Supporting a ‘child of war’ in eastern Ukraine

Published: Oct 1, 2021 Reading time: 4 minutes
Supporting a ‘child of war’ in eastern Ukraine
© Alberto Lores for People in Need

Seven-year-old Kostia has only known conflict. Born in Slavne, in the Donestsk region of eastern Ukraine, Kostia has grown up on the frontlines of Europe’s forgotten war. 

He lives with his younger sister, Polina, 4, and their parents. Like many children around the world, he is excited to return to school this year. But for students living on the contact line, education looks a little different. There are no schools in Slavne, so Kostia and his sister must travel to a neighbouring village to learn.

This causes strain on the family. As public transportation in the region is unreliable, Kostia’s parents must drive the children to and from school. “Every day except weekends, we spend more than one hour [transporting] our children to school and kindergarten… The fuel is quite expensive. But we don’t have an alternative,” explains Nastia, Kostia’s mother. “In these circumstances we started thinking about moving to the neighbouring village. We even started looking for a house there. But it is difficult to sell our house and buy a new one in another village.”

Still, for Kostia, the commute to school is worth it. He has made great friends and is excited about his new favourite subject, computer science. Eventually, he wants to become an archaeologist, he says, “because I want to find dinosaur bones. I love dinosaurs.” 

Born during the conflict, Kostia and Polina have survived the horrors of shelling and active fighting. While the conflict in eastern Ukraine threatens the physical health of children, it also poses grave risk to their mental wellbeing. Kostia and his family have spent many nights in their basement hiding from shelling. Violence from conflict can leave a lasting impact on the mental health of children and parents alike.

Nastia remembers Kostia’s birth, in 2014 – the same year that conflict began in Donbas— as a very emotional time. She had a complicated pregnancy, and in need of special medical care, she left Slavne for access to a good hospital.

“I was worried so much about my child,” says Nastia. “He was so small due to the complications of my pregnancy. The doctors didn’t give any guarantee that he would be ok. But when I saw him, I immediately realised that he is a small copy of my husband; he looked like him a lot. And I was sure that everything would be all right despite all the problems we faced.”

When Nastia returned to Slavne, her family met new challenges. They returned to an area marked by conflict and active fighting. But the family had nowhere else to go. They remained in their house and tried to protect themselves. “The shells were flying right above us,” Nastia recalls. “It was terrible, and we were afraid. But at home we knew where to go and what to do in case of shelling. My husband went to the basement, checked if everything was okay, and then brought us there.”

While the fighting in the area has since subsided, the residents of Slavne still regularly hear shelling. They still don’t feel safe in their home village.

Kostia, his family, and every other resident of Slavne needs support. Mikhail – an experienced psychologist working with People in Need (PIN) — regularly visits the village, providing group and individual counselling for adults and children. “Psychological help was very much needed for me and my children,” says Nastia. “It helped me to calm down and change my attitude towards the situation, as well as to improve the relationship with my husband. The children are happy when Mikhail is coming. They enjoy different activities and sessions, and I see the positive result.”

“Kostia is a ‘child of war’ – he is exactly the same age” as the conflict, says Mikhail, the PIN psychologist. While every child has their own unique concerns,“ in general, they are the same, ordinary children who want to have friends, play, develop, communicate,” Mikhail says. “Kostia also needed communication, support, and self-realisation. So, my task was simply to help him open up, to give support at the first failures, to help him believe in himself. Since Kostya lives in a zone of fairly frequent shelling and hostilities, the work of a psychologist was complicated by the presence of internal tension and a certain closeness. I am pleased that I was able to establish contact with the child, support him, and help him prepare for school and adapt to the new social environment.”

Throughout eastern Ukraine, residents of frontline villages receive mental health support thanks to generous funding from the European Union.

Author: Alyona Budagovska, PIN Ukraine Communications Manager