Underground parking lots and subway stations In bigger cities like the capital Kyiv, families take their children to underground parking lots or subway stations. Some of them even set up tents in these subterranean passages in the first stages of war.
Since the conflict in Ukraine escalated one year ago, Children in Ukraine have been forced to hide underground for an average of about 920 hours in the last year – equivalent more than a month. Along the frontline in the south-east of Ukraine, shelling almost never ceases. This is what summary sources of official data show.
Sources that aggregate official data to calculate the number and duration of air raid sirens across Ukraine show that a total of 16,207 sirens were announced during the past year, lasting for about an hour on average. Sirens warn civilians of a missile strike or shelling threat, prompting them to take shelter. Families and children may end up spending up to 8 hours underground unable to leave due to continuous missile attacks.
In Kharkiv, for example, there were more than 1,700 air sirens in the past year lasting for about 1,500 hours total, while regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia experienced over 1,100 hours of alarms each.
One year of war: Impact on children is devastating
This catastrophic year of war on children has been assessed in a new Save the Children report, A Heavy Toll. It outlines the constant grave danger facing boys and girls every day in Ukraine, and highlights the psychological distress of having witnessed violence, separation from family and friends, displacement, and lack of access to education, among other violations.
Sonia Khush, Save the Children Country Director in Ukraine, said:
“Many children witnessed their homes and schools being destroyed and their loved ones being killed by never-ending shelling and missiles. And as the war now enters its second year, children continue to witness new waves of violence.”
“Children didn’t start this war but they are paying the highest price. What always amazes me, however, is how resilient children are to withstand all the challenges, and how if we give them a chance they know how to take difficult experiences and turn them to growth, with a little bit of help.”
Save the Children calls on the warring parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and ensure that civilians and civilian objects, especially those impacting children such as homes, schools, and hospitals, are protected from attack. Perpetrators of violations against children must be held to account.
The war through the eyes of a 16-year-old
Many children told us about their year in the war. “We were all crying, we were terrified to death,” Sophia*, 16, recalls how she woke up to explosions and sirens on 24 February in Kharkiv.
After being displaced a few times, she worked with volunteers and got herself and eight other children evacuated, eventually to Zakarpattia, the far west of Ukraine, where she now lives with her grandmother.
Even though the western region is deemed one of the safest, Sophia said the air sirens remain frequent. When the siren goes off, Sophia normally spends an hour in a dark and cold cellar under their detached house. But if the alarm catches her while at school, taking shelter turns into a quest.
“If there is an air raid siren, the senior students – 9th to 11th grade – we go to the village council. They have equipped a bunker there,” Sophia says. “It takes us five minutes to run there [to the village council], or 15 minutes to walk. But I have always wondered if the alarm starts during blackout and we hear no siren, and there is a missile strike, how much would it take me to rush to the shelter… It took 47 seconds.”
War becomes everyday life
In Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, attacks are more frequent. The city was recently shocked by a missile strike that destroyed an apartment block and took the lives of 46 civilians. A teacher in a suburban kindergarten in Dnipro told Save the Children air raid sirens are now a way of life for her pupils:
“They get dressed, go outside, go around the institution, and go down to the shelter… It takes about 3 minutes for the children to get ready to go down,” — says Svitlana*, the teacher, who along with colleagues must evacuate around 200 children — many of them with special needs every time the siren goes off.
To reduce the stress of the sirens, teachers have at times created playful drills to prepare children for emergencies and trained them to promptly take shelter.
The institution’s basement is now equipped for drawing, playing, and dancing. Also, every pupil has a stall with an emergency backpack full of water, snacks, warm clothes, and favourite toys.
In bigger cities like the capital Kyiv, families take their children to underground parking lots or subway stations. Some of them even set up tents in these subterranean passages in the first stages of war.
“When aircrafts take-off, we get ourselves ready. I was scared in the first days of war, and now it is all routine. Everyone has his backpack. They take it and go out,” said Maryna*, a mother of two, whose husband and children are sitting amid the platform on small chairs they took from home along with bags full of water and food. Going to the subway once missiles launch is now a habit for many families.
Save the Children on the Field
Save the Children has been working in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. Since 24 February, we have dramatically scaled up our operations and have reached over 800,000 people — including 436,500 children, with life-saving assistance such as food and water, cash transfers, and safe spaces, to make sure children and families impacted by this crisis have the support they need.
More information on our activites in Ukraine, neighbouring countries and Switzerland can be found here.