Scarred by war, Ukrainian children carry on after losing parents, home and innocence

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — The two children squint to see through thick smoke billowing in the air after a deafening explosion rocked their small home in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Ukraine.

The couple, aged 9 and 10, called their father. Only an eerie silence followed.

Then Olha Hinkina and her brother, Andrii, rushed to the air-raid shelter, as they had been taught. When the explosions stopped and the smoke cleared, they found their father on the porch, motionless and covered in blood after being hit by a Russian projectile.

“Father was killed at seven in the morning,” said Andrii, who now lives in the safer western city of Lviv, near the border with Poland.

The two siblings join a generation of Ukrainian children whose lives have been turned upside down by war. Russia’s full-scale invasion subjected them to constant bombardment, uprooting millions from their homes and turning many into orphans.

Hundreds of children have been killed. For survivors, the massive trauma will certainly leave psychological scars that will follow them into adolescence and adulthood.

“Even though the children have fled to a safer area, that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten everything that happened to them,” said psychologist Oleksandra Volokhova, who works with children who have escaped violence.

At least 483 children lost their lives and nearly 1,000 were injured, according to figures from Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office.

Meanwhile, UNICEF says around 1.5 million Ukrainian children are at risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, with potentially lasting effects. .

Nearly 1,500 Ukrainian children have become orphans, the National Social Service of Ukraine said.

The highest number of child casualties come from Donetsk, the epicenter of many battles, where 462 children were killed or injured, according to Ukrainian officials.

This figure does not include casualties in the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, also part of Donetsk province, where Ukrainian officials have struggled to find the dead and injured.

Before the war tore them apart, the Hinkin family was like any other resident of the village of Torske, which today is just 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the front.

With the death of their father in October, the children became orphans. Their mother died years before the war.

Six months later, the siblings seem to be past the worst of their ordeal.

Police and volunteers evacuated them to a safer area in the western region of Zakarpattia, where they were cared for by government social services and a Ukrainian charity called SOS Children’s Villages, which provided accommodation and counseling .

Their story became known in and around Torske after police released a widely circulated video showing their father’s body being removed from the family home.

“We knew the village. We knew where they lived. We knew these people,” said Nina Poliakova, 52, from nearby Lyman.

Although she fled last year with her family to Lviv, Poliakova continued to follow the news from her native region. Then tragedy also struck her life when her 16-year-old adopted son died suddenly of heart disease.

She also has a 16-year-old adopted daughter whom she welcomed with her husband in 2016 to the occupied town of Horlivka, where hostilities with Russian-backed separatists began, years before the 2022 invasion.

Mired in grief, Poliakova once received a call from a local children’s support center. The caller asked if she would be willing to meet the Hinkin siblings.

When they first met, they mostly talked about the Hinkin family home and the pets they owned. One of Andrii’s favorite activities was feeding the pigs.

Poliakova decided to welcome the two children into her extended family.

“We had this tragedy in our family, and then fate brought us together,” Poliakova said. “Now many children are left alone, without parents. Children need care, love. They seek to be embraced and comforted.

Many foundations have sprung up to help children deal with the trauma of war, including a group called Voices of Children, which has handled approximately 700 requests from parents seeking help for children suffering from chronic stress, panic attacks and PTSD symptoms.

The pleas changed as the war progressed, according to a report published by the charity. Over the past winter, parents have sought help after noticing behavioral changes in their children, including listlessness, aggression and anxiety, sensitivity to loud noises and antisocial habits.

“A child’s psyche remains more malleable than that of adults, and with timely and quality support, we understand that a child can more easily overcome any traumatic event,” said Olena Rozvadovska, head of Voices of Children.

Recovering from months so close to the battle lines has been difficult for the siblings, Poliakova said.

“They were very scared,” she said. Olha cried and hugged her every time she heard the air raid sirens. Andrii was relatively quiet during the day but started screaming in the middle of the night.

A charity known as Sincere Heart has been running short-term recovery camps for children and their mothers since the invasion began last year. Over 8,000 people have used the camp’s services.

Poliakova took her three adopted children there. She wanted to help rekindle the childhood they had lost to the war.

At camp, they played with other children who had similar experiences and participated in art sessions, dance lessons and other activities designed to help children express their emotions.

Laughter and games echo through the camp full of children from the war-torn regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and other regions. Many have witnessed bombings and lost a relative. Some have recovered from war-related injuries.

During an art session, children were given white T-shirts and asked to express their feelings through drawing. Most painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and scrawled with the phrase “glory to Ukraine”.

Olha Hinkina painted a heart in blue and yellow.

“Children reflect what’s on the surface,” Rozvadovska said. “They grow in an atmosphere of the colors of our flag, the daily updates from the front, the pride of the army standing tall.”

Healing is at hand for children, she added. They can become stronger because they survived.

“They carry the experience that helped them survive,” she said. “Maybe it even made them more resilient and adaptive.”

When Andrii Hinkin remembers his hometown, he doesn’t remember bombs, smoke, or thunderous explosions. He remembers it as a beautiful village.

When asked what his biggest dreams are, he replies shyly. “I want to grow.”

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