Ukraine’s lost generation long for peace after eight years
In eastern Ukraine, a 16-year-old schoolgirl looks back on her lost childhood after nearly eight years of armed conflict.
Sixteen-year-old Nastia walks through the halls of an empty school. She barely recognizes her first grade classroom. The floral wallpaper is punctured with shell fragments, the playground outside is overgrown and a burning smell fills the air.
“I attended this school from the first to the second grade,” says Nastia, sadly. “Since then, I often dream in my head that I wish that time back. There were many children and teachers. It was fun here. We played, read and ran here.”
Now, after eight years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, Nastia’s carefree school days seem like a lifetime ago.
Schools under fire
Nastia’s old school sits along the ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine. Here, shelling, mines and missiles are a part of everyday life.
In 2014, the school was closed due to its proximity to the ‘contact line’, and last week was another terrifying reminder of why, when a shell hit the roof, causing a fire.
Nastia lives just across the road, with her parents and younger sister. Last week, during the attack, they were not at home.
“We were lucky,” says Nastia, relieved.
Nastia says her younger sister is afraid of shelling and finds it difficult to talk about the conflict. Nastia, too, has been feeling increasingly anxious over the last month – the possibility of renewed active hostilities weighs heavily on her.
“I don’t want armed clashes to be repeated again, because it’s very scary,” she says. “You don’t know where the shell will fall, where you will hide.”
These days, she wakes at 6am to catch the bus to a school in a neighbouring village. Before the conflict, it took her just five minutes to walk to school.
Today, the keys to old school are kept safe by Nastia’s mother, Viktoria. She hopes that it will reopen someday and regularly checks on the building.
One week after the shelling, after the building has been inspected by deminers, Nastia joins her on a visit to see if the water pipes have been damaged by the fire.
“I have never had so much fun anywhere as at this school,” says Nastia, gazing around an abandoned classroom. “I have never felt as happy anywhere as here eight years ago. Nowhere do I feel as warm as I did at this school.”
Trying to forget
Even more than her old school, Nastia misses her friends. Many families fled her village when the conflict first broke out and have never returned.
“Because of the war, I really miss my true friends, with whom I had lots of fun here,” she says, bursting into tears.
At 16, Nastia would like to join a dance club, an art class or a music school, but this is not possible in her village, which is still under shelling.
“My life is very different from the life of teenagers from peaceful regions,” she says. “They didn’t have anything like our childhoods – they didn’t hide in basements, they didn’t leave the village because of shelling, they just live. They live peacefully.”
She spends her free time drawing, helping her mother with the house and playing with her younger sister. In the future, she dreams of attending university and becoming a psychologist. For now, her interest in psychology helps her to cope with the sadness and anxiety she feels as a result of the conflict. She also offers advice to her classmates.
“There are few psychologists in schools here who can help children with anxiety,” she explains. “Therefore, you have to help yourself. You have to ask yourself how you will fight this, how you can help yourself so that you forget about the war.”
UNICEF on the ground
After nearly eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – including over half a million children. Fighting has forced scores of families from their homes and left tens of thousands of people killed or wounded.
Now heightened security tensions risk exacerbating an already fragile situation.
UNICEF is on the ground, delivering life-saving support to those who need it the most. We are also scaling up contingency plans and emergency preparedness to make sure that children and adolescents have access to education, health care, safe drinking water, humanitarian cash assistance and psychosocial support should emergency needs increase. However, resources are limited and we need help.
In order to meet the immediate needs of children in 2022, UNICEF is appealing for US$15.1 million to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to children and families affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. We call on all sides to abide by the ceasefire agreement and to respect international humanitarian law, including the requirement for unrestricted humanitarian access.