Ukrainian children terrified 'friends might die – I am so afraid of this'

Diana, 14, at Save the Children’s digital learning centre in Lviv (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express )

Legs dangling off the hospital trolley bed, hands clasped tightly in her lap, Sasha looks every bit the typical teenager in her bright, fuchsia-pink tracksuit and gold cross earrings. But the 15-year-old’s nervous smile and the haunted look in her eyes tell an altogether different story.

Today, the young Ukrainian is safe under the care of doctors at St Nicholas Children’s Hospital in Lviv, but she has known months of terror.

Sasha is recuperating after a long ordeal in Russian-occupied territory in the east of the embattled country. She comes from a small village between Kherson and Mykolaiv, one of the first stops for Russia’s invading army.

On April 9, 2022, Sasha’s 14th birthday, Putin’s soldiers lured her into an abandoned house. As she tried to resist, they shot her in the arm. At a Russian-occupied hospital, her poor treatment complicated her recovery.

Sasha’s frantic mum eventually located her but the pair lacked the huge sums of money needed to bribe their way through Russian checkpoints to escape the occupied zone. They stayed in the hospital for six months, before eventually finding refuge with relatives.

Today in Lviv, Sasha is under the care of the hospital’s Unbroken rehabilitation programme, supported by Save The Children, which treats war-injured children and adults.

Speaking of her recovery, she says: “I can do up buttons with my injured arm, I can eat and cook for myself. It was difficult to come here at first because I was afraid that my story would not be understood but I was treated well. My doctor treated me like aperson, not a patient.”

Sasha, 15, is recovering after being shot in the arm by Russian soldiers (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express)

The medic, Dr Serhii Khuda, says the teenager could not feel her arms or legs when she arrived. She had a head injury and the Russian bullet had damaged her nerves and muscles.

“She could not feed herself, cook or live a regular life,” he says.

“Occupational therapists had to re-establish her essential life skills and I, the physician, tried to restore her arm’s strength – it was like a flesh prosthetic because she lost the ability to use it for so long.”

Just as concerning was Sasha’s severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “She was existing, not living, when she arrived,” Dr Serhii continues. “Whenever we had to do a procedure or examination, she was experiencing panic.”

With the war entering its third year since the full-scale invasion of February 24, 2002, concern is mounting about its long-term psychological impact on millions of children and adults.

Sasha’s life is slowly getting back on track. She watches films and takes walks with a new friend. She has discovered the joys of make-up and hopes to return to her running.

But while her case brings cause for optimism, the wider picture is less rosy. Almost every child in Ukraine has a story to tell of the war’s impact on their lives: fear, death, bombardment, familial separation, displacement and missed education.

One boy told me he cannot sleep at night because he saw a Russian tank smash into people and roll over them

Deeply worryingly, 630,000 – or one in 12 – of the pre-war child population who have returned to their homes are suffering “extreme needs”, including danger and poverty, risking their physical and mental wellbeing, according to new analysis by Save The Children.

The Daily Express joined the charity in Lviv, and across the Polish border in Warsaw, to see how it is helping displaced Ukrainian children and refugees with education, healthcare and emotional support.

Part of this support entails running a network of digital learning centres in Ukraine to relieve pressure on overwhelmed schools. At its Lviv hub, I find a lively room of young teens, sprawled across colourful bean bags, being quizzed on Ukrainian inventors.

Many Ukrainian children are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express)

The centre is equipped with laptops and tablets but, crucially, it provides respite from the war. Diana, 14, from Kharkiv, lives with her grandparents as she has no father and her mother lives abroad. All three were forced to flee once the shelling started. Russian forces had marked the top of the city’s tall buildings, indicating which ones should be bombed.

Diana tells me her local shelter had a sledgehammer “in case we had to break our way out of the rubble”. As she and her grandparents arrived at the station, it came under bombardment. Miraculously, they boarded an evacuation train unharmed.

“We stood for almost two days and turned the lights off at night so nobody could detect us,” says Diana.

Before the war, she performed gymnastics, ballet and circus tricks – including walking on stilts with pythons. “I miss it because I have found nothing else like it,” she smiles.

Her first language is Russian and she found the switch to Ukrainian “complicated”. And she didn’t like Lviv at first. “I didn’t know anyone and I felt very sad because I didn’t have any friends.”

She enrolled at a school and learned about the centre a year after her arrival.

“I come here to entertain and distract myself,” she says. “I like the teachers. I can always go to them for support and they make me feel relaxed.” Now flourishing, she wants to pursue a career in medicine.

Across the border, three quarters of Polish schools now have at least one Ukrainian pupil. Such children, who may be scarred by bereavement and traumatic escapes from the fighting, are having to adapt to a new language, culture and life.

Ukrainian refugee Nika, 12, is starting a new life in Warsaw (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express)

In Warsaw, 272 pupils at the city’s “Ukrainian School”, part-funded by Save The Children, are piloting a co-educational system, combining a Polish curriculum with Ukrainian culture, which they hope will become a model for other schools. The charity has supported 127,000 Ukrainian children in Poland since March 2022.

