Ukrainian children in the war zone in Donbas have a terrible childhood. Russian aggression and the hybrid war leave no chance for a happy, peaceful youth. 240 children have died here since the beginning of the war. And the war zone in eastern Ukraine is one of the most cluttered in terms of the quantity of  mines and explosives in the world. That poses a threat to the 220,000 children who live, play and go to school in areas where there are still many mines, ammunition and other deadly explosive war remnants.

Besides, during the period of hostilities, human rights foundations recorded at least a dozen cases when military and armed groups’ facilities were located within 500 meters from kindergartens and schools, or directly on their territory.

Today, unfortunately, the problem of the “children of war” is not in the focus of power, which concentrates on the political aspect of the war. What will be the consequences for children living on the demarcation line or at its very epicentre? Promote Ukraine asked the experts how traumatic events affect children and what the state should do.

Dmytro Revun expertDmitry Revun, Deputy Head of the Juvenile Prevention Department in Odessa

During the first days of service in the anti-terrorist operation, I involuntarily paid attention to children. No text will convey how deeply the children on the demarcation line are traumatised by the war. After all, at first your body, your psyche does not respond “properly,” the necessary reflexes do not work. But local children’s survival instincts are well developed: because of the fear of being killed, they respond to every loud sound.

Imagine summer, a hot day with two 7-8 years old boys playing on the street. A low-flying fighter roar is coming. I look up and see the plane. Meanwhile, the children rushed to the house. One of the boys, jumping over a homemade fence welded from fittings, cut his leg to the blood. He did not even squeak, did not cry, did not shout.

I was shocked that in the military zone, children are already used to giving up their games and running to the shelter because emotions, minutes can cost lives – and children understand that.

Olga Timoshenko expertOlga Tymoshenko, a psychologist of the Mental Health and Trauma Therapy Centre “Outpost HELP”

Children and adults living in the war zone suffer numerous psychological traumas, as they may witness artillery shelling, destruction of houses, mass deaths, killings and torture. Under a situation where children live in danger, the most destructive factor is the duration and recurrence of deep mental trauma. Such experiences lead to extreme depletion of internal resources, irritability, uncontrolled outbursts of aggression, timidity, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, night terrors, and obsessive or out-of-control memories of traumatic events.

On the one hand, the constant mobilisation and willingness to flee to find a safe place makes it impossible to relax, even when the situation becomes safe. On the other hand, the self-preservation instinct and the feeling of a threat get lost. For example, children hear that the shelling has started, but remain on the street, arguing that “it’s not scary,, “we’re used to it,” “it will end soon.” Gradually, a child’s natural ability to rejoice, feel relaxed, play freely, and show spontaneity gets missed.

How can such children be protected? What should be an aid?

To assist such children, it is necessary, first of all, to create a safe environment where there is no threat to their lives. Psychological rehabilitation is impossible as long as a child remains in a dangerous situation. Then, it’s the work of professionals – psychologists and psychotherapists. It is important to remember: if an injury lasted a long time, e.g. a child lived for five years in the combat zone, we cannot expect a full recovery in a few months. Depending on the injury history, extent and depth, rehabilitation can take up to several years.

If a child remains in the combat zone, this is important for parents and teachers:

  • Be instructed about the basic principles of a child’s psychological reactions and behavioural manifestations;
  • Do not to scold for “abnormal” or “bad behaviour,” to understand how mental trauma manifests its behaviour in mind, that under conditions of prolonged stress, cognitive functions (memory, attention, thinking, imagination) suffer. Sometimes, there may be a slowdown, stop or even regression in the child’s development, so none should demand high learning outcomes.
  • Learn and teach children psychological techniques of self-regulation that will help reduce stress. This will not completely restore mental health, but support to alleviate symptoms and reduce the negative effects.
  • Minimize daily stress, where possible: do not quarrel over trifles, form a philosophical attitude to events.
  • Take care of mental hygiene: dos gadgets usage.
  • Sensitivity, emotional openness and support from adults will reduce mental stress. It is also influential to talk to children about a war: to explain in accessible language, but without the scary details. It is not necessary to deceive children: “do not be afraid, that is just thunder” because a child feels parental anxiety and has a great need to share his or her own experiences with adults. It is better to tell a child: I’m scared too; let’s hope for the best.

Victor Filatov expertVictor Filatov, an analyst of the NGO “Human Rights Group “SICH”

At the legislative level, Ukraine has established several responsibilities for children’s rights protection during armed conflict. These include guaranteeing safety and health, the right to education, the prevention of offences against children, social assistance and rehabilitation (including psychological). But to fulfil these obligations it is necessary to adopt many laws and regulations. Why is the state in no hurry to do this?

There are several reasons. Firstly, issues related to the Donbas conflict are politicised. And parliament often votes for initiatives that will pay political dividends. In other words, the children’s rights are not in the focus of power, which concentrates on the political aspect of the conflict. Secondly, assuming additional responsibilities, the state also accepts the financial costs for its implementation, which is difficult in a budget deficit. Thirdly, violations of children’s rights in armed conflict have not found the necessary publicity. For the most part, the combatants’ problems are discussed more often. Meanwhile, with the civilian population on the demarcation line and children, it is much more seldom. Therefore, this problem has become latent, so it is easy for the authorities not to notice it.

The solution may be to use international experience, which points to the need for increasing responsibility for war crimes against children. There is also a need to give a child affected by an armed conflict not only a special status but also additional social guarantees, to create a state system of psychological rehabilitation of children, to decompose and minimise the negative factors affecting a child under armed conflict. The Convention on the Rights of a Child (Optional Protocol on the Participation of Children in Armed Conflict), the Rome Statute, the UN Security Council Resolution and other international instruments that have been partially ratified by Ukraine stated this. However, in practice, they are implemented very inefficiently or not implemented at all, although their norms clearly outline the protection of children’s rights under armed conflict.

Volodymyr Sokol, a teacher, Kharkiv, a participant of the anti-terrorist operation

Children, as the most sensitive segment of society, as the future bearer, will transfer the problem of their insecurity into adulthood. And the spectrum of reaction to this state of affairs can range from a complete infantilisation and autism to vengeance and social hypertrophied deviance.

Mankind has fought in many wars. Ukraine has been involved in dozens of military conflicts, but in the vast majority, the enemy was visible.  So, there was no hybridity problem. It is that the dislocation of “us-them” definition that will be more impactful on children than their mechanical reaction to a loud sound of explosions or an imprint of their home ruins.

With the growing social orphanhood, the lack of the mechanisms of the renovation of the child’s life format (not an adaptation) in the state requires a reasonable “child of war” transformation.

Natalia Tolub

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