Football and gunfire: Childhood on the frontline of the conflict in Ukraine

Children living on the contact line in eastern Ukraine find solace in football

By Yuliya Silina
Two boys stand on a football field, Ukraine
20 June 2018

DONETSK, Ukraine, 20 June 2018 – A tattered ball sails off the school football field. The game pauses; team captain Dima stops and strains his ears. “They are shelling again,” says the 14-year-old, motioning towards the sound of mortar explosions and machine guns firing somewhere on the horizon. The ball is quickly thrown back into play and the game goes on.

After four years of conflict, the sounds of war have become an all too familiar feature of childhood in Ukraine, not even remarkable enough to stop the players’ focused efforts.

“We’re used to it,” comments Dima’s best friend, Ilia, 15, a serious boy. He adds that a bomb had recently exploded next to his house during heavy shelling. “Since the war broke out, it’s always like this.”

In contact with warfare

Every evening, around five boys and one girl, aged 8 to 15, meet on the outskirts of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, to play football. Their fans are their brothers, sisters and other younger children from the area. The field is one of the few places they can escape what’s happening around them, though the scars of war are pervasive: the walls of their nearby school bear the damage of shells that exploded here in 2015.  

The children and their families live in an area known as Adminvillage, just a few kilometers from the ‘contact line’, a 500-kilometre strip of land that divides government and non-government-controlled areas. This is where fighting is the most severe.

Every week, a child is injured or killed on both sides of the contact line, according to data from 2017. Landmines, explosive remnants of war and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are the leading cause of these child casualties. Many victims will live with lifelong disabilities.

Though Dima’s team is safe on their field, other children in Ukraine with a passion for football aren’t so fortunate.

Landmines pollute many of the open spaces where children play, putting about 220,000 children at risk.

A boy in a baseball cap looks straight on, Ukraine
Dima, 14 years old, dreamed of becoming a professional football player, but the conflict destroyed his plans. “I was attending a sports school for several years,” he says. “I had to study one more year and then I would have a chance to enter the football academy of Shakhtar Donetsk FC. Then the war began, and we had to move to another city with my mom because of the shooting.”
Dreams, interrupted

Growing up, Dima envisioned life as a professional football player. “I attended a sports school for several years,” he says. “I had one more year to go and then I would have had the chance to enter the FC Shakhtar Donetsk Football Academy. Then the war began, and me and my mom had to move to another city because of the shelling.” His mom works as a tram ticket collector.

The academy has now closed. “It’s been a while since then,” he says, sadly. “Now, football is simply a hobby for me.” He shows his passion on the field and as an avid supporter of FC Barcelona, a loyalty shared with most of his friends.

Lessening the burden

Across eastern Ukraine, UNICEF has assisted hundreds of thousands of children, youth and caregivers to alleviate the burdens of war.

With support from Germany, Italy and Japan, UNICEF and partners have taught 500,000 children in eastern Ukraine about the risks of landmines and UXO. UNICEF also conducts large-scale information campaigns in communities so that parents and children can protect themselves against landmines and UXO.

Another 270,000 children have received psychosocial support to help them manage the stress of life surrounded by conflict.

UNICEF also repairs damaged schools and kindergartens and distributes vital supplies, such as educational materials, furniture and sport equipment.

Children huddle together on a soccer field, Ukraine
Children who play football together on the outskirts of Donetsk are all of different ages and from different grades. They met and became friends at the football field near their school No. 71.
Families divided

On the field, Zhenia, the team’s female player, throws the ball back to her teammates. Her younger brother, Mykyta, 5, is her most devoted fan. He comes to watch her play every evening. “What a trick!” he shouts.

Zhenia is 15. She has brought the ball today, which belongs to her older brother. He lives on the other side of the contact line. Although travel across the line is possible, it is riddled with checkpoints and long lines. Zhenia sees her brother very rarely.

“I washed my brother’s ball and patched it up with tape,” she says. “Now it looks almost as good as new.”

Unstoppable spirit

The children play for several hours straight, splitting into small teams of three or four. It seems nothing can stop them. When thunderstorms and rain arrive, they simply take their sneakers off.

But the shelling starts getting louder. Caregivers like Dima’s grandmother, 67-year-old Liudmyla, begin arriving to escort the children home:

“Dima’s life could have been completely different. He could have become a football player. But now all he sees around him is this small village, shelling and the war. Football is his only escape.”

Dima adds, smiling, “We came [to play] yesterday, we came today, and we will come tomorrow.”