With rising tensions and the threat of war, children living on the front lines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must learn to cope with relentless stress, with experts warning of long-term distress.
8-year-old Liza Shtanko stood on the side of a muddy road and watched Ukrainian soldiers pass by. She was one of the few children left in a city that had been badly damaged by the Russian invasion.
There was practically no heating or electricity. Most of her friends are long gone. And just this morning, the strike hit Lisa’s house.
“Today I am not in a good mood because of the shelling,” she told Agence France Presse (AFP) in front of her father Viktor Shtanko. Shtanko’s hometown of Liman survived four months of Russian occupation, which left much of the city in ruins and the surrounding forests turned into minefields.
Ukrainian forces regained control of Liman in October, but fighting continues nearby.
“Of course she’s scared,” said Victor, a 42-year-old electrician.
“There is nothing worse than death lurking around you. But she’s fine with her father.”
The upcoming New Year and Orthodox Christmas on January 7 may be a bit of a distraction from the war, but the only toy Victor can offer will be donated by a humanitarian group.
These hardships have forced most families with children to leave, and many have “no reason to return,” said Kostya Korovkin, father of 6-year-old Nastya.
Kostya told AFP that he has nowhere to go, meaning that Nastya is forced to spend long days in the basement of their house, occasionally going outside, where only stray dogs roam.
Sometimes she goes up to the sixth floor of the building, the only place where she can get an internet signal and take online classes.
In front of the entrance to her house, someone put a small Christmas tree and spread candies on the branches.
“But,” said Kostya, “there are no children left to collect them.
No thoughts about the future
While there is no more active fighting in Liman, in other cities in the east of the Donetsk region, war is still on the threshold.
Bakhmut, where President Volodymyr Zelensky made a daring surprise visit last week, has come under months of attack from a Russia that refuses to give up.
In the depths of one of the cellars, where 20 people were hiding for eight months, 14-year-old Gleb Petrov greets visitors with a firm handshake and a serious expression on his face.
He is the only juvenile living in the basement, where he spends his days sleeping late, caring for the elderly, and looking after a black kitten who has also taken up residence there.
Sometimes he draws, tries to read adult books, or, when there is electricity, plays on his phone.
“I don’t think about the future,” he told AFP.
“I don’t even know what will happen in an hour or in a day.”
When the sound of explosions resounded outside, Gleb said that he had learned to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire.
When asked about his biggest dream, he replied that he just wanted to “walk with a friend.”
Dozens, if not hundreds of children remain in Bakhmut, whose parents cannot or do not want to leave.
“These children have already become adults,” says Katerina Soldatova, a volunteer from the association, which set up a shelter in the basement of the school.
The heated room has a Christmas tree and a TV – “everything to make them feel a little safe,” Soldatova said.
Access to such a shelter can be extremely dangerous, and two civilians were recently killed on the road to Soldatova.
But it has become vital for kids like Vladimir, 12, who told AFP he only leaves to go home and eat.
Psychologist Alena Lukyanchuk emphasized that Bakhmut’s children were in a state of “permanent insecurity.”
“The world can betray them at any second, everything can collapse in an instant,” said Lukyanchuk, who works for the Ukrainian branch of the public organization SOS Children’s Villages.
Because their parents are “survival-focused,” she says, children must learn to cope with constant stress, which “affects concentration (and) cognitive resources” and can lead to long-term distress.
But she said she is trying to remain “a little optimistic” by refusing to accept the idea that these children will make up the so-called lost generation.
“There is no safe place in Ukraine, but only a small percentage of children live on the front lines,” Lukyanchuk said.
“They will need to be monitored, but I’m sure many will find resources.”