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  • Writer's pictureJen Stout

‘Ukraine’s kids will always be different. Even far from frontline they have trauma’

Article published in the Sunday Post, Sunday 18th Feb 2024, print only.



Childhood goes by in a blink of an eye, they say. One minute a toddler is taking their first steps – the next, it seems, they're off to school. But imagine if two whole years of this precious time is swallowed up by war  spent in dank cellars, in fear, or perhaps in exile. 

 

When the Sunday Post first met Misha he was an impish wee boy, cuddling up to his mum Yulia Tomolenko, in a Kharkiv basement. It was early May 2022 and Kharkiv was in the firing line, a noisy and terrifying place. 

Now Misha is nearly 10, tall and serious. He's spent some of the past two years in Moldova with his granny, but still mostly lives in Kharkiv. The city still comes under attack regularly. But, Yulia, 38, explains why they stayed: the walls are strong, the house is still standing, and it's home  this is where her husband is, and her community.

"We all learned to support each other," she says of these two hard years of war. In the block "we are one big family – we gather together, celebrate holidays, cry when we lose people, hold memorials for the dead." 

Yulia, a manicurist, has even redecorated some rooms in their flat. They have dog called Harley, and several cats. It's better, she thinks, that Misha grows up at home, with his mum and dad.

But of course there's a cost. "Our children are not normal," she says sadly. "It's hard for them to get acquainted with someone, to socialise." 

It's still too dangerous in Kharkiv for schools to open, and children must attend school online. Before, Misha loved football. Now he is often glued to his phone, especially during the long hours spent in the corridor during air raid alerts.

Yulia noticed that his time in Moldova, going to school, made Misha "more open, more talkative". He was active, had a good appetite. 

"But back here... he's uptight. Even if you go to the cinema, inside you're tensed up, because you don't know where the next missile will land." 

Just last weekend a drone strike blew up a fuel depot, burning a whole street of houses to the ground. A family was killed as they slept. It feels relentless, Yulia says. 

"I just want peace. Peace everywhere, for the whole world." 

 

In Kyiv, schools are open, and the corridors of Petrivski Lyceum ring with the screams and laughter of 900 students. Alla Shakhova is teaching an English class, and her students are aged between 14 and 15. They joke around like any normal teenagers, but the stories they recount from the invasion would make your hair stand on end. This village, just north of Kyiv, only narrowly escaped occupation. 

Vladyslav Duhota, 14, recalls that morning, 24th February 2022: "I thought, are those our planes, our helicopters? But no  they were Russian. We saw the smoke coming from Boryspil [airfield], we saw planes flying directly above it." 

Dmytro Vorona, 15, jokes that instead of going to the basement, he went for a walk "to have a look". He wasn't scared, he insists. But his classmate Liza Horoshun, 15, certainly was. A helicopter one flew right past her window. "It turned sharply to the left, towards Kyiv. And I thought - 'Wow, so that's it'." 


In Pictures: Kyiv's high school students


Photos taken in Petrivskyi Lyceum, December 2023, © Jen Stout


She remembers her legs and arms shaking uncontrollably. "It was so scary. I don't know how to explain it." Liza still struggles with the effects of it all, jumping at the sirens, at the thud of snow falling off the roof. Iryna Budushevska, her classmate, felt the same intense anxiety. She was already "an anxious person," the 14-year-old says, but when her mum woke her up at 5am that morning, she became hysterical. Like Misha in Kharkiv, Iryna has found games on her phone a big distraction. "But after two years they get quite boring."

Many of the children have parents or relatives serving in the army. Anna Melnychenko, 15, says her dad serves nearby now, so she can still see him every day. "I worried about him a lot when he was gone for months, but now he's home I feel much better." 

Anna doesn't worry about the war any more, she says; only the occasional explosions at night wake her up. She wants to work in IT, perhaps go to America one day. "I don't think the war will change my future that much." 

But the boys mostly see their future in the military. Like Maks Cheremukhin, a shy 16-year-old. He wants to be a hacker in the burgeoning cyber war. Taking on the Russians? "Yes," he laughs, "Why not?" 

Away from the noise of the corridor, headteacher Nataliya Zaichenko and director Olga Petrovska talk about the profound effect the war has had on their students. 

"It can be difficult for children to sleep," Nataliya says. "Some get very scared during air raid alerts, some react calmly, but inside they're worried." 

"They're restless," says Olga. "Like a raw nerve, very sensitive." The storm of hormones teenagers have to deal with, combined with constant adrenaline, is a toxic mix, and a lot of the students need mental health support. 

But at least their kids can be in school, socialising and learning from their teachers in person. "I find it difficult to think about what will happen to those children who are still distance-learning," Olga says. "The consequences will come years down the line." 


 

Oleksii Popchenko is a cheery little boy. He loves chocolate, Paw Patrol, and playing in the sandpit on his street in Ukraine.

Normal life has largely returned to the town of Bucha  despite the occasional air raid siren, the attacks on nearby Kyiv. But his mum Oksana Chub sees how the war affects Oleksii. 

"When he asks me why the Russians decided to do it, why they destroyed our peace, I understand that our kids will always be different," she says. "Even if they live far from the front line, they still have trauma." 

Oleksii knows what a drone is; he talks about 'angry rockets'. "You hear this and you think... this boy is only four years old."

The two of them lived through the hell of the early days of invasion, and escaped after seven days, finding a safe haven in Glasgow. But last year Oksana and Oleksii returned home. 

It was a decision she agonised over "a hundred times," she says. "Even now sometimes I think maybe I was wrong. People here ask why I came back."

It was few factors: she hadn't picked up enough English to work in her own profession  Oksana is a database analyst  and the family wanted to be together. Her parents are nearby, and now


Oleksii can be with his dad in person  instead of seeing him only on video calls. 

"We are very lucky - we have our home, it wasn't destroyed." The flat in a high-rise block was looted – Russian soldiers occupied the nursery school next door  and when Bucha was liberated at the end of March 2022, bodies were found dumped all over the streets and in mass graves.

Now the rebuilding is underway. Oleksii can play with the other neighbourhood kids, out on the leafy street. The war is ever-present in their lives: under his nursery school is a bomb shelter, the  walls painted with cartoons to make it brighter for the children. 

The year in Scotland, Oksana says, was a "wonderful time", surrounded by friends who helped them settle in. 

"I really appreciate how Great Britain and particularly Scotland help Ukraine," she says. "We're happy to have such a beautiful second home with open-hearted people." 

 

 

 

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