Millions of children in Ukraine have seen their day-to-day lives warped beyond recognition since Russia’s invasion on February 24. They are also far less equipped to deal with what they're experiencing than most adults. Euronews spoke to a family sheltering in southern Ukraine, and a child development expert to understand what youngsters caught up in the conflict will be going through now.
For three months now, sisters Alina and Christina have been hiding in a basement.
Back in February their father, Yuri Albeschenko, decided their apartment in the centre of Mykolaiv, Ukraine was no longer safe. Since then they have spent most of their waking hours underground.
“I wake up and brush my teeth. Then I have breakfast. Then I sit down for lessons. After school, I have a little rest and then I have lunch. After that, we play on the street. When the siren starts or the bombing starts, we play in the basement. But it’s not as fun as playing outside," said 11-year-old Alina, a local karate champion before war broke out in her country.
Asked if she is afraid of the war, Alina immediately describes what frightens her the most: the air sirens, first, and then the subsequent rumbling of grad rockets.
“The moment they bomb us, Mum comes downstairs," she says. "Dad stays upstairs. But when it's heavy Dad comes down too. At this moment, I just don't want to be bombed."
Yuri is a volunteer with Ukraine’s territorial defences and says he hopes his children will be able to resume a normal life soon. At this stage, though, he can't think that far ahead.
“I don’t know… What can I plan today?" he laments.
"There is no point in guessing [at the future] and I don't see the point in talking about it. A rocket could come and we could cease to exist. We had so many plans for this year; now they're all flushed down the toilet. All our plans, actually, all of them, have been destroyed."
What does stress do to young bodies?
Alina and Christina are kind, playful children and seem to be adapting well to their absurd new reality. But there is no telling how much longer the war will last, or how the experience of the past three months and beyond will shape their future.
Paediatrician Jack Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University's Centre on the Developing Child, told Euronews stress can have a profound impact on the body and on children’s ability to grow.
"When the stress system is activated," he said, "stress hormone levels increase in the bloodstream, the heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, the immune system is activated, so inflammation is elevated inside the body. Blood sugar levels go up, bringing energy to the brain so as to think more clearly, and to our muscles so as to fight or run.
"If all these systems then don't come back to the baseline, they start to have a wear-and-tear effect on parts of the brain, which can affect behaviour and mental health. But they can also affect the cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems."
Every part of the body can be impeded in its normal functioning by prolonged stress, Shonkoff said. It can even increase the likelihood of future heart disease, stroke and hypertension.
"Will every child have those problems? Absolutely not. But many more children will as they get older, as a result of this excruciating stress experience. Mental health problems are immensely important. But so are the physical health problems, which will appear later.”
At least 238 Ukrainian children are known to have been killed in the invasion to date, and there have been credible allegations of sexual violence against children.
But UNICEF spokesman Joe English recently said not a single child in Ukraine has been completely spared from trauma: “In the more severe cases children have been directly exposed to the violence, to weeks of bombing, to living underground in shelters… This can bring on post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Until there is a ceasefire, until there is meaningful peace, [health and wellbeing support] is only ever going to be a sticking plaster for these children. They need an end to this war.”
Watch the full video report in the player above.