Two children – Illia, 15, and Afina, 9 – have shared how although they do not bear any physical scars from the war, now in its eighth year, mortar shells and shrapnel have left them with invisible wounds that are nonetheless painful.
“My life has changed a lot,” said Illia. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I wouldn’t have had vision problems, and I would have continued to play hockey and enter university in Donetsk.”
A split-second change
Sadly, the teenager is not alone. UNICEF said practically every child caught up in the fighting between Government forces and mostly pro-Russian separatists is now thought to be in need of psychosocial support.
Illia recalled that he was standing in the kitchen when a shell hit his home.
“In a split second there was an explosion. All I remember is that my ears were buzzing, and I saw a yellow line of fire, then red, orange and fragments.”
His vision has deteriorated over the years. Nights spent sheltering in a dark basement have only made it worse.
Life during wartime
“The most important thing during a war is to make it to safety in time,” Illia said.
“When you hear a shot, you run to the basement, hide and wait for the explosion. You need to survive while you run to the basement. And then you need to survive in the basement.”
Illia has long dreamed of moving to a big city, but the war has upended his life and his plans.
The hockey team he played on has been disbanded due to the hostilities. The university that he planned to go to is now located on the other side of the checkpoints that form the ‘contact line’, in territory beyond Government control. And the stress has taken its toll on his vision.
However, thanks to hospital treatment, Illia has been able to stop his vision from deteriorating further. He now wears glasses to correct his myopia. And while he hopes to play sports again one day, he now enjoys helping around the house and preparing cupcakes and other delicious desserts for his family.
Although Afina is only nine, she has developed diabetes as a result of conflict-related stress.
Her blood sugar level must be measured up to seven times a day, and her family often struggles to afford life-saving insulin due to financial insecurity.
Afina was just two years old when the fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine. Her mother, Daria, remembers her daughter playing near their house when a tank drove along their street. The little girl ran as fast as she could, so that she even lost her shoes.
“She got scared and started hiding behind me, crying a lot,” Daria recalled.
“Yes, I remember,” Afina added, speaking in a soft voice. “How I ran away from the tank and lost my slippers. And I went running barefoot.”
Families feel the strain
After years of stress caused by shelling, Afina was eventually diagnosed with diabetes. “I started drinking a lot of water,” she recalled. “As if everything was dry inside me.”
The war has also impacted her family’s financial situation, and their lives have been turned upside down, as her mother explained.
“We were left without a livelihood,” Daria said. “They stopped paying the wages to my husband, payments to my parents were also delayed, even our cow stopped milking at that time.”
A day-to-day existence
The family now struggle to buy new test strips and needles for Afina, as well as insulin for her daily injections.
Daria recalled that her daughter has always dreamed of flying on vacation by plane.
“Perhaps someday we will be able to do it. But until the war is over, we live a day-to-day existence,” she said.
Protecting Ukraine’s children
Despite recent developments aimed at protecting the rights of children affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, UNICEF said nearly half a million girls and boys continue to face grave risks to their physical health and psychological well-being.
The UN agency and its partners provide mental health and psychosocial support services for children living along the more than 420 kilometre-long contact line that divides government and non-government controlled areas.
Last year, UNICEF support reached over 70,000 children, youth and caregivers. Teachers were trained to offer psychosocial support, meaning they can now provide better care for children in school, as well as better cope themselves with the fear and stress of the conflict.
UNICEF requires $2.2 million this year for its child protection work to provide more than 85,000 children with critical psychosocial support.