Twelve-year-old Arina Pervunina with her mother in their Odessa apartment: "I don’t want my father to be forgotten."

Twelve-year-old Arina Pervunina with her mother in their Odessa apartment: "I don’t want my father to be forgotten."

Foto:

Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

The Lost Generation How the Children of Ukraine Are Coping with the War

Millions of Ukrainian children are suffering as a result of Vladimir Putin's invasion of their country. Many have lost their parents and hardly any are able to attend school. What does the future hold?
By Thore Schröder und Johanna Maria Fritz (Photos), in Odessa and Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine: With Reporting by Fedir Petrov

It’s a recent morning in December, and Arina Pervunina is talking about the most difficult moment of her life. Her father, she says, also earned the right to be remembered. Fathers who fall at the front, she points out, receive posthumous medals. But Andriy Pervunin died as he was trying to save his children – right in front of his 12-year-old daughter. "I don’t want my father to be forgotten," she says.

DER SPIEGEL 1/2023
Foto: SAMSON / DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 1/2023 (December 30th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Arina has long, brown hair that falls onto her shoulders, bright red cheeks and a gap between her front teeth. She gesticulates when she talks and speaks in a firm voice that only occasionally breaks when she becomes emotional.

She and three other children were injured by Russian soldiers in an attack on their car as they were trying to flee. She says that two cousins had to have shards of glass and pieces of metal surgically removed. Her father, though, was killed in the attack. Arina’s story is a stark account of the vulnerability of children  in this war.

Life in wartime has become a constant reality for millions of Ukrainians, with the youngest of them experiencing the greatest difficulties. Children in Ukraine are killed or wounded on an almost daily basis, or they simply disappear. They lose their parents, their siblings or their friends. Russian drones and missiles strike schools and daycare centers.

All 7 million Ukrainian children have been affected by the war in one way or the other, says Murat Sahin, the UNICEF representative in Ukraine. He says that one and a half million children are at acute risk of mental illness or are already affected, with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic disorders, extreme stress and anxiety being among the most common complaints. "We are seeing the entire spectrum of symptoms," says Sahin. "Children who no longer want to go to the bathroom and wet themselves, for example, or those who begin stuttering or stop talking altogether."

The Pervunina family lives in a district of residential high-rises on the outskirts of Odessa. Thick fog has settled among the buildings with the roar of diesel generators rising from the courtyard. The district has been without power, water and heating for 18 hours on this morning. During the night, the Russians again launched drone attacks on the Black Sea town. Arina and her mother have charged their mobile phones and power banks in the mother’s office, and they have lugged a couple of buckets of water up to the eighth floor so they can flush their toilet. The temperature on this day hovers around 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). Luckily, they say, the cold is still manageable.

Arina is sitting at the kitchen table, nestled up close to her mother. The two of them are talking about the first days of the war, when Arina’s father was on a business trip for his internet company. The parents initially evacuated Arina with her eight-year-old brother Matviy and two cousins out of the bombarded city of Odessa to their grandparents in the countryside near Kherson. "We thought it would be safe there," says the mother. "But then the Russians came. It all went far too fast."

A high-rise neighborhood in Odessa, where the Pervunina family lives: "We thought it would be safe in the countryside."

A high-rise neighborhood in Odessa, where the Pervunina family lives: "We thought it would be safe in the countryside."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

When the occupiers reached the village, Arina says, they executed one of their own comrades because he was injured. Panic quickly spread among local residents. She says she called her father to pick them up. "He said: 'Don’t worry kids, I’m already on my way.'"

Arina’s mother says it took several months to convince Arina that she wasn’t to blame for her father’s death. "She cried almost constantly for several weeks. We had to make it clear to her that it had been his decision to come get her."

According to Arina’s account, Andriy Pervunin was fired on by Russian soldiers from behind after he had already crossed the front line with the children.

"I Will Save You, Children!"

The soldiers initially pulled the children out of the car, but not Arina’s father, she says. She threw herself onto the ground and screamed, and only then did the soldiers allow her father to join them in the car of another group of refugees. She says that he was delirious and was constantly screaming: "I will save you, children!" For an entire hour, Arina and Matwiy sat by their father as his life slowly slipped away. He died, she says, when they finally reached a Ukrainian checkpoint. His body had been riddled by 17 bullets.

