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The war in Ukraine, six months old this week, has so far left almost a thousand children dead or wounded, a figure that humanitarian aid organizations want to put in value to remember that, above all, the Ukrainian child population needs peace.
On average, there are about five child casualties every day, bringing the total to 972 – 362 dead and 610 wounded – according to the United Nations Office for Human Rights. “And these are only the figures that the UN has been able to verify. We believe the real number is much higher,” warned UNICEF director Catherine Russell.
At least 16 percent of the children killed were under the age of five, indicating that the civilian population is suffering on the front line from the ravages of the conflict. Most of the child casualties are in fact due to the use of explosive weapons that “do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, especially when used in populated areas as has been the case in Ukraine,” Russell said in a statement.
Kharkov is one such urban battlefront, and from this city in eastern Ukraine, Dana, 29, and her daughter Antonina, 2, fled. Dana tells Save the Children that, before escaping, they took refuge in a cellar.
When her daughter asks her “what exploded,” the mother chooses to disguise the shelling as thunder. “With a child only two and a half years old, I can’t explain to her what a war is and that children are dying. She is too young,” she argues.
This strategy doesn’t work for older children, like her nephews. One of them, aged nine, asks if he will die too, while another, aged five, ponders what his future will be like: “When I’m older, will I still run into the hallway when there’s a siren?”
The UN estimates that 3.1 million children are living as refugees, while another 3 million have fled their homes but remain inside Ukraine, as internally displaced persons. Displacement is the common pattern in many of the stories this war has left behind.
Rasha, for example, tells UNICEF that she already fled the war in Syria when she was seven years old and now the tragedy is repeating itself. “I never imagined it would happen again,” he says.
Vira and her children were also forced to flee. In her case, they held out as long as they could in a basement in Zaporiyia and now live as displaced persons in Lviv, with serious difficulties in acquiring the most basic commodities due to the general rise in prices.
“Once again, as in all wars, the reckless decisions of adults are putting children at extreme risk,” lamented UNICEF’s top official, who called for taking into account not only “the horror of children killed or physically wounded in the attacks,” but also other kinds of effects.
“Almost all children in Ukraine have been exposed to deeply distressing events, and those fleeing violence are at significant risk of family separation, violence, abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking,” she added.
Save the Children’s Ukraine country director, Sonia Khush, has also agreed that, “although children in Ukraine have nothing to do with the causes of the war, they are the most affected by it,” to the extent that “they are growing up with the sound of bombs and shelling, and with the image of their homes destroyed, their schools damaged, and their friends and relatives killed or injured.”
Next week marks the start of the school year, a key moment that will once again highlight the extent to which the education system has also been “devastated,” in Russell’s words. UNICEF estimates that a tenth of the educational centers have been damaged, in addition to the complicated horizon of displaced children.
Both UNICEF and Save the Children agree on the need for a ceasefire. The UN agency has emphasized through its director that “children in Ukraine urgently need security, stability, access to safe learning, child protection services and psychosocial support.
For her part, Khus noted that “children need more than humanitarian aid, they need hope: “Hope that this war will end; hope that they can return home; and hope for a future.”