by Daria Platonova
Child suffering is a largely neglected aspect of the war in Donbas. According to a recent UNICEF report, of the 3.4 million people in need of humanitarian support in eastern Ukraine, sixty per cent are women and children. Andriy Parubiy, speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, reported that 68 children had been killed and 186 wounded since 2014. Another report cites 199 dead and 500 wounded children, with approximately 10 thousand children living in the conflict’s ‘grey zone’ and being endangered daily.
Yet, analysts and reporters rather focus on ceasefire violations, the ‘Normandy format’ of the peace talks, or the so-called ‘special status’ granted to non-government-controlled areas of the region. In fact, in an interview with Hromadske.tv, the Ukrainian Internet television station, a father of two children affected by the conflict said, ‘I have no idea what the state thinks. I have never heard the word “children” from them’.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is responsible for monitoring the conflict’s ceasefires since 2014. It frequently reports on injuries sustained by children in both government and non-government-controlled areas. For example, a report from October 2019 reads: “The [OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM)] followed up on reports of a boy injured from the explosion of a hand grenade in Sontseve (non-government-controlled, 55km south-east of Donetsk) on 12 October. On 14 October, at Donetsk Regional Clinical Trauma Hospital, medical staff told the SMM that a nine-year-old boy had been admitted on 12 October with an injury to his left hand caused by detonation, as result of which he had to have four fingers amputated.” The report also cites five children having been injured from a hand grenade on 28 September in Chornohorivka (formerly Krasna Zoria), a non-government-controlled area 51km south-west of Luhansk.
The Eastern-Ukrainian Centre for Civic Initiatives has been monitoring child participation in governmental and non-governmental armed formations across the region. Over a period of three months in 2016, based on open sources and interviews, the monitoring group registered 41 individual cases of recruitment of children into armed formations.
The case of the deaths of 23-year old Kristina and her daughter, 10-month old Kira, during the bombardment of the public square in Horlivka (also known by its Russian name Gorlovka) on 27 July 2014 has received the most attention. Since then, pictures of “Gorlovka Madonna” have been circulating on both Ukrainian and Russian social media (more so on the latter). Kristina’s mother Natalia gave an extensive interview to the Ukrainian Internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda on 9 June 2016. She is understandably angry at the cynicism displayed by both sides in the conflict in using her daughter’s death to promote their ideological agendas. Below I have translated excerpts from her interview.
‘We could not believe; nobody believed, that they would bomb us in broad daylight… [Natalia was urging her daughter Kristina to leave for Kyiv]. On 27 July, the town was simply blasted. Shells were exploding. “Grad”/”Hrad” (a multiple rocket launcher used by both the Ukrainian government and Donetsk People’s Republic formations) was shelling the town centre. According to the official estimates, more than twenty people died next to my children. I then read about a woman in a report: she simply covered her child. Her husband stayed alive, but she died. I learnt about this later. But at the time, I simply refused to believe what was going on.
[Recalling the experience of searching for Kristina and Kira during the bombardment] I was gripped by terror; I was looking for my children. I was running to the square, shouting and crying for them. I then ran into the bomb shelter looking for them. The people inside were then not letting me out from there. I don’t know how long I remained there, possibly two hours. There was no light. The place was not ready for the shelling. I was shouting: Where are my children? Kira and Kristina?”. Somebody forced me to sit down on a bench asking me whom I was looking for. I said “a girl with a baggy and a small child”. They promised me to find out. Then they sent a paramedic to me who injected something into me and said: “you are making everybody stressed out here”.
Then someone came to me and said: “your children are alright; the baby has a scratch on her hand”. They lied. I calmed down a bit but couldn’t sleep. They were letting people out from the bomb shelter; I ran into another one. And there I saw… children were lying after operations; there were paramedics, holding their drip bags. There were very few children. I could not see Kira or Kristina there. I then ran to the accident and emergency point asking about my children. They said they brought someone in but by a different surname. I was shaking, the paramedic shouting. And then someone said to me “they are in the mortuary.”
Later, endless phone calls began. People were telling me to go to the mortuary. I still refused to believe. In the mortuary, the paramedic showed me my girls. “You are lucky”, she said. I couldn’t understand why I was lucky. When they use “Grad”, people are simply being torn into pieces. But my girls still had their faces intact. And they said that’s why I was lucky…. On 27 July, when all of this happened, I still had to make a few phone calls. Kristina then said to me “while you are calling, we will go out. We will catch up with you later”. I was then looking out of the window and calling everyone asking to take us out [from Horlivka]. [Kristina and Kira] crossed the road, walked down to the square. I then finally reached someone who promised to take us to Slavianogorsk. We had to wait. I then called Kristina to tell her the good news. And I heard how she said to Kira “we are going to leave with grandma tomorrow”. That was her last phrase…”.
Natalia blames the governments of Ukraine, Donetsk People’s Republic and Russian Federation for not investigating the deaths of Kristina and Kira in the bombardment. The case has since been taken up by the European Court of Human Rights. The experience of children and their parents in the Donbas highlights the horrifying aspects of the ongoing war and the general humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed the region since 2014.
Daria is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on violence and the unfolding of conflict across several regions in eastern Ukraine, 2013 – 2014. She also leads one of the Causes of War seminars in the War Studies Department. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a teacher. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Her broader interests include European history, war studies, and interdisciplinary methods.