On February 23, 2022, I remember walking to work in central Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. It was a cold but sunny day with bright blue skies. There was a normal morning buzz around me: kids walking to school, parents dropping off children at the bus stop, adolescents and young people mingling in Shevchenko Park, a group of pensioners playing chess. Some people were talking about a possible war - but most could not imagine what this would mean.
The lives of children turned upside down
As the first missiles hit on February 24, the life of every child in Ukraine radically changed. From one day to the other, everything became uncertain and dangerous. The last 365 days have been devastating: homes were abandoned or lost as people were forced to flee them, families were cut apart and friends separated, schools and hospitals were destroyed. These first missiles cut millions of dreams short, and turned fear into a constant.
I remember the sound of sirens stopping any normal life and the feeling of going to bed knowing that a missile could hit your home while you tried to sleep. I will never forget the uncertainty in the eyes of the children, not knowing when they would see their dad again and when this would be all over.
It was heartbreaking to see children’s lives turned upside down. I remember the four-year-old girl who joined me and colleagues in my car as we made the dangerous three-day journey from Kyiv to Lviv, western Ukraine. She and her mum had spent a week hiding from shelling in the cellar of their home in Bucha, a town near Kyiv. The girl was tired and traumatised, and she shook at every loud noise. With every military vehicle that passed us, she asked fearfully if it was Ukrainian or Russian. Fortunately, my Labrador is very friendly, and she managed to make her smile again from time to time.
I also remember the women and children at the train station in Lviv and at the border in Uzghorod bidding tearful farewells to their husbands and fathers. I remember the exhaustion on their faces, the overcrowded accommodation centres in sports halls and the mothers desperately trying to find diapers and medicine for their kids.
A glimpse of hope
What gave me and my UNICEF colleagues hope and strength in these early, chaotic weeks was that we could do something to help. Clearly not enough, but at least something. There were some wonderful moments, such as when the first lorries with humanitarian goods arrived at our new warehouse, which we had established in a chicken farm, or when we brought toys and school material to accommodation centres and schools, or when we started renovations of hospital cellars so that maternity wards could be moved underground to keep women and babies safe during missile attacks.
When I left Ukraine in July last year and started my new job with UNICEF in Slovakia, I carried Ukraine with me in my heart. I was impressed to see the huge solidarity with which Ukrainians were met in Slovakia. Ordinary Slovaks opened their doors to Ukrainian families; firefighters, police officers and social workers helped Ukrainian children and women to find accommodation, medical treatment and to enroll in school. It was wonderful to see how children started to reclaim a bit of normal life.
I saw five-year-olds running around and laughing at the Play and Learning Hubs we created with 13 Slovak municipalities, as well as adolescents celebrating as their team won during a football tournament we organised with the Mareena non-profit organisation and the Slovak Football Association. I saw Ukrainian teachers and paediatricians standing proud as they found a job here that serves both Ukrainian and Slovak children.
Children need peace
The last 365 days have changed the lives of Ukrainian children and adolescents forever. But they did not stop having dreams and ambitions. I am hopeful that with continued solidarity Ukrainian people will find a new sense of normalcy and rebuild their lives – in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. They did not choose this war. The children of Ukraine need peace, and they deserve our support and care.