The soldiers at the fifth military checkpoint of the morning wave us on. We finally enter Hranitne. The village lies sandwiched between the Ukrainian military on one side and armed groups of the Donetsk de-facto authorities, across a small bridge. This is the frontline of Ukraine’s eastern conflict and it’s 16-year-old Dasha’s home.
I’m with a team from UNICEF Ukraine’s Mariupol field office and we meet Dasha at her house on the edge of the village. She’s struggling to come to terms with her new reality. “It’s possible to talk to each other to prevent conflict,” she tells us. “Nevertheless, people continue to fight and to kill each other. Children can’t understand why it’s happening, what for,” she questions.
Dasha is lucky to be alive. A few months ago a chunk of shrapnel flew through the kitchen window and lodged in a cupboard. The room is now darkened by a mass of sand bags protecting the glass. More recently, a bullet was set off in the process of heating coals to make a cup of tea. It went straight up through the ceiling.
Treading carefully for a future
The local school is a 15-minute walk across the other side of the village. Even during the most intense fighting, Dasha, along with her fellow students and teachers, would wait for a quieter period before heading off. They’re determined to keep learning. “Today, it seems to me that the most important thing is education. To get the Grade 11 certificate and to continue. For me, that’s the main goal now,” she explains.
We stick closely to the tarmac road and paths, as we walk past damaged homes, craters caused by shells and boarded up windows. The day before, a 12-year-old boy was injured when he set off a mine in his garden. A recent de-escalation in fighting has improved access. It’s still tense but there is more movement and with it increased danger of accidents. Mine risk education in schools is currently being scaled up by UNICEF and its partners.
It’s bitterly cold in Dasha’s classroom and will only get worse as the winter digs in. Shattered windows, a leaking roof and no running water mean conditions are basic. Out of 280 children registered at school before the conflict, just 161 now attend. Many of Dasha’s friends have fled the village for safer areas.
Bringing the conflict home
For our team, it’s time to move when late afternoon sets in. The 20 km journey back to Mariupol town is unpredictable. Across the region, uncertainty pervades the air and affects the everyday lives of Dasha and her peers. Reaching young Ukrainians with the necessary psychosocial support to heal and to build a more tolerant society will be critical in the coming months and years. UNICEF Ukraine is looking at creative ways to realize that, such as mobile psychosocial teams to access the more cut off villages and towns.
The nearly 800 km journey back to Kyiv takes 13 hours. While the conflict in the east is geographically distant, its tentacles reach across the country. The squares and cobbled streets of the capital are punctuated by shrines to fallen soldiers. On Andrew’s Descent, a famous tourist street, a volunteer ‘battalion’ teach children how to load guns, awkwardly next to a stall selling homemade soft toys. Fighters returning from the frontline, bring trauma, stress and weapons home, affecting family life and the minds of children.
As long as the conflict remains unsolved, many young Ukrainian lives are on hold. I recall what Dasha told me in the village. “I will remember this year for the rest of my life. I feel like I’ve lived 10 years in one because it was so tense.” Her experiences will clearly never be forgotten. But with the right support, Dasha and other young Ukrainians affected by the conflict, can thrive once again.
Toby Fricker is an Emergency Communication Specialist, in the Division of Communication, UNICEF, recently returned from Ukraine.