Ukrainians try to distract children at Christmas

In the meeting room of what was once a posh hotel, Ukrainian children scream with happiness during a show prepared for them and for the joy of opening presents.

In a country where children have seen the horrors of war for 10 months, some people try to bring them some peace and joy, at least for a moment, this Christmas in Ukraine.

The luxurious Venice Hotel, on the outskirts of kyivis now a rehabilitation center that houses children who have suffered the horrors of the Russian invasion.

“When it’s parties, it’s easier,” said Ksenia, a 12-year-old girl from Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of heavy fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

“We forgot about the war. It’s easier to get distracted, ”he added after a show with actors, some dressed as characters from Disney.

Ksenia was one of 62 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on Monday. It is a date when Ukrainian children usually receive gifts and marks the beginning of the winter holiday season.

“What are our soldiers fighting for? For the future, because without it, there will be nothing. And the children are our future,” said Artem Tatarinov, director of the rehabilitation center. There, he affirmed, they have received children who, instead of playing, had to hide in a shelter to flee from the bombs and who have discovered grief after losing their relatives.

UNICEF estimates that of the estimated 7 million Ukrainian children, at least 1.2 million have been displaced within the country due to the war.

This center welcomes the children for two weeks in which they receive therapy and have sessions with psychologists to try to process the trauma of the war. “It’s like a temporary war rehabilitation center,” said Alevtyna, a guardian, who declined to give her last name for security reasons.

She works with the children around the clock, sacrificing her personal life, but has also found a safe space for herself. Like other mentors from the center, Alevtyna is from eastern Ukraine, which now comes under constant fire. Her hometown, Kostyantynivka, is just 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Bakhmut.

For children, Alevtyna explained, the center can be like an island of happiness, but it is not easy for them.

“They often talk about the war, they cry,” he said. “Children are afraid to fall asleep, they are afraid to turn off the light.”

More than 1,300 children from all over the country have passed through the center in the last six months.

“It’s hard to work like this when you see children who don’t smile, when their childhood has been taken away from them,” said Tatarinov, the center’s director. On one occasion, he said, he met a 12-year-old boy who had discovered the headless body of his brother, 10 meters from his house, after a mortar attack.

“That is impossible to forget, but we do everything we can,” Tatarinov added.

So this week he and the tutors tried to focus on the holidays. The performance on Monday brought joy to the children for a while.

“At least for an hour, but they can believe again in miracles, believe again in goodness, that fairytale heroes arrive,” said Tetiana Hraban, head of the Golda Meir Institute for Civil Society, which helped organize the representation.

The actors on stage asked the children what they wanted this Christmas. The heartbreaking answers came screaming out all at once: a generator, a backup battery, a house.

“Victory!” said one boy, and everyone else echoed it with one voice, before clapping.

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