Wounded by war, the scars of Ukraine’s wounded children are more than skin deep

Russian troops set up a military camp in the small farming community of Yahidne, northeast of the capital Kyiv, on March 3, as they advance toward the capital. Serhii and his family were taken captive with hundreds of people in the basement of his school. Ten days later, while he was queuing to buy food in the playground, there was an explosion and he was hit by shrapnel.

“First, there was a strong blow to the back. I fell down, couldn’t get up, couldn’t move,” he told CNN Thursday, showing the spot behind his school where he was hit. “People ran and picked me up. I couldn’t even walk. There was a lot of blood.”

The next day, Russian troops flew the teenager in a helicopter across the border to Belarus for treatment along with their wounded soldiers. Photos of his injuries, shared with CNN, show a deep laceration to his shoulder. A medical report from the Gomel Regional Children’s Clinical Hospital, where he was treated, said he suffered an open fracture of the scapula, broken ribs and a deep contusion in the right lung.

Over the next month, Serhii had no contact with his family and underwent major surgery twice. Her mother, Svitlana Sorokopud, said Russian troops in Yahidne seized all of the residents’ cell phones and, cut off from the outside world, she had no way of finding out where her son had gone.

“Words can’t describe when you don’t know where your son is,” he said. “I cried day and night. He was so badly injured that I didn’t know where he was.”

It wasn’t just the physical injuries that plagued her son, but the agony of being separated from her family, she said. “At first, she couldn’t even sleep there and had nightmares. She was worried we wouldn’t pick him up.”

Serhii contacted her parents only after the Russians began their withdrawal on March 30, and her family was able to buy a new cell phone and access the Internet again. They say that a Belarusian doctor had posted Serhii’s name, date of birth and hometown on social media. “Parents, maybe [are] in Yahidne,” the post read. “Please spread the word so they know the boy is alive.”

When they found out where she was, Svitlana said they talked on the phone every day for about a month and assured her they would come. Her 25-year-old sister crossed the border to Poland and then to Belarus in early May to look for him.

Now, in Yahidne, there are burned houses on every street. Outside the house where Serhii and her family now live, her 9-year-old brother and her nephew pretend to operate a checkpoint. The specter of a new Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is never far from their minds. “There is no fear anymore,” Serhii said. “But sometimes I wonder what will happen if they come back and what they will do.”

Serhii's mother, Svitlana, was devastated when her son was separated from the family.
As the war enters its sixth month, the impact on Ukraine’s children is evident in the grim tally of young lives cut short. On a new Ukrainian government website, “Children of War”, the death toll mounts against the background of a black screen: 361 dead and 703 wounded at last count.

However, the impact is not only physical, but psychological, said Daria Gerasimchuk, the Ukrainian president’s commissioner for children’s rights.

“Absolutely all Ukrainian children are affected… All children have heard warnings of air strikes. Children see the suffering of their family and friends. The children are forced to say goodbye to the parents who are going to defend the country on the front line. that are still under occupation. Those who are injured. In other words, absolutely all Ukrainian children have quite serious physical and psychological injuries,” Gerasimchuk said in an interview with CNN last week.

The majority of Ukrainian children have fled the front lines and nearly two-thirds have been displaced, either within the country or across borders as refugees. according to Unicef in June. That same month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Russia is stealing our children’s childhood, it wants to destroy our future.”
Human Rights Watch has said that Russia’s invasion “instantly suspended the education of 5.7 million children between the ages of 3 and 17, many of whom had already missed months of education due to deadly attacks on schools in eastern Ukraine, or Covid-19 closing schools”. Many schools in Ukraine have resumed classes, according to the World Bankbut these take place almost entirely online.
The deep scars on Serhii's back are a permanent reminder of his survival.
As something semblance of normal life returns to the streets of Kyiv, Jenya Nikitina, a shy 7-year-old girl, knows that this restless calm can be shattered in an instant. She was asleep when several Russian missiles hit the capital’s western Shevchenkivskyi district on the morning of June 26, hitting his family’s apartment block. His father, Oleksii, was killed. Jenya and her mother, Katerina Volkova, a 35-year-old Russian citizen, were trapped for hours.

Her mother recalls the moment she heard Jenya scream, confirming that she was still alive. “There was no happiness [at] right now I could hear it,” she told CNN, sitting with her daughter outside a school gym in Kyiv’s Chokolivka district before Jenya’s Saturday morning gym class. “It was even more horrible because she was thinking [that] she also had pain… I told her: ‘Someone will come’. She Was she believing in this? That’s another question.”

Jenya, who was trapped for a few hours, suffered a concussion and multiple abrasions. Her mother, trapped for five hours, suffered burns, deep cuts and a fracture.

Weeks later, it is her daughter’s psychological scars that Katerina is most concerned about. When she is asked if it is possible for a child to understand what has happened, her voice breaks. “I’m not sure we adults emotionally understand what’s going on.”

Katerina Volkova and her 7-year-old daughter Jenya.

In case the mermaids start up again, Jenya’s gym class is the only time they get separated. Jumping and jumping on the mat is an opportunity to heal and, for a short time, to forget.

Katerina worries that fear is now all too familiar to her daughter. “It’s [her childhood] was taken… in the future there will be joyful moments and many parents are still trying to make these moments for themselves,” he said, adding that children have experienced “too much.”

Katerina added that she “could not have imagined” that her daughter would grow up in an environment where she could identify the sounds of sirens, rockets and gunshots. “It’s not what you expect your child to learn at the age of seven.”

“The most horrible thing is that [children] I think it’s normal now. They talk about it like it’s their daily life.”

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