The worst thing, says Arina, is the complete pointlessness of his death. Tears begin rolling down her cheeks. She says she’ll never be able to understand it.

According to Ukrainian accounts, 450 children were killed and 868 injured from the beginning of the war on February 24 to December 28. An additional 349 are missing. The use of bombs and artillery shells is particularly dangerous for adolescents – and they stay dangerous for quite some time. Thousands of square kilometers of territory will remain contaminated for several years by mines and unexploded ordnance – and children are likely to be killed or lose limbs in random explosions.

3,600 Schools and Daycare Centers Have Been Destroyed

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, there are around 1.2 million minors among the 6.5 million internally displaced people in Ukraine. And no Ukrainian children currently have access to regular schooling, the agency says. Since October, Russia has been regularly targeting infrastructure in Ukraine, thus not only preventing in-person schooling, but also – through extended power outages – digital lessons. Even newborns, infants and small children are affected by the war, says UNICEF representative Sahin. "It begins at birth, continues when it comes to vaccinations and early childhood development and then again when it’s time to transition to schooling." Some 3,600 schools and kindergartens have been destroyed across the country.

Ukraine is at risk of losing an entire generation. The consequences of missed education and serious trauma could become lifelong burdens for millions of Ukrainians and serve as a drag on social development.

According to the Ukrainian government, the Russian occupiers have also kidnapped 13,876 children, taking them back to Russia to be raised by Russian families. In a November speech to the G-20 summit, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of "tens of thousands" of additional deported children, about whom the country only has indirect or incomplete accounts.

Even for the UN, it is impossible to compile a precise view of the situation faced by children in Ukraine, and thus to plan appropriate aid measures. "We have never experienced a crisis of this magnitude," says Sahin. "The situation is constantly changing and there are stark differences between different parts of the country." UN organizations have no presence at all in the Russian-occupied areas. "Together with our partner organizations, we are requesting free access to those areas," says Sahin. In occupied eastern Ukraine, thousands of children have experienced war or occupation for eight years now.

"We can’t allow the burden of their experience to ruin their future."

Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Olena Zelenska, the wife of President Zelenskyy, has become a kind of patron for the children of Ukraine and a flag-bearer for the aid response in the country. "Thousands of Ukrainian children witness death, their lives are threatened, they face danger and fears, and they all unexpectedly become mature," she said at a UNICEF conference in October. "But they remain children and are vulnerable. We can’t allow the burden of their experience to ruin their future."

Arina Pervunina only received psychological assistance half a year after her father’s death. In late August, she and other children who have lost at least one parent took part in a summer camp in Spain put on by the Olena Zelenska Foundation. It was difficult to return to Ukraine, she says, but this is her home, after all. "After the camp, she said: 'Mom, our lives must go on,'" says her mother. Arina’s brother Matviy has now gone off to the same camp.

The boy has been even more affected by the experience of watching his father die than his sister. "At first, he simply refused to accept the death of his father," his mother says. "Only when I showed him a photo of his father’s body in the open casket was he able to understand that he won’t be coming back. Matviy became quiet and closed off."

Andriy Pervunin, 35: "When I couldn’t swim anymore, he would let me grab onto his shoulders."

Andriy Pervunin, 35: "When I couldn’t swim anymore, he would let me grab onto his shoulders."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

Arina learned coping techniques at the camp in Spain. When the weight of her memories grows too heavy, she packs everything into an imaginary balloon that she can then let go of and allow to float away. Or she tries to view her experiences as though they were on television, "which I can turn off or change the channel at any time." She also dances and chats with others her age on TikTok and Instagram, essentially trying to keep herself busy to the extent possible.

For the last four months, she has again had a pet dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Roxy who is helping her get over the loss of her dog Glasha, which was "torn into pieces" in the attack, as Arina describes it.

Memories of her father are nevertheless omnipresent. "Arina was her father’s girl," says her mother, having inherited Andriy’s delicate lips and dimples. Not a day passes, she says, that she and her daughter don’t cry together about his death. Now, in winter, Arina remembers how he used to marinate the roast chicken, and in summer, she’ll think about how she used to go swimming with him at the seaside. "When I couldn’t swim anymore, he would let me grab onto his shoulders."

