I recently met Valeria in Kyiv and want to tell you about her. Her story illustrates the weight of the burden of war carried by Ukraine’s children.
In the peaceful days of her childhood, Valeria, affectionately known as Lira, was much like any other girl her age. She liked to play in the parks in their beautiful town of Kharkiv. She enjoyed drawing and spending time with friends. This was before the war started, and the rumble of tanks filled the once-tranquil streets outside her apartment.
Lira could not sleep. The loud explosions kept her awake at night and terrified all day. All around them, the familiar houses that had always stood there transformed into rubble and chaos.
Human Rights Watch documented 43 attacks by Russian forces in Kharkiv between February 24 and March 5, during their initial assault on the city. They destroyed apartment blocks, schools, churches, and shops, preventing access to food and medicine. They also damaged infrastructure, causing losses of vital services such as electricity, heat, and water. Local authorities reported that 133 civilians were killed and 319 were wounded in Kharkiv during these first 11 days of the war.
For Lira, the terror she felt was justified. The soldiers systematically attacked densely populated residential neighborhoods. The tanks on the street and the sounds of explosions nearby confirmed this. After enduring days of this unrelenting horror, Lira's parents, like countless others, faced the realization that they had to escape their hometown to seek safety.
In the car, they tried to shelter Lira from the terrible sights. But it was impossible. Their world was utter chaos. On the streets were dead people. Familiar places had turned into smoldering ruins. They didn’t even know if the Russians would let them out of the city. Life had never been so scary.
They made it to Kyiv. By the time they arrived, it seemed they had come to a place without war. Sure, there was a war still, and the whole country was on the alert. But at least Kyiv was not under direct attack like Kharkiv. They found a place to live and prayed that Lira could forget all the terrible things she had just experienced.
She tried to cope with life the way 7-year-olds do. Trying to find routine in life, wanting to be close to those who are safe, looking for familiarity. However, despite the improved circumstances, her body bore the scars of her trauma. Suddenly, her vision dimmed in one eye. Before the war, her eyesight had been flawless, but now she struggled to see clearly. A visit to the eye doctor revealed that one of Lira’s eyes bore the weight of the trauma she had witnessed. This is why she got glasses.
Today, when we meet Lira, she wears her glasses with a sense of contentment. She finds joy in creative craft activities and in playing with the neighborhood children. As she swings higher into the sky than her peers, she has a carefree smile. When it is time to go inside, her mom, Viktoria, and Lira serve us warm apple pie that they made together. It is sweet with the taste of tart apples.
"I want peace, to return home, and everything will be fine; my relatives are nearby. They are healthy and alive.”
With crayons and paper in hand, Lira sketches two contrasting pictures: one of her home under attack and another of her home beneath a radiant rainbow. “I want peace, to return home, and everything will be fine; my relatives are nearby. They are healthy and alive.” Her dream is something that we take for granted. Such a dream may seem impossible for a resilient 7-year-old who has glimpsed the horrors of hell.
Kharkiv, once a thriving town, now lies in ruins. The toll of suffering is immeasurable, with at least 1,019 civilians losing their lives, including 52 innocent children who, like Lira, dreamed of a safe and secure home.
I think of Lira often. She made an impression on me. There are other children I have met that often fill my thoughts and prayers, too. I feel sad when I think of their fear, their pain and how lonely many of them are. Trauma is real and the body keeps score, like Bessel van der Kolk reminds us in his book by the same name. This is why we stay in Ukraine. Children like Lira and hundreds of thousands more must know they are not forgotten. They are the future, and the future is happeing now. Your support is vital for these children. Thank you for standing with us and the children of war in Ukraine.
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Hanna is from Kharkiv. Last week, she went back to her war-torn home.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out, ‘Stop!’