No casualty of war escapes without some casualty: a gutted house. A loved one has disappeared. A snatched life.
But no one loses as much from war as children – who are scarred by its devastation for the rest of their lives.
In Ukraine, time is ticking to prevent another “lost generation” – the term often used not only for young lives but also for the children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to shift or deepen the front lines psychological scars to be healed.
The online ticker at the top of a Ukrainian government page, “Children of War,” flickers with a dismal and steadily rising number: Dead: 361. Wounded: 702. Disappeared: 206. Found: 4,214. Deported: 6,159. Returned: 50.
“Every one of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children has trauma,” said Murat Sahin, who represents the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10 or 50 percent of them are fine – everyone experiences it and it takes years to heal.”
According to humanitarian organizations, more than a third of Ukraine’s children – 2.2 million – have had to flee their homes, with many displaced two or three times as territory was lost. More than half of Ukraine’s children – 3.6 million – may not have a school to go back to next September.
But even as the war enters its sixth month, child advocates say there is still time to make meaningful changes to how young people emerge from the conflict.
In Lviv’s maternity wards, mothers are praying that the fighting will end before their babies are old enough to remember. In eastern Ukraine, activists are searching for children who have disappeared across the front lines. Across the country, aid workers and Ukrainian officials are scrambling to repair bombed-out schools and begin psychological support.
“We believe in child resilience,” said Ramon Shahzamani, chair of War Child Holland, a group focused on psychological and educational support for children in conflict zones.
“If you can reach out to kids as quickly as possible and help them deal with what they’re experiencing and seeing,” he said, “then they can deal with their emotions.”
This resilience is evident in the ways children have adapted their daily lives – from scribbling drawings in crayon and paint on the wall of a damp basement where they are being held captive, or inventing a game based on the frequent checkpoint stops based to which they are exposed. They emulate the grim reality they experience in war, but also find ways to escape it.
In Donbass, a 13-year-old girl named Dariia no longer flinches or runs when a shell falls nearby, so used to the terror that erupts daily.
Still, there is the price of unhealed psychological trauma. And the effects are not just mental, but physical as well.
Children exposed to war are at risk of “toxic stress,” a condition triggered by extreme adversity, said Sonia Khush, Ukraine’s director of Save the Children. The effects are so strong that they can alter brain structures and organ systems and last well into children’s adult lives.
Offering a hopeful path through the war is not just for the children of Ukraine today, Mr Shahzamani said. It is also about the future of the country.
The War Child group recently surveyed the children and grandchildren of people who experienced World War II and found that families were affected by war trauma even two generations later.
“War is intergenerational,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to work on children’s well-being and mental health.”
Education is crucial to providing psychological support, Ms Khush said. Schools provide children with social networks among their peers, guidance from teachers, and a routine that can provide a sense of normalcy amid pervasive uncertainty.
More than 2,000 of Ukraine’s approximately 17,000 schools were damaged by the war, according to United Nations statistics, while 221 were destroyed. Another 3,500 have been deployed to house or assist the seven million Ukrainians who have fled to safer parts of the country. No one knows how many will open when the academic year starts in a month.
The social destruction is even harder to repair. Thousands of families were torn apart as brothers and fathers were drafted or killed and children were forced to flee, leaving grandparents and friends behind. Aid workers have identified a growing problem with nightmares and aggressive behavior in young children.
Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 91,000 children in institutional orphanages, more than half with disabilities, Sahin said. No account has been published of how much this number has risen since the beginning of the war.
One of the greatest unknowns of the war is the number of children who are orphaned or separated from their parents. But aside from the orphans, Moscow has also deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, according to Ukrainian officials. Many are said to be children separated from their parents.
Now Ukrainian activists are using secret networks in Russian-controlled areas to try to get information about these children – and bring them back if possible.
There is also hope for orphans. A new initiative by the Ukrainian government and UNICEF has encouraged around 21,000 families to register as foster families. 1,000 of them have already received training and are taking in children.
“This is just the beginning,” said Maryna Lazebna, Minister of Social Policy of Ukraine, recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building something new rather than rebuilding the past.”