Children – the true victims of conflict in Ukraine

As we arrive at a humanitarian aid distribution centre in Kramatorsk, I see children queuing with their mothers and fathers – children who should be attending school or playing outside with their friends – waiting to receive basic hygiene supplies like soap, diapers, buckets and detergent.

The centre’s tiny supply room is crowded with anxious families. Among them, I spot a young mother cradling an infant and go over to her. She tells me that her son Damir was born in the midst of relentless fighting in and around their hometown of Yasinovataya in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. His birthday, 13 January, is the same as mine. Yet in his two and a half months on this planet, Damir has known enough turmoil, insecurity and fear to last a lifetime.

At the end of January, the fighting was so intense that Damir’s family was forced to flee their home for refuge in the city of Kramatorsk. Like thousands of other families displaced by the violence in Ukraine, they now lack the most essential items for daily survival.

Mothers standing in the supply-queue look bewildered as if they cannot fully comprehend what has happened to their lives. They are now unable to care for their children without humanitarian assistance. They have been left facing an uncertain future, having to start again with nothing.

In Slovyansk, I visited School No. 9, which was severely damaged by shelling in May 2014. In cooperation with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine, UNICEF has trained school psychologists to identify and respond to children’s heightened stress.

It was clear from my time interacting with over 30 children during a psychosocial support session that all of them are paying a heavy toll for this protracted conflict. Each had a story to tell, how they were not sleeping for weeks, how they were scared when their mothers went out to get groceries. Yet these children were only a few of the 100,000 currently in need of support to reduce their psychological distress.

After the session, I met a nine-year-old girl who showed me her drawing. It portrayed the story of her family when they went through checkpoints to escape shelling in Slovyansk. It showed volunteers who helped her family to find a temporary place to live before returning home.

I am amazed by the tremendous sense of solidarity and mobilization of the Ukrainian people to help those in need. When she was finished telling her story, the girl said, “I want that war never happens again. I want that we live in peace and everything is good.”

One year after the fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, the humanitarian needs are enormous. Of the 5 million people, including 1.7 million children, now affected by the conflict, nearly 700,000 are in need of safe drinking water, while an estimated 950,000 are in need of hygiene supplies. Some 35,000 people in bomb shelters and collective centers for internally displaced persons need proper sanitation facilities, particularly those close to the frontline.

Children in conflict-affected areas are at risk of diseases due to the lack of vaccines, ruined infrastructure, water shortages and hampered access to medical facilities. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has disrupted education for up to 25,000 children, as 82 schools remain closed in the non-government controlled areas in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Beyond the immediate risks to children is the longer-term impact of the conflict – one that not only threatens the well-being of each and every child affected by the crisis, but also the future of an entire generation of Ukrainian children.

We need to accelerate our actions to help children in Ukraine and ensure their well-being and survival as well as re-establish a sense of normal life. UNICEF together with partners needs to scale up our emergency response in the country and pave the way for a future where they can be healthy and learn in a peaceful environment. Children should not have to pay the price of the conflict in Ukraine.

Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, recently visited Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine and witnessed the impact of the year-old conflict on civilians, especially children.