littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance. Almost three years ago, Sasha and a few friends unwittingly brought home a cartridge they had found outside. It exploded in Sasha’s hand, tearing off his fingers.

It could happen to anyone

Svitlana, a friend of Sasha’s mother, vividly remembers the day of the accident, in February 2017. The two women were drinking tea while their children played in another room. At first, they thought the loud bang they heard had come from outside.

“I thought that the shelling had started again,” she says, “or that someone had let off firecrackers.”

Svitlana’s three-year-old daughter, Sofia, was also hurt by the exploding cartridge: her thumb was torn off and dozens of shrapnel fragments pierced her small body. She still needs plastic surgery, but Svitlana doesn’t blame Sasha or the other children for what happened to her daughter.

Ukraine. A girl stands in the doorway to her home.
Sofia, three-years-old, was hurt by an exploding cartridge in eastern Ukraine.

“We didn’t scold them,” she says. “[Around here], we understand that this can happen to any child.”

Some things change, some stay the same

Since the conflict began in 2014, at least 172 children have been killed or injured by mines and other ordnance in eastern Ukraine. Around 430,000 children currently live within 20-kilometres of the “Line of Contact” that divides the government and non-government-held areas and where fighting has been the most severe. The region remains one of the most heavily mined in the world.

Ukraine. A sign warning about landmines in eastern Ukraine.
A sign warning about landmines in eastern Ukraine, one of the most heavily mined areas in the world.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that children might end up playing with something dangerous.

“We’ve found shrapnel, even some shells, in the garden,” says Olena, Sasha’s mother.

Residents of Krasnohorivka sometimes joke darkly that it’s easier to find an explosive object than clean drinking water. For around four years, heavy shelling in and around the town meant that some homes were cut off from water and electricity supplies as critical infrastructure was crippled. During the day, Sasha would help his mother carry containers full of water from the town centre. At night, the family would sometimes huddle in a bomb shelter at a local factory.

Ukraine. A boy holds a fishing rod.
Sasha holds a fishing rod at his home in Krasnohorivka, eastern Ukraine.

Earlier this year, a recommitment to the ceasefire allowed for the restoration of electricity and water supplies in Krasnohorivka and an easing of shelling, especially at night. But it’s still not unusual to hear the sound of shelling in the distance.

“It’s pretty common,” says Sasha with a shrug as he adjusts the strap of a bag slung over his shoulder.

A neighbour whose house was damaged by shelling agrees. “War is everywhere,” she says. “It surrounds the children here.”

The cumulative impact of the conflict has been both physically and emotionally devastating for many children. UNICEF continues to work with partners across eastern Ukraine to provide counselling, psychosocial support, and information on the risks of mines to children, young people and caregivers affected by the conflict. But for the many children for whom shelling and shooting around schools remains a daily reality, even getting to and from classes safely can be an extremely dangerous and traumatic experience.

Scars you can and can’t see

Sofia shows off a picture she has drawn, of flowers under a blue sky. Following the incident, doctors managed to reattach her thumb, and she has retained good dexterity. But she still has scars on her hands.

Ukraine. A girl shows off a drawing she has just done.
Sasha shows off a drawing she has just finished. She wants to be an artist when she grows up.

Svitlana says that her daughter seems to be coping well with what happened.

Sofia smiles and gives a thumbs-up.

“When I grow up, I want to be an artist,” she says.

Sasha also remains upbeat – despite the boredom he he experiences at home. He would like to be able to ride a bike around the area, but his family can’t afford to buy him one right now.

Olena says that Sasha has remained sociable despite the accident and that he is good friends with other children living nearby. They’ve been helping each other cope with the effects of the explosion, she says, adding that the family has also received help from a charitable foundation that secured a prosthetic hand for Sasha.

“I’d really like him to start wearing it,” Olena says as she watches him fold his fishing tackle with his injured hand. “He’s not hiding his hand anymore. But I worry that he may be embarrassed by the prosthetic hand.”