Injured by war, the scars on Ukraine’s wounded children are more than superficial

Injured by war, the scars on Ukraine’s wounded children are more than superficial

On March 3, Russian troops set up a military camp in the small farming community of Jahidne, northeast of the capital Kyiv, as they advanced toward the capital. Serhii and his family were captured along with hundreds of others in his school’s basement. Ten days later, while he was in line for food at the playground, there was an explosion and he was hit by shrapnel.

“First there was a strong blow in the back. I fell, couldn’t get up, couldn’t move,” he told CNN on Thursday, showing the spot behind his school where he was hit. “People ran over and picked me up. I couldn’t even walk. It was a lot of blood.”

The next day, the teenager was flown across the border into Belarus in a helicopter by Russian troops to be treated alongside their wounded soldiers. Photos of his injuries provided to CNN show a deep laceration on his shoulder. A medical report from the Gomel Regional Children’s Clinical Hospital, where he was treated, says he suffered an open fracture of the shoulder blade, fractured ribs and a deep contusion of his right lung.

Over the next month, Serhii was out of touch with his family and had to undergo major surgery twice. His mother, Svitlana Sorokopud, said Russian troops in Yahidne had taken cellphones from all residents and since she was cut off from the outside world, she had no way of finding out where her son went.

“It can’t be described in words if you don’t know where your child is,” she said. “I cried day and night. He had such a bad injury and I didn’t know where he was.”

It’s not just physical injuries that weigh on her son, but also the agony of being separated from his family, she said. “In the beginning he couldn’t even sleep there and had nightmares. He was afraid that we wouldn’t pick him up.”

Serhii only contacted his parents after the Russians pulled out on March 30, and his family was able to buy a new cell phone and get back on the internet. They say a Belarusian doctor posted Serhii’s name, date of birth and hometown on social media. “Parents maybe [are] in Yahidne,” the post read. “Please spread the word so they know the boy is alive.”

When they found out where he was, Svitlana said they had been on the phone every day for about a month and assured him they would come. His 25-year-old sister crossed the border into Poland and then Belarus to pick him up in early May.

Now, in Yahidne, there are burnt-out houses on every street. In front of the house where Serhii and his family now live, his 9-year-old brother and young nephew pretend to run a checkpoint. The specter of a new Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is never far from them. “There is no fear now,” Serhii said. “But sometimes I wonder what will happen when they come back and what they will do.”

Serhii's mother Svitlana was devastated when her son was separated from the family. As the war stretches into its sixth month, the impact on Ukraine’s children is evident in the grim death toll. On a new Ukrainian government website, Children of War, the number ticks against a black screen: 361 dead and 703 wounded at last count.

But the effects are not only physical, but also psychological, said Daria Gerasimchuk, the Ukrainian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights.

“Absolutely every Ukrainian child is affected… Every child has heard air raid warnings. Children see the suffering of their relatives and friends. Children have to say goodbye to parents who go to the front to defend the country who are still under occupation. The ones who are hurt. In other words, absolutely every Ukrainian child has quite severe psychological and physical injuries,” Gerasimchuk said in an interview with CNN last week.

Most Ukrainian children have fled the front lines and nearly two-thirds have been displaced either within the country or as refugees across borders, UNICEF said in June. That same month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, “Russia is stealing our children’s childhoods, it wants to destroy our future.” immediately suspended, many of whom had not had an education for months due to deadly attacks on schools in eastern Ukraine or Covid-19 school closures.” According to the World Bank, many schools in Ukraine have resumed classes, but these are almost exclusively online.The deep scars on Serhii's back are a lasting reminder of his survival. As something of a normal life returns to the streets of Kyiv, Jenya Nikitina – a shy 7-year-old – knows that that uneasy calm can be shattered in an instant. She was asleep when, on the morning of June 26, several Russian rockets hit the capital’s western Shevchenkivskyi district, hitting her family’s apartment block. Her father Oleksii was killed. Jenya and her mother, Katerina Volkova, a 35-year-old Russian citizen, were trapped for hours.

Her mother remembers the moment she heard Jenya call out and confirmed that she was still alive. “There was no luck [at] At that moment, I could hear her,” she told CNN as she sat next to her daughter outside a school gym in Kyiv’s Chokolivka district ahead of Jenya’s gymnastics class on Saturday morning. “It was even more terrifying because I was thinking [that] She was in pain too… I told her, “Someone will come.” did i believe it That’s another question.”

Jenya, who was detained for a few hours, suffered a concussion and multiple abrasions. Her mother, who was detained for five hours, suffered burns, severe lacerations and a fracture.

Weeks later, it’s her daughter’s psychological scars that worries Katerina the most. When asked if it’s possible for a child to understand what happened, her voice cracks. “I’m not sure we adults understand emotionally what’s happening.”

Katerina Volkova and her 7-year-old daughter Jenya.

In case the sirens go off again, Jenya’s gymnastics classes are the only time they’re apart. Jumping and hopping around the mat is a chance to heal and forget for a little while.

Katerina worries that fear has become too familiar to her daughter. “It [her childhood] was taken…there will be joyful moments in the future and many parents are still trying to create those moments for them,” she said, adding that children have experienced “too much.”

Katerina added that she “couldn’t imagine” her daughter growing up in an environment where she could identify the sounds of sirens, rockets and gunfire. “It’s not what you expect your child to learn at the age of seven.”

“The scariest thing is that [children] think that’s normal. They talk about it like it’s their daily life.”