KHARTSYZK, Ukraine (AP) — Seryozha colors in his drawing of a tank, lost in thought. Like many 7-year-olds in eastern Ukraine, he has trouble recalling a time before the war.
“They’ve always been shooting,” he says, vigorously scratching with the brightest of pencils.
Yelena Nikulenko, the director of the children’s home in the rebel-held town of Khartsyzk, says kids like Seryozha have been let down twice.
First orphaned or abandoned by their parents, they were then dumped by their new families when the Ukrainian government stopped paying benefits to foster families in separatist-controlled areas.
“On top of that, you have the war, the shelling, the fear,” Nikulenko says. “It will be a scar for the rest of their lives, that’s for sure.”
The conflict that erupted in Ukraine last year between government troops and Russian-backed separatists has claimed at least 6,000 lives and displaced nearly 1.8 million people. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 1.7 million children on both sides of the front line have been harmed through lack of proper shelter, nutrition, medicine or schooling.
Children struggle to understand what is going on around them, and why. Fighting has abated drastically since a new cease-fire came into effect last month, but the suffering, loneliness and terror remain.
In the government-held town of Popasna, 45 miles north of the children’s home, only a few people walk along deserted streets between apartments gutted by rocket fire, a grim contrast to the days when the town bustled with 30,000 people. One of those destroyed homes belongs to Tatyana Belash, who has now taken shelter in a basement with her 3-year old daughter, Zlata.
As the adults talk politics, Zlata, a shy girl with blonde pigtails, darts around the basement cluttered with battered mattresses. Asked about the shelling, Zlata shies away and seeks comfort in stroking her cat.
“When we first came here, she kept saying: ‘Let’s go home!'” Belash says. “I couldn’t explain to her that we couldn’t go home because there was fighting going on.”
Children in the Ukraine-controlled village of Chermalyk play war and scuttle in and out of the craters made by falling Grad rockets.
As 11-year old Tolik Tokar shimmies into one crater, his head disappears from view. Then he raises his head and pretends to shoot at the baddies: the separatists.
The boys take aim with make-believe guns fashioned from sticks — but Tokar has seen shooting first-hand, not just in play.
“When shelling was raging, we went to check it out, and then they opened fire on me,” Tokar says, stammering as he tells his tale. “The bullets tore through the cloth on my shoulder here and flew past.”
A few dozen kilometers away on the rebel side, children play the same games — but with roles reversed. There, Ukrainian soldiers are the bogeymen, with “Nazi” one of the favorite slurs.
The 22 children under Nikulenko’s tutelage, in Khartsyzk, are some of the most vulnerable anywhere in the war-wracked region, and she asks that they be identified only by their first names. Before fighting began, the home served as a shelter for children rescued from the streets, or seeking respite from dysfunctional families. More have been abandoned in recent months.
Veronika, a freckled and gap-toothed 6-year-old, smiles and pulls down on her red-checked dress as she recalls life before the war — the visits to the amusement park and zoo, her mother’s home cooking. She even has fond memories of her father, who returned home after a stint in prison for slashing her mother’s shoulder with a knife.
Since then, her father enlisted with the rebel army and her mother left her at the children’s home. Veronika relies on her own inner strength to ward off the terror brought on by war.
“When they were doing boom-boom, it was so scary,” she says, recalling a recent bout of shelling. “Once when they were shooting at night, I fell off the bed.”
Veronika’s mother visits Khartsyzk from time to time. The young girl hopes to go home when summer comes.
Nikulenko says children in her care have come under the spell of Russian television. They love watching programs that cast the rebels as valiant heroes of a popular uprising. Ukrainian government troops are treated as vicious occupiers.
“It’s very dangerous, this black-and-white perception,” Nikulenko says. “These children get information only from one side. They see that (government troops) shoot at us and that their fathers and brothers take arms and go to protect us.”
As a group of girls huddles on a carpet in the games room, Yulya, a tall and unsmiling 12-year old, stands to one side.
Before the war began, Yulya lived with her grandparents in Rusko-Orlivka, a village that changed hands several times as fighting raged last summer for the nearby town of Ilovaysk.
Yulya’s grandfather told her that when the rebel fighters captured Rusko-Orlivka, fighters found nine Ukrainian soldiers hiding out in a farm, marched them out to a forest and shot them. Yulya says she felt little pity.
“I understand they are people too, but they kill other people,” she says in a whisper. “I know that, because my grandfather told me so.”
For the very young, little is truly understood about who is fighting or why.
Drawing his tank in the children’s home, Seryozha, in a moment of confusion, gets it into his head to decorate it with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag.
“It was born in Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine, too,” he says. Above the Ukrainian flag that sticks out from the side, he then draws the black, blue and red flag of the separatists.
Seryozha’s own past is a blur even to those around him. A scar on his back shows where he was shot with an air-powered pistol before the war. Nobody quite knows what happened, beyond that his parents died of tuberculosis, leaving his sister and two brothers orphaned.
A bureaucratic oversight separated Seryozha from his siblings. As they were evacuated by Ukrainian authorities to a neighboring region, nobody remembered that Seryozha was lying in a hospital recovering from tuberculosis. He landed in the Khartsyzk home in January.
Children may have a hazy understanding of the events around them, but forgiveness appears to come more easily than to the adults.
Could Seryozha ever be friends with children from the other side?
“Yes,” he says simply. “But only if they behave and don’t fight.”