KYIV, Ukraine — In a carpeted meeting room of what used to be a posh hotel, Ukrainian children are screaming with happiness at a performance put on for them and the joy of opening presents.
In a country where children have seen the horrors of a 10-month war, there are people trying to bring some peace and happiness to them, at least for a moment during this holiday season in Ukraine.
The upscale Venice hotel on the outskirts of Kyiv is now a rehabilitation center housing children who have experienced the horrors of the Russian invasion.
“When it’s a holiday, it’s easier,” said Ksenia, a 12-year-old girl from Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of a fierce battle between the Russian and Ukrainian armies.
“We forget about the war. It’s easier to distract,” she added after a performance by actors, some dressed as Disney characters.
Ksenia was among the 62 children, between 6 and 12, celebrating Saint Nicholas’ day on Monday. It’s a traditional date when Ukrainian kids get presents and that marks the beginning of the winter holiday season.
“Why do our soldiers fight? For the sake of the future because without it, there will be nothing. And children are our future,” said Artem Tatarinov, the director of the rehabilitation center. Here, he said, they have received children who instead of playing had to hide in a shelter to escape bombs and who have discovered grief when their relatives were killed.
UNICEF estimates that of the around 7 million Ukrainian children, at least 1.2 million are currently displaced within the country because of the war.
This center houses children for two weeks, and during that period they get therapeutic lessons and have sessions with psychologists to try to process the trauma of the war. “It is like a temporary rehabilitation from the war,” said Alevtyna, a tutor, who refused to give her last name for security reasons.
She works with the children around the clock, sacrificing her own life, but also finding a safe place for herself. Like other mentors in the center, Alevtyna comes from eastern Ukraine, which is now under constant fire. Her native Kostyantynivka is just 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Bakhmut.
For children, Alevtyna said, the center can be a sort of an island of happiness, but it’s not easy for them.
“They often talk about the war, cry,” she said. “Children are afraid to fall asleep, are afraid to turn off the light.”
Over the past six months, the center has received more than 1,300 children from across the country.
“It is difficult to work like this when you see children who do not smile, when their childhood was taken away,” Tatarinov, the center’s director said. He mentioned that once he met a 12-year-old boy who discovered the headless body of his brother, 10 meters away from their house, after a mortar strike.
“This is impossible to forget, but we do everything we can,” added Tatarinov.
That’s why this week, he and the tutors tried to focus on the holidays. On Monday, the the performance brought cheer to the children for a little while.
“At least for an hour, but they can believe in miracles again, believe in goodness again, where fairy-tale heroes come,” said Tetiana Hraban, head of the Golda Meir Institute of Civil Society, who helped to organize the performance.
The actors on the stage asked the children what they want for this holiday. The heartbreaking replies were shouted over each other: “A generator,” “a power bank,” “a house.”
“Victory!,” said one child, and all the others repeated it in a single shout, followed by applause.
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