Ukraine’s Frontline Children

Doctors in the village of Popasna say they have seen a surge in psychosomatic disorders among children near Ukraine’s front line.

Psychologist Lyudmyla Romanenko says the conflict has left children in the region and their parents emotionally “frozen.”

Romanenko says this is a classic sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which comes from being overwhelmed by deep psychological trauma.

More than 13,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since 2014, when fighting broke out between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Parents in Popasna say they struggle to give their children love, warmth, and a sense of security.

 Children at the Leleka Rehabilitation Center in the frontline town of Popasna. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Children at the Leleka Rehabilitation Center in the frontline town of Popasna.

Zolote: Zhora

Four-year-old Zhora lives with his mother in the village of Zolote.

The forest behind their backyard is full of land mines. His mother says sometimes dogs trigger the explosives. “Their innards then hang on the branches of trees and bushes for a long time,” she says.

Zhora’s gaze is focused. His eyes don’t smile.

Four-year-old Zhora lives in Zolote. The village is located near the front line in eastern Ukraine and could soon be inside a newly negotiated demilitarized zone. (photo: ANdriy Dubchak)
Four-year-old Zhora lives in Zolote. The village is located near the front line in eastern Ukraine and could soon be inside a newly negotiated demilitarized zone.

Zhora avoids strangers and uses few words. His mother helps when he is interviewed.

“Zhora, do you remember when two pieces of debris hit our dog?”

“Yes.”

“The dog did not survive,” his mother says. “It lived three months and then died, Zhora. But tell us about the time they fired shots.”

“They fired when it was dark.”

Zhora imitates the sounds of different weapons.

Luhanske: Davyd, Vova, Stepan

Davyd, Vova, and Stepan have lived in the village of Luhanske since the beginning of the conflict. During the worst of the fighting in 2015, their family fled to Kharkiv but soon returned to the village where they had left everything behind: their crops, combine, tractor, dogs, and cats.

Their house stands on the outskirts of Luhanske, just beyond a checkpoint and forward positions of Ukrainian government forces.

Weapons are fired from Luhanske on a regular basis, and sometimes separatist shells land very close.

Ten-year-old Davyd rides a mini-quad bike while Stepan tries to catch up. Children are not permitted to go beyond the Luhanske checkpoint. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Ten-year-old Davyd rides a mini-quad bike while Stepan tries to catch up. Children are not permitted to go beyond the Luhanske checkpoint.

The boys are very active and restless. They are running all the time, trying to catch dogs or cats. They ride around on a mini-quad bike. The older kids are a great help to their parents around the house. They even drive the combine and tractor on the family farm.

Davyd, 10, wants to be a lawyer and to go to sea. The fence behind their house in Luhanske is full of holes from a mine explosion. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Davyd, 10, wants to be a lawyer and to go to sea. The fence behind their house in Luhanske is full of holes from a mine explosion.

Ten-year-old Davyd describes life in the village: “Sometimes, in the evening, when we eat watermelon, we hear shooting from one side, and then from the other. Some are firing from BMP infantry fighting vehicles, and others are firing mortars.”

“And you can distinguish the weapons?”

“A little. When a BMP shoots, the projectile whistles and glows. And mortar fire sounds heavy, it whistles a bit and isn’t visible.”

“Are you scared?”

“No. We are already used it. Once we didn’t have electricity for nine months. I did my homework with a candle. We hid in the basement.”

Vova, 7, and his little brother Stepan play with a dog in Luhanske.

Vova, 7, adds his observations: “When they fire, we run into the basement. We’ve even gone there in our underwear because we were afraid that it was going to end badly. I wish that the war would end and never happened at all.”

Stepan jokes around by walking like a zombie. His mother says that zombie-themed TV shows are his favorite.

The boys are very sociable and curious. They see the war as an ordinary part of their world.

Krasnohorivka: Sofia

When Sofia was 2 years old, she plummeted from a fifth-floor window, badly injuring her head, hip, and arm. An explosion had blown out the glass of her parents’ apartment in Krasnohorivka in June 2015. Sofia’s grandmother was minding her but was hurrying to collect clothes so they could run to the basement for safety.

A window damaged by shelling in Sofia's five-story Krasnohorivka apartment building. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
A window damaged by shelling in Sofia’s five-story Krasnohorivka apartment building.

Fortunately, military doctors were passing through Krasnohorivka the day of Sofia’s fall. They rushed her to a hospital, where she underwent emergency surgery. Follow-up treatments lasted for more than a year. Sofia, now 6 years old, is still recovering from her injuries.

Her speech is delayed, her vision is damaged, and she has a weak immune system, which makes her prone to illness.

Sofia, 6, is shy with visitors in Krasnohorivka. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Sofia, 6, is shy with visitors in Krasnohorivka.

Sofia does not want to talk about the war. She prefers the subject of cartoons and her cat. We thank her grandmother, Svitlana, for her hospitality and move on.

