by Hanna Arhirova
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — In the carpeted living room of a posh hotel, Ukrainian children are squealing with delight at the displays and presents laid out for them.
In a country where children have seen the horrors of nearly 10 months of war, this holiday season in Ukraine is trying to bring some peace and joy to them, at least for a moment.
The upscale Venetian Hotel on the outskirts of Kyiv is now a rehabilitation center where children 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 town in eastern Ukraine that has been the center of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
“We forget about the war. It’s easy to get distracted,” he added after a performance by actors, some dressed as Disney characters. Center officials asked not to use any of the child’s surnames for security reasons.
Ksenia was among 62 children, aged between 6 and 12, who were celebrating Saint Nicholas Day on Monday. It is a traditional date when Ukrainian children receive gifts and marks the start of the winter holiday season.
“Why do our soldiers fight? For the future because without it nothing would happen. And children are our future, ”said Artem Tatarinov, director of the rehabilitation center. Here they have found children who, instead of playing, had to hide in shelters to avoid bombs, and who grieved when their relatives were killed, he said.
UNICEF estimates that at least 1.2 million of the approximately 7 million Ukrainian children are currently displaced within the country due to the war.
The children are kept at this center for two weeks, and during that period they receive medical education and sessions with psychologists to try to process the trauma of the war. “It’s like a temporary resettlement from the war,” said Alevtina, a tutor, who declined to give her last name for security reasons.
She works with the children round the clock, sacrificing her life but also finding a safe place for herself. Like the center’s other mentors, Alevtina comes from eastern Ukraine, which is now under constant fire. His native Kostyantnivka is only 23 kilometers (14 mi) away from Bakhmut.
For the kids, Alevtyna said, the center may be an island of happiness, but it hasn’t been easy for them.
“They often talk about the war, cry,” she said. “The kids are afraid to fall asleep, afraid to turn off the lights.”
In the past six months, the center has received over 1,300 children from across the country.
“When you see kids who don’t smile, it’s hard to work like that,” said Tatarinov, the center’s director. He said he once met a 12-year-old boy who saw his brother’s headless body 10 meters from his house after a mortar attack.
“It’s impossible to forget, but we do everything we can,” Tatarinov said.
So this week, he and the teachers tried to focus on the holidays. On Monday, this presentation boosted the enthusiasm of the children for some time.
“At least for an hour, but they can believe in miracles again, believe in goodness again, which is where fairy-tale heroes come from,” said Tatiana Harban, head of the Golda Meir Institute of Civil Society. who helped organize the demonstration.
The artists on stage asked the children what they wanted for this holiday. Heart-wrenching answers were shouted at each other: “a generator,” “a power bank,” “a house.”
“victory!” said one child, and all the others repeated it at once, followed by applause.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine