How Ukrainian children understand the war

In their own words and drawings, new refugees share what they have been through.

Zhenia Grebenchuk drawing

PRZEMYSL, Poland — The wave of refugees flooding through Europe is striking not just for its historic scale and speed but also because half of the 3 million people who have fled the war in Ukraine are children. That means one child has become a refugee nearly every second since the start of the war, said James Elder, a spokesperson for UNICEF. Many have had to say goodbye to their fathers before undertaking difficult and disorienting journeys with mothers and siblings, sometimes waiting more than a dozen hours in the cold before being allowed to cross into safer countries. Parents have agonized over how to explain what was happening. Some kids heard they were going on vacation. Others were told directly: Our homes are not safe, and Dad must stay behind to defend our country.

To understand how some of these children are experiencing the war, The Washington Post asked young refugees at the train station in Przemysl, Poland — near the Ukraine border — to draw what stood out about the past weeks.

A home and family left behind

Veronika Lotova, 9, brought along her stuffed bear when she left her home in Ukraine’s Donbas region. She calls the bear Volodya, after a character in a television show she watched with her grandparents. Her family tried to get her grandparents out before the war, but they wouldn’t leave. Her mother worries that they and Veronika’s father won’t survive the bombings.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Veronika Lotova, 9, escaped escaped with her mother from the Donbas region of Ukraine to the Polish border. She drew a picture of her elderly grandparents who decided to stay behind. Through tears she told us she hoped theyÕd be okay. 
(Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

A view from the train

Diana Shekaturina turned 7 the day Russian troops began shelling her city of Sumy. Birthday cake baking was disrupted by the need to take shelter. Days later, she was on a train to western Ukraine with her mother and 11-year-old sister. Her father stayed behind, recovering from a prewar injury, with hopes to join them later. While Diana puffed out her cheeks and focused on her drawing, her mother, Alyona, wept in the background.

PRZEMYSL POLAND, MARCH 10 2022 - Diana Shekaturina turned seven on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Her parents were baking a birthday cake for her but had to stop multiple times when air raid sirens forced them all into an underground bunker. Sitting in a train station on the Polish border, she drew the beauty that she saw out the window as they fled from war. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Separated at the border

Zhenia Grebenchuk, 13, fled Cherkasy, Ukraine, with his younger sister and mother, Tanya. His father took them to the bus and then returned home. Tanya said she and her children planned to wait out the war in Poland. Zhenia hoped it would only be a matter of weeks before Ukraine wins and he can kick around his soccer ball at home with friends again.

Zhenia Grebenchuk, 13, from Cherkasy, drew the moment he was separated from his father. They were stopped at a military check point and ZheniaÕs father was told he had to stay in Ukraine to fight. Zhenia titled his drawing Ôfamily journeyÕ. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Tanks in combat

When air raid sirens went off in Poltava, Ukraine, Misha Demchenko, 7, followed his parents to the basement and waited until the booms stopped before returning upstairs. When something fell and made a noise at the Przemysl train station, he asked his mom where the nearest shelter was. She tried to assure him they were safe. Misha rummaged in his bag for his toy Mercedes, a model of a real car belonging to his dad, who stayed behind to fight.

When Misha Demchenko, 7, from Poltava sat down to draw he knew exactly what picture heÕd make. He drew two tanks - a large one for the Ukrainian army and a small one for Russia. He said he was certain Ukraine would win this war. Misha was carrying his fatherÕs watch with him. His father, who had stayed behind to fight, scratched in an inscription of MishaÕs name into it before the boy and his mother fled to Poland.  (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Julia Alekseeva contributed to this report.

Updated March 24, 2022

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