There are countless forms of suffering for children in Ukraine, but there are also a huge number of people providing assistance. Thousands of organizations and networks have been established since February 24. In contrast to many other large crises in the world, this war is taking place in a country which – at least prior to the Russian invasion – had a functioning state, good digital infrastructure and, most importantly, a strong civil society, says Murat Sahin of UNICEF.

One of the private organizations is World to Ukrainians, a group that has been operating an emergency shelter in a vodka distillery in Zaporizhzhia since April. The eastern Ukrainian industrial city is located around 30 kilometers from the front, and people from the occupied territories are still arriving here every day, with many of them having experienced months of bombing from missiles and artillery.

Children's drawings in the shelter

Children's drawings in the shelter

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

In the early months of the war, the vaulted basement of the vodka factory primarily provided shelter to refugees from the heavily bombed city of Mariupol. In the port city on the sea of Azov, which was besieged for several weeks by Russian units – with hundreds of people holding out in the Azov steel factory until the city finally fell – the dead had to be buried between the residential buildings and residents were left to drink from puddles. The Russian air force even bombed the drama theater that was being used as emergency shelter for displaced people, along with the city’s maternity ward. It was nothing less than an extermination campaign against a civilian population that Moscow claimed to want to liberate.

Traveling through the countryside, one comes across children who have built play-checkpoints. Or, as in early May in Zaporizhzhia, a six-year-old who was wearing his UNICEF backpack on his chest as a bullet-proof vest and spoke constantly of tanks and bombs while imitating the noises of explosions. A wall of the Zaporizhzhia cellar where families seek shelter from the violence and sleep in bunkbeds following their arrival is covered with children’s drawings. Most of them depict soldiers, war and destruction.

Children always reproduce their realities in games, says Kateryna Chernova, the facility manager from World to Ukrainians.

Iryna Zaklinska arrived at the organization’s shelter with three of her four children in early August. The girls, Iryna and Lina, are 12 and nine years old, while their little brother Danil is just one and a half. The family spent over five months living in the gray zone between the Russians and the Ukrainians. There home was in Vasylivka, located south of Zaporizhzhia on the line of contact between the troops.

The entire family, including the father and oldest son, tried on four separate occasions to flee to Ukrainian-controlled territory through Russian checkpoints. On the fifth try, Iryna was let through with the three children, but the two men of military age were forced to remain behind. The father and son were finally able to make it to Europe via Russia with the help of a migrant smuggler and are now living in the Czech Republic.

Iryna Zaklinska with her children Iryna, Lina and Danil in the emergency shelter. She says the Russians robbed her kids of their childhood. "I will never forgive them."

Iryna Zaklinska with her children Iryna, Lina and Danil in the emergency shelter. She says the Russians robbed her kids of their childhood. "I will never forgive them."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Iryna Zaklinska with her son Danil, who is one year and seven months old: "When the explosions would wake him up and he started to scream, I felt so helpless."

Iryna Zaklinska with her son Danil, who is one year and seven months old: "When the explosions would wake him up and he started to scream, I felt so helpless."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

Zaklinska says that the children suffered greatly from shortages and the daily artillery strikes. The occupiers wanted to force the children to attend a school with a Russian curriculum, she says, adding that Russian soldiers had searched their home in Vasylivka and suspected that she belonged to the Ukrainian resistance.

Children Can Distinguish Between Different Types of Artillery

The children, says Iryna Zaklinska, had to go through the experience of watching two neighbors die from kidney failure because they had no access to dialysis. In the beginning, they would ask after loud explosions how far away the detonations had been, but later, the children themselves were able to determine both the direction of fire and how far away the strikes were. They could even distinguish between different types of artillery, the mother says. "Frequently, though, they didn’t even pay attention when an explosion went off," Zaklinska says.

When things got particularly bad, nine-year-old Lina would hide under her parents’ bed with a pillow. "We wouldn’t be able to get her to come out for the whole night," her mother says. Little Danil was just 11 months old when the war reached them. "When the explosions would wake him up and he started to scream, I felt so helpless," his mother says.

