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Children of War

October 20, 2015, 13:55 2454 Author: by Christopher Miller mashable.com Kids in Ukraine are paying the price for a conflict they didn't create

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine —Slurping a bowl of thick soup, his twig-like legs swinging beneath the dining table, 6-year-old Ilya at first seems like any happy-go-lucky kid.

But so far life has been neither happy nor lucky.

Last spring as fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine, his mother fled to Russia with everything she had — except for Ilya, whom she abandoned in Horlivka, a city controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

Svetlana Kovalenko, a 44-year-old mother of seven, now takes care of the bony, fragile boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.

"If not me, who?" she said when asked why she took in Ilya.

Her family survives on about $132 each month and she struggles to afford the medication he needs.

"Everything is more expensive than before the war," she said.

After dinner, Ilya began playing with a couple of matchboxes that he had stuck together. Holding them to his ear like a phone, he placed an imaginary call.

"Hello?" he said. "It's Ilya. Where are you?"

He was trying to reach his mother who he hasn't seen in more than year.

Thousands of kids have lost one or both parents and at least 60 children have been killed — random casualties of a brutal conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists now in its second year.

Countless other children have been wounded in the fighting. And an untold number are scarred emotionally by the unpredictable conflict that has pitted neighbor against neighbor.

At least 500 children have been evacuated from devastated rebel-held areas to Emerald City, a former summer camp.

Hundreds others live in nearby camps, and on the grounds of a picturesque monastery on the sharp right bank of the river. While not ideal, conditions are far better here than where the children lived before.

Galina Valentinovna, director at Emerald City, knows the toll of war on these young lives —the gruesome things they've seen and lived through. Most have cowered with their families in dank, dark basements with little food and without running water, heat or power as their homes were bombarded with heavy artillery for months.

And a couple of kids told her of seeing bodies falling from the sky as a Ukrainian military plane was shot down.

"The children were terrified," Valentinovna says.

On a recent Sunday, a group of about 20 kids played dodge ball in a courtyard bordered by towering pines. Inside the orphanage, toddlers played with building blocks and colored in children's books.

At first blush, they may appear fine but the children are severely traumatized. Many shudder at the all-too-common sight of a soldier. The children display other symptoms including heightened anxiety, frustration and aggression, according to Emerald City staff.

Those children still on the front lines play war games and amuse themselves by climbing in and out of rocket craters. On a recent day, two young boys with plastic Kalashnikovs chased each other around a monument in central Donetsk in a mock battle for the airport.

"Officially, we say about 100,000 children need psychosocial care," said Gabrielle Akimova, an official with United Nations Children's Fund. "I think it's five times that."

Ask them what's going on outside the orphanage and they'll talk knowledgably about tank warfare and Grad rocket systems. Look at their artwork and you'll see rainbows and butterflies alongside heavy artillery and gunmen.

Ukraine's orphanages are underfunded, overcrowded and short of staff as a result of the war and the country's struggling economy. Many social workers have been let go and there are rumors more will be fired soon -- resulting in less help for children who really need it.

Before the war began, about one million children lived in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to UNICEF. Of those, some 14,500 were already orphans or children deprived of parental care, with 2,600 living in state institutions.

Bogdan was one of them. A bright 17-year-old, Bogdan recently told of his dreams of becoming a singer. He arrived at Emerald City in July after a Ukrainian air strike accidentally leveled a residential neighborhood in his hometown of Snizhne, burying many civilians beneath the rubble.

On a recent field trip to Kiev, he was brought to meet Ukraine's First Lady, Marina Poroshenko. She told the teenager that her husband, President Petro Poroshenko, would rebuild Ukraine so that he would have an opportunity to realize his dream.

"She promised me that I'd become a singer," he said.

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Cerebral palsy, spastic diplegia

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Kyrylo Kulynych

Peripheral paresis of the right foot

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