Małgorzata Stodulna, education programme manager for Save The Children Poland, says: “We want to ensure children have access to quality education, preferably face-to-face, to provide them with good skills and competencies to lead happy and successful lives. Many child refugees have no social networks. The majority of Ukrainian children feel lonely.

“They don’t know the language, or what has happened to their fathers or brothers. Sometimes mothers don’t cope well and are struggling economically.”

Chatty and confident Nika, 12, from western Ukraine, the eldest of four siblings, is proud of how far she’s come in her Polish comprehension. It is clear she has adapted well in two years.

“It’s a good country, I love it, I have the best friends,” she says. “I think I will study here for a long time and then go to the US, as it’s my dream to become a doctor. There are possibilities there and I can make my dreams come true.”

But Nika still worries about her great-grandma and grandparents in Ukraine. “They are so old, they have a house with chickens,” she says. “The forest is behind their house and the air is good because it’s in the mountains.

“I love that place but I want to stay here and I am afraid we won’t meet each other before they pass away. I worry that my friends might die. I am so afraid of this.”

Psychologist Francesca, a refugee herself, tells me that children often know they need emotional help, but fear burdening their already-stressed parents.

The history of each child, along with the region they’re from, highlights who may be at risk. Francesca provides one-to-one and group sessions and arranges crisis interventions if necessary. Bad news from home is not uncommon.

“We have one boy whose father was a prisoner of war since almost the start of the war,” she says. “Last week, we received information his father was killed. Parents do not always tell children everything but children can’t hide their emotions, they feel everything. Some come to me as if I’m their parent and share their thoughts.”

Many youngsters witnessed terrible things while fleeing the country. Francesca says: “One boy told me he cannot sleep at night because he saw a Russian tank smash into people and roll over them.

“They were trying to stop the army. He and his brother hid behind a wall. He saw blood and how the tank did not stop. He was shocked by how cruel people could be.

“Some children saw Russians allowing people to leave the country before they shelled their cars and killed them.”

Ukrainian teenager Daniel, 16, calls his new life ‘complex and controversial’ (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express)

Despite parents’ good intentions, keeping children safe at home causes greater harm.

Last July, the UN’s child and refugee agencies warned more than half of Ukrainian children in Poland had not been enrolled in school 500 days after their arrival. Today, almost 150,000 Ukrainian children in Poland are still not participating in formal education, either in the classroom or online.

“Children need to have a normal life, they are sometimes more aware of the situation than their parents or caregivers who believe they will return to Ukraine,” says Małgorzata.

Daniel, 16, from the Kviv region, sees the Warsaw Ukrainian School as “one big family”.

“There is no bullying because everyone understands we are all in the same situation right now so we need to team up,” he says.

He will graduate from the 11th grade next year. Daniel describes his new life as “complex and controversial”. He explains: “I know that right now my life has no danger in it, but at the same time it’s really hard to leave everything behind.”

He still plays online video games with his friends back home and, like Nika, worries about them constantly.

“I wish I could stop thinking about the war but the reality is I simply cannot,” he admits. “There is news, my friends: I communicate with them. They tell me stories, there are no possible ways to stop thinking about it.

“The missile strikes are tough. They happen two or three times a day, so it’s really dangerous, and they are unsure what will happen tomorrow and this terrifies me.”

Before arriving in Warsaw, all his friends were in his hometown. Now they stretch across Ukraine and Poland. He hopes to study at a European university but wants to return to Ukraine one day to help it recover.

He’s blossomed in many ways, as he acknowledges. “I have changed positively but obviously it was not worth it,” he says. “The cost was too high.”

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Numbers of addicts, runaways and mentally ill are growing

Halyna Bordun, humanitarian affairs adviser to the head of Lviv Oblast Military Administration, says the psychological impact of the war on adults and children has grown as it drags on. Trauma specialists in seven towns across the Lviv region are receiving between 500 and 600 children a week but it’s not enough.

“We can’t move into smaller communities because we lack resources to train and deploy staff there,” she explains. “Our current project lasts until June. We need focal points in smaller communities to help families for at least one year. This includes relatives of men on the frontline or who have returned. Fathers in the military affect the ability of children to learn and attend school.”

Officially, 240,000 displaced people live in the Lviv region. Still, evacuation trains continue to arrive from the warzone.

Ms Bordun says there has been a “spike” in alcohol and drug addiction.

“It was not an issue in 2022. People then were leaving with an expectation to return home. Now they understand they have no place to return to, especially in conflict-affected areas where homes were obliterated.”

Halyna Bordun, humanitarian affairs adviser to the head of Lviv Oblast Military Administration (Image: Rowan Griffiths for Daily Express)

Despite the growing need for services, there is a shortage of psychologists.

“The different issues in children are mostly related to the problems adults have because when we cannot provide psychological support to an adult, that translates to the child,” says Ms Bordun. Some children, she adds, have even left home to escape unsafe environments.

Last December, 150 school principals from across the Lviv region participated in a seven-day “mental health marathon” to determine what psycho-social services are required. But resources don’t meet needs.

Ms Bordun said: “Budgets at local and state levels are exhausted and we don’t have the money to pay the psychologists, particularly in smaller communities. If we can’t pay psychologists, we will have to charge families… and if we don’t have the resources to tackle addiction problems, they will become much more significant.”

Some names have been changed to protect children.

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