Scarred by war, Ukrainian children move on after losing their parents, their homes and their innocence

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – The two children blinked to see through thick smoke that hung in the air after a deafening explosion rocked their tiny home in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

The couple, aged 9 and 10, called out to their father. There was only an eerie silence.

Then Olha Hinkina and her brother Andrii rushed to the air raid shelter as they had been taught. When the bangs stopped and the smoke cleared, they found their father on the porch, motionless and bloodied after being hit by a Russian projectile.

“Father was killed at seven in the morning,” said Andrii, who now lives in the safer western city of Lviv, near the border with Poland.

The two siblings belong to a generation of Ukrainian children whose lives were turned upside down by the war. The all-out invasion of Russia has subjected them to constant bombardment, driving millions from their homes and leaving many orphans.

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Hundreds of children were killed. For those who survive, the extensive trauma is sure to leave psychological scars that will stay with them into adolescence and adulthood.

“Even if children have fled to a safer area, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten everything that happened to them,” said psychologist Oleksandra Volokhova, who works with children who escaped violence.

According to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office, at least 483 children lost their lives and nearly 1,000 were injured.

Meanwhile, an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian children are at risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues with potentially lasting effects, according to UNICEF.

Almost 1,500 Ukrainian children are orphans, the National Social Service of Ukraine said.

Most of the child casualties are from Donetsk, the epicenter of many battles, where 462 children were killed or wounded, according to Ukrainian officials.

That number doesn’t include casualties from the Russian-held city of Mariupol, also in Donetsk province, where Ukrainian officials have had trouble tracing the dead and wounded.

Before war tore them apart, the Hinkin family lived like everyone else in the village of Torske, now just 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the front lines.

With the death of their father in October, the children were orphaned. Her mother died years before the war.

Six months later, the siblings appear to have gotten over the worst of their ordeal.

Police and volunteers evacuated them to a safer area in the western Zakarpattia region, where they were cared for by state social services and a Ukrainian charity called SOS Children’s Villages, which provided shelter and counseling.

Her story became known in and around Torske after police released a widely publicized video showing her father’s body being removed from the family home.

“We knew the village. We knew where they lived. We knew these people,” said Nina Poliakova, 52, from the nearby town of Lyman.

Although she fled to Lviv with her family last year, Poliakova continued to follow the news from her homeland. Then tragedy struck in her life as well, when her 16-year-old foster son suddenly died of a heart condition.

She also has a 16-year-old foster daughter, whom she took in with her husband in 2016 from the occupied city of Horlivka, where hostilities with Russian-backed separatists began years before the 2022 invasion.

One day, Poliakova received a grief-stricken call from a local children’s charity. The caller asked if she would be willing to meet the Hinkin siblings.

When they first met, they mostly talked about the Hinkin family home and the pets they had. One of Andrii’s favorite pastimes was feeding the pigs.

Poliakova decided to include the two children in her extended family.

“We had this tragedy in our family, and then fate just brought us together,” Poliakova said. “Now many children are alone and without parents. Children need care, love. They want to be hugged and comforted.”

Many foundations have sprung up to help children deal with the trauma of war, including a group called Voices of Children, which has processed around 700 requests from parents seeking help for children suffering from chronic stress, panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD Suffer.

According to a report by the charity, requests changed as the war progressed. Last winter, parents sought help after noticing changes in their children’s behavior, including apathy, aggression and anxiety, sensitivity to loud noises, and antisocial habits.

“A child’s psyche remains more malleable than that of adults, and we know that with timely and quality support, a child can overcome traumatic events more easily,” said Olena Rozvadovska, director of Voices of Children.

Poliakova said it was difficult for the siblings to recover from months of living so close to the battle lines.

“They were very scared,” she said. Olha cried and hugged her every time she heard the air raid sirens. Andrii was relatively quiet during the day, but started screaming in the middle of the night.

A charity called Sincere Heart has been running short-term recovery camps for children and their mothers since the invasion began last year. More than 8,000 people have used the camp’s services.

Poliakova brought her three foster children there. She wanted to help revive the childhood lost in the war.

At camp, they played with other children who had had similar experiences and participated in art classes, dance classes, and other activities designed to help the children express their feelings.

The sounds of laughter and play echo through the camp full of children from the war-ravaged regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Kherson and other areas. Many witnessed bombings and the loss of a parent. Some recovered from war-related wounds.

During an art session, the children were given white t-shirts and asked to express their feelings through drawing. Most were painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and read “Glory to Ukraine.”

Olha Hinkina drew a heart in blue and yellow.

“Children reflect what lies on the surface,” Rozvadovska said. “They grow up in an atmosphere of the colors of our flag, daily news from the front lines and pride in the army that stands.”

For the children, recovery is within reach, she added. They can get stronger because they survived.

“They carry within them the experience that helped them survive,” she said. “Maybe it even made them more resilient and adaptable.”

When Andrii Hinkin remembers his hometown, he doesn’t remember the bombs, the smoke, or the thunderous explosions. He remembers a beautiful village.

When asked what his biggest dreams are, he replies shyly. “I want to grow up.”

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