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The war destroys the childhood of hundreds of children in Ukraine

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Amid rising tensions and threats of war, children living on the front lines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must learn to manage ongoing stress, as experts warn of long-term unrest.

Watching Ukrainian soldiers pass by, 8-year-old Lisa Shtanko, one of the few children left in a town badly hit by the Russian invasion, stood by the side of a muddy road.

There was no heating or electricity. Most of her friends are long gone. And just that morning a strike occurred outside Lisa’s house.

“Today I’m not in a good mood because of the bombing,” she told AFP as her father, Viktor Shtanko, looked on. Stankus’ home town of Lehman endured four months of Russian occupation that left most of it in ruins and turned the surrounding forests into minefields.

Ukrainian forces recaptured Liman in October, but fighting continues nearby.

“Of course she’s scared,” said Victor, a 42-year-old electrician.

“There’s nothing scarier around you than death. But she’s fine with her father.”

The upcoming New Years and Orthodox Christmas holidays on January 7 may provide some distraction from the war, but the only game Victor will be able to provide will be donated by a humanitarian group.

Kostya Korovkin, father of 6-year-old Nastya, said that these difficulties have prompted most families with children to leave, many of whom “have no reason to return.”

He has nowhere to go, Kostya told AFP, which means Nastya is forced to spend long days in the basement of the building, sometimes wandering the streets where only stray dogs roam.

She sometimes heads to the sixth floor of the building, which is the only place she can get an internet signal and attend online classes.

In front of the entrance to the building, someone erected a small Christmas tree and put sweets on the branches.

“But there are no children left to pick,” said Kostya.

Don’t think about the future

While Liman no longer sees active combat, war in other cities in the eastern Donetsk region still lies on its doorstep.

Bakhmut, where President Volodymyr Zelensky made a daring surprise visit last week, has been under Russian attack for months and shows no sign of letting up.

In the back of one cellar where 20 people have been sheltering for eight months, 14-year-old Gleb Petrov greets visitors with a firm handshake and a serious look on his face.

He is the only minor living in the cellar, where he spends his days sleeping late, caring for the elderly and watching over a black cat who has also taken up residence there.

Sometimes he draws, tries to read books for adults, or when there is electricity, he 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 a day from now.”

As the sound of explosions echoed outside, Gleb said he had learned to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire.

When asked about his biggest dream, he said he simply wanted to “go for a walk with a friend.”

“permanent insecurity”

Dozens if not hundreds of children remain in Bakhmut, whose parents cannot or wish to leave.

“These children have already become adults,” said Catherine Soldatova, a volunteer for an association that has set up a shelter in the basement of a school.

Inside the heated room there is a Christmas tree and a TV – “everything so they can feel a little safe,” Soldatova said.

Access to such a shelter can be extremely dangerous, and two civilians were recently killed on their way to Soldatova.

But it has become a vital lifeline for children like 12-year-old Volodymyr, who told AFP he only leaves to go home and eat.

Psychologist Alyona Lukyanchuk confirmed that Bakhmut’s children are in a state of “constant insecurity”.

“The world can betray them at any moment, and everything can be destroyed in an instant,” said Lukyanchuk, who works for the Ukrainian branch of the NGO “SOS Children’s Villages”.

With their parents focused on survival, she said, children must learn to deal with constant stress that “affects focus (and) cognitive resources” and can lead to long-term disorders.

But she said she is trying to remain “a little optimistic”, refusing to accept 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 line,” Lukyanchuk said.

“They will need to watch but I’m sure many will find the resources.”

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