What amazes us is the apathy of the girl and her lack of emotion. Her grandmother says she spends most of her time at home and doesn’t like to go for walks. It’s not that easy to go for walks near the front line. There are shattered houses and piles of garbage everywhere.

Maryinka: Toma

In July 2017, Russia-backed separatists fired mortars into the small Ukrainian town of Maryinka. Some of the shells fell in a residential sector, wounding 3-year-old Toma and her two siblings.

Toma holds part of the shell in a neighbor's yard, where her sister and brother were injured in Maryinka. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Toma holds part of the shell in a neighbor’s yard, where her sister and brother were injured in Maryinka.

Toma’s stomach was hit by shrapnel from a shell that landed on the doorstep of her family’s home.

“‘Dad, I have a tummy ache,” her father recalls her saying, “and I looked and saw there was blood.”

Toma, now 6, plays in the yard of her house, from where she can see Donetsk: Frontline positions are just a few hundred meters away.

The shrapnel nearly hit Toma’s bladder and she spent several weeks in a hospital.

Her brother, Ivan, and older sister, Lena, were also wounded by shelling.

They had been on their way to their neighbor’s home to close a gate to the goat enclosure. When they arrived, a shell exploded behind the fence.Ivan’s leg and shoulder were hit by shrapnel. Lena was also wounded in her leg.The frontline positions of the Ukrainian Army are several hundred meters from their home. Lena calls the sound of rifle shots “popcorn” so that that Toma doesn’t get so scared.

The children and parents say it’s much quieter now than in the previous years. The shooting mainly targets Ukrainian military positions. Shelling almost never reaches their home.

A bullet from a large-caliber machine gun is lodged in the wall of Toma's house. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
A bullet from a large-caliber machine gun is lodged in the wall of Toma’s house.

They recall that not so long ago there was a loud explosion. It may have been a strike by the Russian Gorynich weapons system, targeting positions of the Ukrainian Army nearby.

Toma loves dolls and was promised a new toy by a visiting journalist. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Toma loves dolls and was promised a new toy by a visiting journalist.

Hranitne: Misha and Stanislav

Misha and his brother Stanislav live in the village of Hranitne and must cross the front line to reach their school in the separatist-controlled Staromaryivka. They are escorted each school day by their aunt, Tetyana Viktorivna, who works as a Ukrainian-language teacher at the school.

Misha is in sixth grade and Stanislav just started second grade.

Sometimes on their way to school, they hear shooting. They hide and try to determine how dangerous it is and whether they can move on.

“I want the war to end,” Misha says with tears in his eyes. “I want the bridge to be rebuilt and for people have jobs.”

The front line in Hranitne. The hill in the background is controlled by Russia-backed separatists. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
The front line in Hranitne. The hill in the background is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

Battle lines run directly through Hranitne, which sits on the Kalmius River. Ukrainian Army positions line the river. According to locals, the village itself is now rarely under the fire. But “rarely” is a relative term.

The principal of Misha and Stanislav’s school described an explosion on September 20 on the outskirts of the village. A shell hit the road that the children take home every day.

“Luckily, I was running late then,” Lesia Stepanivna says. “So, who knows what could have happened.”

Misha, Stanislav, and their aunt Tetyana, stand in front of the bridge over the Kalmius River. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Misha, Stanislav, and their aunt Tetyana, stand in front of the bridge over the Kalmius River.

After the end of the classes they can’t talk much because they need to rush home. ​

Viktorivna asks us not to ask her nephews more questions because they will become too upset.

Misha and Stanislav must cross the front line to go to school. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Misha and Stanislav must cross the front line to go to school.

Pavlopil: Sabrina

Seven-year-old Sabrina lives on the edge of Pavlopil and hears the sound of shelling about every other day. Behind her family’s yard are the forward positions of Ukrainian government troops.

Sabrina’s family farm raises pigs, ducks, chickens, and nutria, a beaver-like rodent valued for its fur and meat. With no jobs, they live from their livestock. Sabrina’s mother, Maria Chumak, says the state offers them no help.

Sabrina, 7, on her family's farm in Pavlopil (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Sabrina, 7, on her family’s farm in Pavlopil

Sabrina’s father suffers from diabetes, with stress being a contributing factor. As the disease has progressed, he’s developed detached retinas in both eyes and is now nearly blind. The family needs money for an operation but has no idea where it will come from.

For protection against shrapnel, the windows of Sabrina's home in Pavlopil have been covered with bricks. (photo: Andriy Dubchak)
For protection against shrapnel, the windows of Sabrina’s home in Pavlopil have been covered with bricks.

Each evening before bed, Sabrina recites the Lord’s Prayer and crosses herself three times.

Sabrina cries as her mother describes the war's effects on life in Pavlopil. *(photo: Andriy Dubchak)
Sabrina cries as her mother describes the war’s effects on life in Pavlopil.

Sabrina prays that a shell doesn’t hit her home and that her family will stay safe.

“God, please make the war end.”

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