Andrii, 12 and Valentyn, 6, were pictured standing in a foxhole as they played Ukrainian military near their houses in the village of Stoianka, in the Kyiv region, last Sunday. The photograph, by Gleb Garanich, serves as a stark reminder that a whole generation of kids is growing up amid the horrors and fears of a military conflict that has killed thousands of people, devastated cities and towns and prompted a massive exodus of around six million Ukrainians, many of whom bear accounts of torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate destruction.
“The war has impacted all children’s psychosocial wellbeing,” UNICEF warned earlier this month.
Aaron Greenberg, the organisation’s Regional Child Protection adviser for Europe and Central Asia, said the war in Ukraine “is a child protection crisis of extraordinary proportions, the likes of which we perhaps haven’t seen before”.
Speaking from the Ukrainian city of Lviv at a press conference hosted by the United Nations in Geneva on May 6, he claimed: “Children have been uprooted from their homes, separated from caregivers and directly exposed to war.
“Children have been shaken by bomb explosions and the blaring sirens of missile alert systems.”
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He added: “Nearly all children are coping with the absence of their fathers, older male siblings or uncles as nearly all men between the ages of 18 ad 60 are mobilised for the war effort.
“And, most importantly, many children have witnessed or experienced physical and sexual violence.”
While emphasising children’s resilience, saying many of them will “bounce back”, Mr Greenberg stressed a significant part “will present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder”.
His remarks echo those of World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, who on Tuesday reflected on the heavy toll wars like the one raging in Ukraine are taking on global health.
As he recalled having experienced conflict firsthand, he said: “I am a child of war.
“The sound of gunfire and shells whistling through the air; the smell of smoke after they struck; tracer bullets in the night sky…
“These things have stayed with me throughout my life, because I was in the middle of war when I was very young.
“And it leaves psychological scars that can take years or decades to heal.”
The first African to head the WHO and the sole candidate on the ballot for the next five-year term, Dr Tedros said “war shakes and shatters the foundations on which previously stable societies stood”.
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According to UNICEF’s Mr Greenberg, nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children in Ukraine had been pushed out of their country by the start of the month.
As of May 24, more than 14 million people — children, women and men — are thought to have fled their homes, UN figures showed.
More than six million have left for neighbouring countries, while eight million people are displaced inside the war-torn country itself.
Of those who have left, more than three million have gone to Poland. Moldova, meanwhile, has the largest concentration of refugees by population. Both countries have asked for international support to help fund their efforts.
The European Union has granted Ukrainians the right to stay and work throughout its 27 member states for up to three years.
Refugees are given food, medical care and access to school as well as information about onward travel. Those who cannot stay with friends or relatives are housed in reception centres.
In the UK, meanwhile, those who arrive through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which lets British residents nominate an individual or family to stay with them rent-free for at least six months, can live and work for up to three years – with access to healthcare, welfare and schools.
Some 107,400 visas, out of 128,100 applications, had been issued to Ukrainians as of May 17.
The system has received criticism from families who have applied to be sponsors for being too slow and complicated.