“My cats eyes were so wide, he was also very afraid,” Diana tells us matter of factly. The 10-year-old is explaining what happened during a recent day of intense shelling in Avdiivka, her hometown on the frontline of east Ukraine’s more than three-year-old conflict.
This is where you hear first-hand the violence that continues unabated, and see its impact, mostly out of the media spotlight.
Apartment blocks with the misfortune of facing the wrong direction now have gaping holes revealing what once were homes. Damaged school windows and signs directing children to safer areas. Numerous military checkpoints. Regular water and power cuts. The persistent sounds of conflict.
For residents, this is everyday life. Some families living closest to the ‘contact line’ – separating Government and non-Government controlled areas – rarely seek safety in bomb shelters anymore. The normality of conflict is increasing people’s thresholds and as a result, the physical and mental dangers they face.
Diana seems to epitomise this sentiment. In the tiny one-room apartment she shares with her mother, Diana describes in intricate detail how she forgot to take the keys with her when the fighting intensified. The painful decision to leave her cat behind in the apartment.
The psychological stress of living in constant fear and uncertainty is taking its toll, particularly for the 200,000 girls and boys like Diana who live around the ‘contact line’.
The good news is that Diana and many of her peers continue to go to school. UNICEF is advising and training teachers and other school staff on how to better cope themselves and how to provide the necessary support for children dealing with the impact of conflict and displacement. The new skills help children now and will do so in the future.
Services on the brink
Driving from UNICEF Ukraine’s field office in Kramatorsk, closest to Avdiivka, the trip south to the port city of Mariupol takes time. The winter ice has melted and has cracked open the tarmac.
Passing the coal mines and heavy industry that mark east Ukraine’s landscape reminds you of what’s at stake. While children and families come under attack, so does critical infrastructure that provides essential services for people across the region and further afield.
Water pumping stations and electricity lines that cross the ‘contact line’ are frequently damaged by the fighting. When water is cut in one area, it reduces access in another, and alternative sources such as small reservoirs are used up.
UNICEF is providing emergency water transport, distribution, and treatment for water purification. Critical repairs and upgrades are also being carried out to improve an already fragile water network and provide more efficient and effective service for years to come.
When we finally reach Mariupol, it’s nearly dark and most of the lights are off. Tonight, there is not enough electricity to power the whole town.
Surviving day by day
At daylight, we meet 35-year-old Andrii and his three children in a crammed apartment they share with another family. A coal miner from Horlivka, Andrii fled home with his children when their neighbour’s house was hit by shelling. “It was impossible to stay there anymore,” he explains. “Besides, there was no job.”
While Mariupol provides some relative safety and the children are at school, the job concerns have followed. Andrii found work at a local coal plant but struggles to make ends meet. “The salary is very low. It’s very hard to support my family,” he says.
The conflict in the east has reduced the purchasing power of families, many of whom have lost incomes, property, and land. “We are sitting on a powder keg. I have three kids whom I have to put on their feet,” Andrii says with a sense of desperation.
Return to Hranitne
The next day we drive out of town to Hranitne, a small village that literally sits between the two sides in the conflict. I was here with a UNICEF Ukraine team 18-months ago and spent time with now 17-year-old Dasha and her mother. We’ve come back to see how they are.
The house and environment look very much the same, though the sand bags protecting the kitchen windows have been removed. I ask why and Dasha explains that one of them was leaking so they were removed.
The cellar is still ready to function as a bomb shelter. In the dark, cold and damp room Dasha reflects, “when you are sitting here, you don’t know if you are ever going to get out.” It’s the stress of conflict. Children and young people across the area live with day in and out. But there is also extraordinary resilience and Dasha is focused on her final school year exams. “I want a good education and to get into college because I want a good future for my family and for myself,” she says.
As we leave Hranitne the sound of shelling can be heard again. I think of the sandbags and wish they were back in place.
Among the havoc and uncertainty that the conflict breeds, there is hope. Diana and her peers are determined to continue their education and play a role in building a more stable future. Andrii is focussed on doing whatever he can so his children, “… live happy and prosper in life.” Dasha is studying hard to realise her dream of going to University.
But what happens next is never certain. As Andrii says, “The future? Well, that’s an enigma. You can’t predict it.”
Toby Fricker is a Communication Specialist working as part of the Emergency Response Team, providing support to COs and ROs on communication and advocacy in humanitarian preparedness and response.