In Ukraine, young children suffer the invisible scars of war

Five-year-old Arthur still bears scars after surviving the attack on Mariupol.

Arthur listens as his mother tells their story.
20 April 2022

Five-year-old Arthur from Mariupol, Ukraine, may have survived hunger and the bombing of his home city, but the mental scars will stay with him forever. 

In Mariupol, his daily ration was a glass of water and a fragment of cookie. By the time he and his mother Miranda managed to escape the city, the boy was dying of exhaustion. Arthur has stopped talking and smiling.

"After everything he saw and heard, after the explosions and debris, he fell silent,” says 23-year-old Miranda. "At around 2 a.m each night, he wakes up, tries to run away and hide. It's because at this time they were usually bombing Mariupol."

Miranda kisses her son's hand.
Miranda kisses her son's hand.

Trapped and traumatized

Mariupol, a port city in the southeast of Ukraine, where around half a million people had been living, now lies in ruins. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes, hundreds have been injured or killed. Many more have found themselves trapped. 

During the first few days of the war, Miranda had to shield Arthur from the bomb blasts with her body.

"It felt like I was being blown away by the blast wave and I almost tore my hands off, clinging to the handrails of the stairwells where we were hiding," she recalls. "We had no electricity, water, gas, heat and mobile connection. There was no bread or medicine." 

After nearby apartment buildings were shelled and caught fire, Miranda, her mother and Arthur decided to seek shelter in the city center. They spent two weeks in the Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of other civilians were hiding. 

"There were pregnant women with newborns, elderly people and animals,” says Miranda. “They all were scared, the children were crying. During the nights, when bombings started, people were screaming in fear." 

"The theater was not heated, and little Arthur was constantly cold. I slept just sitting on a thin mattress on the floor. And he slept in my arms.”

By that time, Mariupol was running out of food, with humanitarian convoys unable to reach the city due to the fighting. Miranda was going to the field kitchen open in the city and serving women and children a glass of water or soup once a day. But it was not enough.  

"The soup consisted of water and sometimes pieces of potato,” says Miranda. “Children also received some liver every evening.”

Arthur and his mother play with a toy. The boy holds his mother's hand.

A fight for survival

After 10 days of living in the theater, Arthur fell ill with a fever.

"He was screaming a couple of days in a row,” says his mother, sadly. “And then he became weak with hunger. I told him that, soon, we will go to a good world, where we will have food and bed, you'll have a bath and be watching cartoons.”

But Miranda knew time was running out. Without waiting for the humanitarian corridor, the family found a car to pick them up and left the city on their own. After artillery shelling and several military checkpoints, they finally reached Nikopol.

There, Arthur received medical care and gradually began to eat and recover. But the stress and exhaustion from his ordeal has left its mark.

"Before the war, my son used to like playing, jumping, laughing. But after everything he saw, he stopped even smiling and talking,” says Miranda. “He had sunken eyes, I thought he would not survive. Now he's feeling better, but sometimes he recalls something, comes to me, embraces me and cries. And I cry with him."   

Artur, Miranda, his grandmother Kulikova Nadiya Oleksandrivna and a woman (Kovalchuk Larysa Mykolayivna), who sheltered the family at her home in the village of Pivolnoye, Dnipropetrovsk region. Everyone plays with Arthur.

Seven weeks of war in Ukraine has led to the displacement of 4.3 million children – more than half of the country’s estimated 7.5 million child population. This includes more than 1.8 million children who have crossed into neighbouring countries as refugees and 2.5 million who are now internally displaced inside Ukraine. 

Of the 3.2 million children estimated to have remained in their homes, nearly half may be at risk of not having enough food.

UNICEF and its partners are working hard to reach children in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries with humanitarian assistance trying to meet the needs of children wherever they may be. Across the country, UNICEF has reached nearly 600,000 people with life-saving medical supplies through hospitals and maternity homes in Dnipro, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Vinnytsia and Zhytomyr. UNICEF also provided almost 240,000 people with drinking water and hygiene supplies in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kyiv and Lviv.

UNICEF is sending more supplies to areas across the east where the conflict could worsen. ‘Spilno Centers’ are being established at strategic hubs to support children and families on the move inside Ukraine. Additionally, UNICEF is also getting cash to 52,000 households to ease some of the impacts of lost livelihoods and setting up life in a new place.