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War in Ukraine: children in cities forced to live underground for months

UNICEF/UN0605554/Remp Families arrive in Berdyszcze, Poland, after crossing the border from Ukraine.

Children in cities in Ukraine’s frontline areas have been forced to spend between 3,000 and 5,000 hours – equivalent to between four and almost 7 months – sheltering in basements and underground metro stations over the past two years, as air raid alerts sound above.

Since the war escalated in February 2022, relentless attacks – resulting in around 3,500 air raid alerts in the Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions and nearly 6,200 in the Donetsk region – have had a devastating impact on children’s mental health and ability to effectively learn.

The winter months have been particularly horrific for children, with thousands sheltering in cold, damp basements as an escalation of attacks left many families without heating, access to water and electricity, says children’s charity UNICEF.

“The war in Ukraine has shattered childhoods and wreaked havoc on children’s mental health and ability to learn,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Children have experienced two years of violence, isolation, separation from families, loss of loved ones, displacement and disrupted schooling and healthcare. They need this nightmare to end.”

“The continued shelling leaves little opportunity for Ukraine’s children to recover from the distress and trauma associated with attacks. Every siren and explosion bring further anxiety. Education is a pillar of hope, opportunity and stability in children’s lives, but it continues to be disrupted or out of reach for millions of Ukraine’s children.”

The psychological impacts of war among children are widespread. According to survey data, half of 13- to 15-year-olds have trouble sleeping, and 1 in 5 have intrusive thoughts and flashbacks – typical manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. Three-quarters of children and young people aged 14 to 34 recently report needing emotional or psychological support. However, less than a third sought help.

The continued shelling leaves little opportunity for Ukraine’s children to recover from the distress and trauma associated with attacks

Parents across Ukraine report elevated levels of anxiety, excessive fear, phobias and sadness, and decreased engagement in school, sensitivity to loud noises, and sleep troubles among children. At a time when parental support is needed most, half of parents surveyed report that they are struggling to support their children.

Across the country, 40 per cent of Ukraine’s children cannot access continuous education due to a lack of facilities. In areas nearer to the frontline, half of school-age children are unable to access education. Latest data show that the scale of learning gaps seen in 2022 compared to 2018 is equivalent to two years loss in reading and one year loss in maths.

Since the escalation of the war two years ago, UNICEF expanded its work in Ukraine and is currently present in Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Dnipro, Poltava, Mykolaiv, and Kharkiv to provide humanitarian assistance and critical support to children and families.

UNICEF’s work in Ukraine is focused on ensuring children have access to health care, immunisation, nutrition support, protection, education, safe water and sanitation, social protection, and mental health and psychosocial support.

In refugee hosting countries, UNICEF works with governments, municipalities and local partners to strengthen national systems that provide refugee children and marginalized children from host communities with quality education, health care and protection services.

“Humanitarian principles, international humanitarian law and international human rights law must be respected. Children need a chance to recover, and the best way to do that is by ending this war,” said Russell.


Author: Simon Weedy

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