Children, hostages of a forgotten conflict in Ukraine
Fallen into the oblivion of public opinion, the Ukrainian conflict has claimed more than 10,000 victims since 2014. The peace process appears to be stalled, as numerous attempts to find an agreement between the armed forces and the government have failed. Fleeing the violence and fighting, 1.5 million people have migrated to other regions of Ukraine, and hundreds of thousands of others to Russia. We visited a small town close to the front line, where Tdh offers the children some moments of respite.
In the Oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk – together comprising the Donbass region – the armed forces have taken control of part of the territory and face the Ukrainian army along the demarcated zone. Two kilometres from the combat area is a phantom town with damaged buildings and barricaded windows. This is Zolote. The military is everywhere and regular checks are taking place. The few remaining families live in constant fear, alert to the least sound of gunfire or explosion – feelings that they try as much as possible to hide from their children, but often in vain. Staying on the qui-vive whilst leading a normal life is an almost impossible balance to find. “At the beginning, we responded quickly to an alert, but with time one gets used to the tension, and we sometimes don’t even know what to do anymore in an emergency. Do we have to barricade ourselves inside the house or run out into the garden?,” a schoolchild’s mother tells us.
In Zolote, the signs and scars of the war are apparent everywhere, even in the school. Armoured plates fixed to the windows make it possible to avoid ‘collateral damage’ – in other words, they protect the children from random shots and ballistic fragments. The panes are lined with transparent foil so that the glass does not shatter. “At night, when I hear fighting, I throw myself under my bed, block my ears and wait for it to go away,” continues one of the six-year-old pupils. A few days before, a drunken soldier with a gun had threatened the children on the playground.
Primary school in Zolote, Ukraine
The conflict hangs over their heads like a Damocles sword. Just like their parents, they do their best to adapt to the situation, without always understanding what is happening. “When I’m afraid, I try to think of something else, fast,” a young boy explains. “The conflict has forced them to become adult far too soon,” adds his mother.
In the small school in Zolote, shouts and bursts of laughter fill the room equipped by Tdh. Multi-coloured stools, gym mats, contruction games – this is their own realm. The children love the time spent there. “In the holidays, they look forward to going back to school so they can come to play here,” a mother tells us.
After some free time playing games, the teacher gathers the kids together for a joint activity. The various steps are taken from the methodology we worked on with them. The older children are involved in showing how the games are played, enabling them to develop their own sense of responsibility. Today, the exercise is done in pairs. One of the children is blindfolded and plays the blind babushka (grandmother) who has to walk through the forest (an obstacle course) whilst guided by another school child – the ‘grandchild’. In this way they work together closely and gain mutual trust. “The children feel at ease here. It’s the only place where they have games suited to their age. It’s truly an indispensable asset,” concludes the teacher.
Children playing the Babushka game.
So as to give support to these children’s daily life and to help them overcome their trauma, Terre des hommes furnishes and equips places reserved just for them where they can have fun and feel safe. In over 100 schools and centres for after-school activities near to the front lines, we have provided board games as well as appropriate teaching and sports material. Our team also trains the teachers to organise activities to encourage and work on life skills such as teamwork, communication and mutual respect.
Photo credit: © Tdh/Isabel Zbinden