Children in eastern Ukraine bear invisible wounds of conflict

Viktoria is among hundreds of thousands of children who are still suffering from the consequences of conflict in eastern Ukraine, seven years after it first began.

Дівчина тримає іграшкового ведмедика
01 October 2021

Even at just 16 years old, Viktoria struggles to remember much of her childhood. 

She is not even able to recall the terrible morning in August 2014 that being a nine-year-old child, she left her home in eastern Ukraine, with just her mother and her cat, fleeing the whistling artillery shells.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed cities. But more than that – it has shattered childhoods.

“I have forgotten what my family members look like, I don’t remember many joyful events and trips,” says Viktoria. “It’s very hard to forget who I was. It’s like I am lost.”

Дівчина стоїть і тримає за лапу іграшкового ведмедя

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), teachers and psychologists are among those reporting signs of severe psychosocial stress in children from eastern Ukraine. Many are suffering from nightmares, social isolation and panic attacks caused by loud noises.

 Almost every child in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions need psychosocial support. UNICEF works to ensure the access to psychosocial support through community-based and school-based activities.

Wounds that never heal

Today, Viktoria is a high school student, who has a passion for environmental activism and is preparing to become a lawyer. But like many of her peers, the armed conflict feels like a wound that will never heal.

“After moving, I realized that I don’t remember the entire years of my life,” says Viktoria, who sometimes suffers flashbacks. “It’s like I was born a teenager.”

She tries to write down her fragile memories in a diary, fearing that they too will disappear.

“Mom told me that we left Makiivka after I asked her with frightened eyes: ‘Mom, are we going to die tomorrow?’” she writes in one of the entries. “Now I’m scared even to think that this happened. Sometimes it seems to me that the shelling was a dream or a coma.”

Дівчина сидить за столом і гортає щоденник

It is still difficult for Viktoria to say exactly where ‘home’ is.

At first, she and her mother lived with relatives. Then they rented a room in an apartment, where the owner drank heavily and was aggressive. After he burst into their room with a knife, Viktoria and her mother had no choice but to flee again.

“I’ve done a lot of moving around in my life,” says Viktoria. “It’s good that we were able to find our own home, move out of that hell. Now me, my mother and our pets have my own little world where it is easier to breathe.”

Дівчина стоїть біля вікна

Shaping a happier future

Viktoria has been in touch with a psychotherapist, but her memories are yet to return. Her mother Anna even gained a second degree in psychology, in an effort to help.

“Vika had a lot of traumatic memories,” says Anna, who works as a teacher. “I suffered a serious illness, then her father died, then the war and we started moving around. And the mind has blocked some of the bad memories, forced them out. The armed conflict, of course, affected her. She has become more mature, more serious.”

Руки дівчини тримають фотографію, на якій її обіймає мама

As well as her mother’s support, creativity has helped Viktoria to cope. She has been writing poetry and making objects out of modelling clay.

“After we moved, I sculpted my mother, myself, all my friends,” says Viktoria. “I sculpted the entire script – how we ran away from home, how we moved later. And it became easier for me. So I invented it, unconsciously helped myself."

This year, she and her friends won funding from UNICEF’s UpShift Green programme for a project to install solar panels at her school. She recently adopted a dog and spent the summer designing a cinema for teenagers that is powered by a bicycle energy generator.

Дівчина вигулює собаку

But, while Viktoria is determined to sculpt a happier future for herself, she knows a large part of her will always be shaped by the horrors of the past.

“It’s hard not to be able to go home, not to be able to go to my dad’s grave,” she says. “It's very hard to forget who you were.”

Over half a million children continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, facing grave risks to their psychological well-being. UNICEF is on the ground, providing psychosocial support to hundreds of thousands of children like Viktoria.

На обличчя дівчини через вікно падають промені сонця

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