To Europe and back: two years of war through the vision of Ukrainian children

On the anniversary of the beginning of the full-scale military invasion of the Russian Federation into the territory of Ukraine, ADC Memorial presents a publication based on real stories of Ukrainian children who left their homes in Ukraine and then returned from their forced emigration.

“We wanted it all again as it used to be before…”

The life of sisters Olesya and Oksana in Kharkiv before the war was ordinary: kindergarten, school, walks in the park, summer holidays in their grandmother’s village. Until the day X, everything went on as usual, but since the beginning of 2022, the threat of war was already in the air, and since February 24, the family had been living under constant shelling. In April, all fear of being occupied overcame doubts – and the girls with their mother left for the EU, while their dad stayed in Kharkiv.

In Germany, the family first appeared to be in a refugee camp. It was very difficult: a new environment, new people and language, constant worries about those who stayed back in Ukraine. Only a month later, they managed to find a place to live and moved to a small village in Bavaria. Life has improved: the Ukrainian online school, the local offline school, new friends. The children integrated better and faster than the adults, and at certain moment girls mother got the idea that they could return home to live their life as they used to.

“We were afraid to see a ruined yard and broken windows in the apartment”

During the long journey home around the New Year eve, the girls dreamed of their former life: a cozy courtyard, walks in the city center and in the park with friends, about their school, and about meeting with classmates — with those who stayed and those who returned from forced emigration.

But upon arrival, it became clear that the children found themselves in a completely different reality. They couldn’t imagine how much the city had changed: buildings were destroyed everywhere – sometimes rockets even hit schools, leaving only ruins; the neighbors’ house was damaged; and dad looked very tired, although, of course, he was happy to see them.

After the holidays, the children went to their school and kindergarten – they were so tired of distance learning. But it turned out that they would have to spend a lot of time underground, in a shelter. After all, at every air raid alarm, the lesson is interrupted and you have to finish it in a safe place, where, although you can’t see the sky, you can hardly hear the explosions. And in the Kharkiv metro, there is a whole school where about a thousand children study in two shifts. They spend the entire school day underground.

It is impossible to feel safe – neither on the street, nor at home, nor in the yard – it is impossible to live “as before”. Not this way girls imagined their life after coming back home.

No matter how parents prepare their children for the return. There is always a gap between the way we think of the world we left and the way we witness it, when seeing it with our own eyes, it’s hardly possibly to be fully prepared.

“The houses smashed by rockets and shaheds frighten me very much, I want to forget about the war, but I cant due to sirens and nighttime sleep deprivation.”

“I met my classmates – they look grown up; it is clear that the war has changed them…”.

Illustrations by Anastasiya Samarkina

Watch other stories of children from Ukraine in our animated documentaries:

How I travelled to my sister (from Donbas to ES)”

Chyavoreskiro drom Mariupolestyr/ The road of a Roma boy from Mariupol

● “We have left”

Read about the reaction of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to the violations of the rights of Ukrainian children by the Russian Federation and the reports of ADC Memorial on the situation of Ukrainian children after February 24, 2022, created as part of the #CrossborderChildhoodUA campaign.

Эта запись так же доступна на: Russian, Ukrainian