"Who wants a refugee family as renters?"

Irina Zaklinska

The family is currently surviving on 275 euros of state assistance per month. Often, Zaklinska gets up at 3:30 a.m. to help out in the facility’s kitchen. She was only able to find an apartment for her and the children after months of searching. There is plenty of solidarity to go around in Ukraine, she says: "But who wants a refugee family as renters?"

Still, she has no desire to follow her husband and eldest son to the Czech Republic. "I want to return to my home as soon as possible," she says. They had a good life there, she reports, with something blooming in the garden the entire year except for winter: tulips, peonies, chrysanthemums. "For me, it was the most beautiful place in the world. We were happy."

On the day before her interview with DER SPIEGEL, Vladimir Putin’s army again fired off missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities. There were more than a dozen strikes in Zaporizhzhia and the alarm continued for four hours and 27 minutes.

Tics, Asthma and Psoriasis

With tears in her eyes, Iryna Zaklinska says the children grabbed a blanket and then sat together in the bathtub of their apartment. The Russians, she says, have robbed her children of their childhood. "I will never forgive them for that."

Kyiv-based psychologist Kateryna Goltsberg says that children display a number of symptoms triggered by trauma. Along with mutism and apathy, other manifestations include aggression and tics like blinking or frequent throat clearing. Some children, she says, even develop illnesses like asthma or psoriasis. Children, she says, need support to process the horrific experiences they have been through. "The basis for a successful process is a safe environment," Goltsberg says.

Psychologist Kateryna Goltsberg: "The basis for a successful process is a safe environment."

Psychologist Kateryna Goltsberg: "The basis for a successful process is a safe environment."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Lev Babiy doing his homework by candlelight: "I thought that maybe we would never be able to go back home or that Kyiv wouldn’t exist anymore."

Lev Babiy doing his homework by candlelight: "I thought that maybe we would never be able to go back home or that Kyiv wouldn’t exist anymore."

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL
Lev in his room in Kyiv

Lev in his room in Kyiv

Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / Agentur Ostkreuz / DER SPIEGEL

But in war, there are no safe environments. That is something that Lev Babiy has also experienced. The 10-year-old boy wears large, blue eyeglasses over his chubby cheeks and frequently flashes a good-natured smile. At the beginning of the war, he and his mother fled their apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv and then to western Ukraine. From there, they continued to Poland and finally to Germany. Lev’s mother Alona Babiy says they received a warmhearted welcome in Bochum. But because she was pregnant, they returned to Kyiv in August. "I wanted to give birth to my child in Ukraine, with his father."

Ukrainian men of military age are not allowed to leave the country, which is why many families have been torn apart or forced to remain in Ukraine.

Alona Babiy’s daughter is now three months old. The family’s life is difficult, the mother says after breastfeeding the baby and putting her down to sleep. The dark kitchen of the apartment is full of pictures of saints and preserving jars. The money that her husband brings home from his job as a taxi driver is barely enough to feed the family. Luckily, she was given a huge number of diapers when she was in Germany. With a newborn daughter, she is unable to find a job. She doesn’t really know what will happen when it gets bitterly cold this winter, perhaps as chilly as minus 20 degrees Celsius. "We are living from day to day. We are waiting for spring."

"He should never forget what happened here."

Mother Alona Babiy

Soon, her son Lev will be traveling to Lithuania with his biological father, perhaps for three months. Men who have three or more underage children are exempt from military service. In recent weeks, school lessons were impossible in Kyiv, with the power only rarely on. Lev has bundled his hands into the arms of his sweater as he listens to his mother. She is saying that her son hasn’t experienced much of the war, despite having had to flee. His mother says he only saw the wrecks of burned-out cars. Lev says that they scared him. "I thought that maybe we would never be able to go back home or that Kyiv wouldn’t exist anymore."

Lev’s father has family in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Russian soldiers haphazardly murdered Ukrainian civilians. The occupiers essentially executed the family of friends of theirs. Her son is aware of what happened in Bucha, says his mother, adding that she showed him pictures of dead bodies. They made him cry, of course, she says, and it was certainly traumatic for him. But, she says: "He should never forget what happened here."

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