No war casualty emerges without suffering some kind of loss: a house that has been gutted. A loved one has disappeared. A life snatched away.
Yet no one loses as much to war as children – a lifetime scarred by the devastation.
In Ukraine, time is dwindling to avoid a new “lost generation” – the oft-used phrase, taken not only for young lives, but also for the children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to shifting front lines, or too deep psychological scars to be healed.
The online ticker at the top of a Ukrainian government page, “Children of War”, is flickering at a stark and steadily increasing number: Dead: 361. Injured: 702. Gone: 206. Found: 4,214. Deported: 6,159. Returned: 50.
“Every one of the 5.7 million children in Ukraine has a trauma,” said Murat Sahin, who represents the United Nations children’s organization UNICEF in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t say 10 or 50 percent of them are okay. – everyone experiences it and it takes years to heal.”
More than a third of Ukrainian children – 2.2 million – have been forced to flee their homes, according to humanitarian organizations, with many of them displaced two or three times as territory is lost. More than half of Ukraine’s children — 3.6 million — may not have school to go back to by September.
But even as the war enters its sixth month, child advocates say there is time to make meaningful changes in the way young people emerge from conflict.
In Lviv maternity wards, mothers pray that the fighting ends before their babies are old enough to remember. In eastern Ukraine, activists search for children who have disappeared across the front lines. Across the country, aid workers and Ukrainian officials are busy repairing bombed schools and getting psychological help.
“We believe in the resilience of children,” said Ramon Shahzamani, chairman of War Child Holland, a group that focuses on psychological and educational support for children in conflict areas.
“If you can reach kids as quickly as possible and help them cope with what they’ve been through and what they’ve seen,” he said, “then they can deal with their emotions.”
That resilience is evident in the way children have adapted their daily lives: scribbling drawings with chalk and painting on the wall of a damp basement where they are held captive, or inventing a game based on the frequent checkpoints they are subjected to. They mimic the grim reality they witness in the war, but also find ways to escape it.
In the Donbas, a 13-year-old girl named Dariia doesn’t flinch or run away when a grenade comes near, she’s so used to the terror that erupts daily.
Still, there is the cost of unhealed psychological trauma. And the effects are not only mental, but also physical.
Children exposed to war are at risk of “toxic stress,” a condition caused by extreme periods of adversity, said Sonia Khush, the director of Save the Children in Ukraine. The effects are so powerful that they can alter brain structures and organ systems, right into the adult life of children.
Providing a hopeful path through war is not just for the children of Ukraine today, Shahzamani said. It is also in the interest of the country’s future.
The War Child group recently examined children and grandchildren of those who lived through World War II, and found that families were affected by war trauma even two generations later.
“War is intergenerational,” he said. “That is why it is extremely important to work on the well-being and mental health of children.”
Education is critical to psychological support, Ms Khush said. Schools provide children with peer-to-peer social networking, teacher guidance, and a routine that can provide a sense of normalcy amid pervasive uncertainty.
According to United Nations statistics, more than 2,000 of the roughly 17,000 schools in Ukraine have been damaged by war, while 221 have been destroyed. Another 3,500 have been used to accommodate or help the seven million Ukrainians who have fled to safer parts of the country. Nobody knows how many will open when the academic year starts in a month.
The social destruction is even more difficult to restore. Thousands of families have been torn apart as brothers and fathers have been conscripted or killed, and children have been forced to flee, leaving behind grandparents and friends. Aid workers see a growing problem of nightmares and aggressive behavior in young children.
Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 91,000 children in institutional orphanages, more than half with disabilities, Mr Sahin said. No count has been released for how much that number has risen since the start of the war.
One of the great unknowns of the war is the number of children who have been orphaned or separated from their parents. But in addition to the orphans, Moscow has also forcibly deported tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia, according to Ukrainian officials. Many are believed to be children separated from their parents.
Now Ukrainian activists are using clandestine networks in Russian-occupied territories to get – and, if possible, bring back information about those children.
There is also hope for orphans. A new effort led by the Ukrainian government and UNICEF has encouraged about 21,000 families to register as foster families. 1,000 of them have now been trained and taken care of.
“It’s just the beginning,” Maryna Lazebna, Ukraine’s social policy minister, said recently. “Sometimes destruction encourages building something new, not rebuilding the past.”