Many children are hiding underground in Kharkiv. They have been there for two months, despite the city being under constant attack.
Their home, school, playground, and refuge is the metro station. It’s safe in Ukraine’s second largest city, just 20 miles from Russia border. But Nicole Bulizhenko (12 years old) wants to tell you that it is not real life.
“I cannot express how concerned I feel. It is so difficult. She says, “I worry about everyone I love.”
Nicole said nothing when asked about the attackers in her city.
Lisa, Nicole’s cousin, is 12 years old, and she is seated beside Nicole, supporting her hand. Nicole’s older sister, Nicole, is in her twenties and watches with her five-year-old child.
Their parents still live at their home with three dogs. The girls can go back to their parents’ home once a week for a bath if they feel safe.
It’s obvious that Nicole has become too busy to tell us about her current life. As she describes how six of her relatives are still living in Kharkiv, tears are streaming down her face. This is just a glimpse at the terrible effects war has on children in this area.
Iryna Zolotareva is a UNICEF trauma psychologist and the most important person in these young people’s lives.
She has been coming to the station every week for the past month to conduct art therapy sessions, private consultations and to sing and dance with the youngest children who are feeling stressed.
Iryna sent her children and grandchildren out of country to show her support for those left behind.
She claims that the children don’t call it war down there: “They just use the term ‘loud’. They told me that they aren’t going outside because it’s too loud.
She says that each of them suffered a different trauma. “Some were actually killed in the bombings or shellings, while others had no shelter after their homes were hit.”
Iryna explains that it wasn’t always like this.
“When I first started, the children were very scared. We did almost nothing. We didn’t draw or write, and there wasn’t any education. I was trying to get them to feel warm. To get them to eat. To make them feel secure.
Their world is in ruin above ground. This war has decimated hundreds of schools. It is a war crime if they were targeted. It is dangerously reckless if they were collateral damage.
We are shown the remains of an infant school. It is surrounded by new craters in dirt and blown out apartments. A toy medical set lies among the broken glass. One classroom’s walls are blackened and shoes and bags are scattered across the locker room.
A math class is taking place in a cramped corner at the metro station. It occupies a space between two emergency exit doors. These are the lessons. The children are hard at work, but no one knows what their future holds.
Nicole enjoys her one-on-one sessions and helps Iryna to understand the devastation that surrounds her. She insists that she will not leave Kharkiv, despite the stress of underground life.
“I have seen and heard everything. She says, “But I’m going here until the end.”
Listening to artillery sounds is difficult, and it can be hard for people to hear. Iryna apologizes to us for letting her emotions show. “I just want them to be comforted and make their trauma smaller and less frequent.”
These children are confused and bewildered by the world around them.
Iryna embraces Nicole. Because sometimes words are just not enough, a hug can go a long way.