Skip to content

Lost childhoods: Ukraine's most innocent victims in Putin's war

The global demands for peace grow as humanitarian aid workers emphasize the war's devastating effect on children.

Four-in-five children live in poverty in Ukraine due to the destruction brought on by Russia's invasion
Four-in-five children live in poverty in Ukraine due to the destruction brought on by Russia's invasion (AN/Alex Fedorenko/Unsplash)

WASHINGTON (AN) – As Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine reached the one-year mark with no end in sight, the war is proving especially cruel to the children who are being killed, crippled, orphaned and kidnapped by Russian forces.

Diplomats condemned the cruelty at Friday's meeting of the United Nations Security Council, but there was little they could do besides offering fiery speeches since Russia holds one of the 15-nation council's permanent veto-wielding seats.

"Over the last year, Russia has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian men, women, and children; uprooted more than 13 million people from their homes; destroyed more than half of the country’s energy grid; bombed more than 700 hospitals, 2,600 schools; and abducted at least 6,000 Ukrainian children – some as young as four months old – and relocated them to Russia," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

"Teachers and community members give classes in bunkers to children," he noted. "Bucha is not normal. Mariupol is not normal. Irpin is not normal. Bombing schools and hospitals and apartment buildings to rubble is not normal. Stealing Ukrainian children from their families and giving them to people in Russia is not normal."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia countered that "all lives are priceless, and that is why we’re rising to honor the memory of them all," including Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians, as he and other Russian diplomats stood up in the council chamber.

The Group of Seven leaders told Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a virtual meeting on Friday they would provide support for his nation for as long as it's needed. The G-7 also released a statement pledging that “our solidarity will never waver in standing with Ukraine, in supporting countries and people in need, and in upholding the international order based on the rule of law.”

“Russia’s heinous attacks over the last 365 days have laid bare the cruelty of the ongoing aggression," it said. "We condemn Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war, disregard for the Charter of the United Nations and indifference to the impacts that its war is having on people worldwide."

The cruelty was one reason the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly a day earlier to approve a nonbinding resolution calling for Russia to stop its fighting in Ukraine. The 193-nation assembly, in a vote of 141-7 with 32 abstentions, marked the eve of the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, by demanding an end to Russia's aggression.

Even Russia's ally China, also observing the grim one-year anniversary, offered a 12-point plan to end the war and called on Moscow and Kyiv to agree to a cease-fire. It calls for humanitarian aid corridors to be set up, safety guarantees for the region's vital food exports and nuclear power plants, and a halt to Western nations' sanctions on Russia.

With their towns and villages targeted by shelling and missiles, Ukraine's children are missing out on routine vaccines, regular health care and daily schooling. Scores of them are being pushed into poverty by the fiscal crisis forced on their families by the attacks ordered by the Russian president.

"Children in Ukraine have experienced a year of horror," said UNICEF's executive director Catherine Russell. "Millions of children are going to sleep cold and scared and waking up hoping for an end to this brutal war."

No child, she said, "should ever have to bear that kind of suffering." More than 800 health facilities have been destroyed or damaged by shelling and airstrikes, according to UNICEF, which has stepped in to provide health care services to millions of children and women.

Russian 're-education' camps

In Kyiv, Zelenskyy rallied his nation with "invincibility" government events and speeches to mark the one-year anniversary as he vowed to keep pushing for victory over Russia this year.

“We have been standing for exactly one year,” he said, calling the invasion a year earlier “the longest day of our lives. The hardest day of our modern history. We woke up early and haven’t fallen asleep since.”

The economic crisis brought by the war is only expanding, with a huge number of families reporting a significant loss of income. A UNICEF analysis shows the percentage of children living in poverty in Ukraine shot up to 80%, almost double what it was at the start of the war a year ago.

"There is not a single aspect of children's lives that the war has not impacted," UNICEF's James Elder said in Lviv in western Ukraine.

The war is also having a devastating impact on the mental health and well-being of children. UNICEF estimates 1.5 million children are at risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, with potential long-term effects and implications.

The attacks on the war's most innocent victims don't end there. Children are being taken from their homes and from Ukrainian state institutions and held by the Russian government in camps in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, according to a recent report. Children as young as four months and as old as 17 years are being abducted by Russian forces, with some put up for adoption or foster care in Russia.

That report was the work of researchers at Yale University's School of Public Health's Humanitarian Research Lab in collaboration with the Conflict Observation program, established in May by the U.S. State Department to document and report Russian war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.

The camps serve a number of purposes, the report says, including a 're-education" effort to make the children more pro-Russian in their personal and political views. Forty-three of the facilities have been identified, with some Ukrainian children carted off to camps as far from home as Siberia and Russia's far eastern Pacific coast, the report says.

It lists four categories of children caught up in this system.

  • Children who have parents or clear familial guardianship;
  • Children deemed to be orphans by Russia;
  • Children who were under the care of Ukrainian state institutions before the February 2022 invasion (ofen due to severe physical or mental disablities) and;
  • Children whose custody is unclear or uncertain due to wartime circumstances.

A contingent of Ukrainian parliamentarians traveled to Rome this week to seek support from Pope Francis in gaining the return of the children abducted by the Russians. They are also asking for Francis to visit Ukraine.

"We have seen the great impact of the Holy See's help in prisoner exchanges, and so we would like to ask the pope's help on the issue of the deported children," one of the parliamentarians, Yevhen Petruniak, told reporters at the Ukrainian Embassy to the Vatican.

This story has been updated with additional details. John Heilprin contributed to this report from Washington.