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Over 900 hours underground: Children in Ukraine endure life in bunkers as war enters second year

Children in Ukraine have been forced to hide underground for an average of about 920 hours in the last year – equivalent to 38.3 days or more than a month - since the conflict in Ukraine escalated, Save the Children said today.
21 February 2023

Sources that aggregate official data to calculate the number and duration of air raid sirens across Ukraine show that a total of 16,207 sirens were announced during the past year, lasting for about an hour on average. Sirens warn civilians of a missile strike or shelling threat, prompting them to take shelter. Families and children may end up spending up to 8 hours underground unable to leave due to continuous missile attacks.

In Kharkiv, for example, there were more than 1,700 air sirens in the past year lasting for about 1,500 hours total, while regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia experienced over 1,100 hours of alarms each.

Along the frontline in the south-east of Ukraine, shelling almost never ceases. Families there have been forced to abandon their homes - many of them now destroyed - for life underground without basic conveniences including electricity, water, and heating.

“We were all crying, we were terrified to death,” Sophia*, 16, recalls how she woke up to explosions and sirens on 24 February in Kharkiv.

After being displaced a few times, she worked with volunteers and got herself and eight other children evacuated, eventually to Zakarpattia, the far west of Ukraine, where she now lives with her grandmother.

Even though the western region is deemed one of the safest, Sophia said the air sirens remain frequent. When the siren goes off, Sophia normally spends an hour in a dark and cold cellar under their detached house.  But if the alarm catches her while at school, taking shelter turns into a quest.

“If there is an air raid siren, the senior students – 9th to 11th grade – we go to the village council. They have equipped a bunker there,” Sophia says. “It takes us five minutes to run there [to the village council], or 15 minutes to walk. But I have always wondered if the alarm starts during blackout and we hear no siren, and there is a missile strike, how much would it take me to rush to the shelter… It took 47 seconds.”

Having an equipped and fully furnished bunker is not something everyone can afford, and many continue to take shelter in often cold basements of residential blocks or other buildings.

In Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, attacks are more frequent. The city was recently shocked by a missile strike that destroyed an apartment block and took the lives of 46 civilians. A teacher in a suburban kindergarten in Dnipro told Save the Children air raid sirens are now a way of life for her pupils:

“They get dressed, go outside, go around the institution, and go down to the shelter… It takes about 3 minutes for the children to get ready to go down,” - says Svitlana*, the teacher, who along with colleagues must evacuate around 200 children - many of them with special needs every time the siren goes off.

To reduce the stress of the sirens, teachers have at times created playful drills to prepare children for emergencies and trained them to promptly take shelter.

The institution’s basement is now equipped for drawing, playing, and dancing. Also, every pupil has a stall with an emergency backpack full of water, snacks, warm clothes, and favourite toys.

“We are in the basement [because] there is a siren. [We came here] so there is no more siren. [Here], I enjoy playing with paints and with dolls,” says Oleh*, aged 4.

“To be honest, the children like it [going to the basement] so much that most of the time they would say "When's the next time we'll go to the cave?" That's what they call it,” Svitlana* said. “We also do inclusive education, and there are children who start crying. So, we have a place called a corner of solitude in our shelter. For those children it's of course better to be alone for some time and not to hear all that noise.”

In bigger cities like the capital Kyiv, families take their children to underground parking lots or subway stations. Some of them even set up tents in these subterranean passages in the first stages of war.

“When aircrafts take-off, we get ourselves ready. I was scared in the first days of war, and now it is all routine. Everyone has his backpack. They take it and go out,” said Maryna*, a mother of two, whose husband and children are sitting amid the platform on small chairs they took from home along with bags full of water and food. Going to the subway once missiles launch is now a habit for many families.

Her daughter Olena*, 12, described what life underground is like for her: “I surf the smartphone during air sirens. I might do homework if it is during semester. We are underground because missiles are launched at us, and it is better to sit here for our own safety. It is boring. But better be bored than hurt”.

The stress of everyday life under bombardment is leaving a heavy toll on children and adults’ mental health and psychosocial conditions. The World Health Organization estimates that one in five people who experience conflict are at high risk of facing some form of mental disorder, with symptoms growing more severe as hostilities wage on.

This catastrophic year of war on children has been assessed in a new Save the Children report, The Heavy Toll. It outlines the constant grave danger facing boys and girls every day in Ukraine, and highlights the psychological distress of having witnessed violence, separation from family and friends, displacement, and lack of access to education, among other violations.

Sonia Khush, Save the Children Country Director in Ukraine, said:

“A year ago, the conflict that escalated to a full out war drastically changed the lives of millions of children in Ukraine. Thousands of families were forced to flee their homes to escape rapidly spreading atrocities. Many children witnessed their homes and schools being destroyed and their loved ones being killed by never-ending shelling and missiles. And as the war now enters its second year, children continue to witness new waves of violence.”

“Children didn’t start this war but they are paying the highest price. What always amazes me, however, is how resilient children are to withstand all the challenges, and how if we give them a chance they know how to take difficult experiences and turn them to growth, with a little bit of help.”

Save the Children calls on the warring parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and ensure that civilians and civilian objects, especially those impacting children such as homes, schools, and hospitals, are protected from attack. Perpetrators of violations against children must be held to account.

Save the Children has been working in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. Since 24 February, we have dramatically scaled up our operations and have reached over 800,000 people - including 436,500 children, with life-saving assistance such as food and water, cash transfers, and safe spaces, to make sure children and families impacted by this crisis have the support they need.  

ENDS

MEDIA CONTACT: Mala Darmadi on 0425562113 or media.team@savethechildren.org.au.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

  • Multimedia for the anniversary can be found here.

  • The air raid sirens in Ukraine are announced in every region (oblast) separately. 16,207 (as of February 10) is a total of air sirens announced across Ukraine calculated by adding numbers of alerts from each region (24 oblasts and Kyiv).

  • Methodology: as of February 10, 2023, the aggregate of air raid sirens in Ukraine constitutes 22,995 hours. 22,995/25(total for 24 regions of Ukraine plus the capital of Kyiv)=919.8 hours of air sirens time on average for each region. Exact numbers for Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions only apply to the areas that are controlled by the Government of Ukraine. Credible data from non-government-controlled areas of Ukraine is not available. Save the Children assumes that families living in close proximity (less than 40km from the frontline) to the active combat are forced to spend all their time in shelters due to continuous fighting, shelling and missile strikes. The Ukraine government also aggregates data from the same official sources for documenting the number of air raid sirens; it started collating statistics from 15 March 2022. 

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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