CHERNIHIV—During the long, dark and icy days of the winter, 7th grader Bogdan Parasyuk said he had been dreaming of springtime, when he could finally hop on his bike and race his friends along the central streets of his home city. Chernihiv is a charming, European city full of graceful historic architecture, universities, parks and hipster cafes. At least, it was a few weeks ago.
Russia’s war on his country has turned the spring of Bogdan’s dreams into the worst time of his life. The 13-year-old boy’s war began when Russian soldiers began to attack Chernihiv on February 25. Air strikes and missiles have since killed hundreds of people, including 54 children, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general. Attacks hit schools #18 and #21, a cardiological clinic, multiple apartment blocks, a factory, and dozens of private homes all over the city. Hospitals full of hundreds of sick adults and children were damaged. Missiles and bombs destroyed his favorite theater. And then one of the airstrikes hit Bogdan. He suffered wounds to his legs, arms and face. His father was killed.
Bogdan lifted the edge of his blanket and showed his legs covered in shrapnel injuries from what may have been a cluster bomb. Sitting on his hospital bed with wounded legs stretched out in front of him, Bogdan tried to piece together the afternoon of March 16, when he and his father were on their way to charge their cellphones at a friend’s house. After four weeks of intense treatment, Bogdan still cannot walk; his injured knee did not bend. Last week, Bogdan learned that his father, Vadim, had died.
There was deep sadness on Bogdan’s bruised face, that made him look older. But he did not cry. “I blame Russian President Putin for this war,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview. He even joked that if he ever met with the Russian President, he would “crash Putin with cursing as heavy as a three-story building.”
Ukraine’s children have been among the worst affected ever since the first battles between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces began in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s senseless war has left thousands of Ukrainian kids shaken, orphaned, injured, and killed. Ukrainian authorities reported that 205 children were killed in the first 53 days of the war. Many more have suffered devastating injuries.
Dmytro Oseledko is a little older but—at 21—he was still living at home with his family as he started work as a computer programmer. They were hiding, with a 12-year-old neighbor, in their bathroom in Mariupol when a Russian jet began to fire at private homes in Otkrytaya avenue last month.
Oseledko remembers seeing a bright sparkle in the tiny window of the bathroom just before he blacked out. When he came to, he could hear his young neighbor Sonya Karachevtseva screaming: “Help!”
He was only able to use his right hand, digging himself out of the rubble and crawling towards the voice. “I realized I had no legs left, that I had a few minutes to live. There was no trace left of my mother, she had been buried in the debris. I could barely see from under the dust covering my face: Sonya’s hip was so injured, it seemed to have doubled in size from the internal bleeding,” Oseledko told The Daily Beast in an interview at the Medical Plaza in Dnipro.
Two neighbors saved their lives, and took them to the local hospital.
Oseledko’s uncle was eventually able to evacuate him from Mariupol, which is the site of some of the war’s heaviest bombing. The family have not been able to reach Sonya since they left.
Oseledko—who wants to become a narrative designer for computer games—has some empathy for the Russian soldiers around his age who are destroying his city.
“I am sure some of them have played the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R—my city of Mariupol now looks like the zone of Pripyat depicted in the game,” Oseledko said. “In their heads Russians might be playing a game, killing some cartoon enemies but this is not a game, that was my best friend, my mother, who they killed, mine and Sonia’s legs that they destroyed.”
Back in Chernihiv, Ksenia Kuzyura, a teacher of Ukrainian language and foreign literature at school #21, says that her 8th grade student, Gleb Zheldak, died in one of the bombings. “A Russian bomb fell on the right wing of our school on March 3 when all of my 10-year-old students stepped out for lunch,” Kuzyura told The Daily Beast, as she tried to stop sobbing.
Kuzyura’s own daughter, Tatiana, was wounded on that day, pieces of shrapnel tore into her cheek and one of her fingers. “A horrible war came to our children, to our schools and homes, I cannot find words to express my feelings, we are all still in shock,” the teacher said.
There were more than two hundred children at the Chernihiv children’s hospital when the war began in February, including 11 children in the cancer ward. The evacuation took weeks: parents were terrified by bombings, mined roads, blown up bridges. “None of us could ever imagine that Russia would attack Chernihiv, many here have relatives, friends in Russia. This is a terrible war, when a brother is killing a brother,” head doctor Zoya Pushkar, 52, told The Daily Beast. The hospital managed to evacuate most of the patients, but 15 children are still receiving treatment including Bogdan Parasyuk. And more patients are being admitted as the war continues to take a heavy toll. The hospital is in urgent need of supplies including diapers and hygiene products, as well as ventilators to help newborns.
Before the war broke out, Zosimenko told The Daily Beast about his plans to evacuate children with cancer from the hospital. But once it started, there were unexpected challenges. “We made a list of 15 children for the evacuation but some kids were so sick, doctors told us the trip might kill them, so we had to figure out how to help them,” Zosimenko told The Daily Beast. “This war is far from being over. We expect new attacks in a week or two,” Zosimenko said. “Russians will not stop until they get their victory.”
Bogdan was thinking about his own future. He hoped to recover soon and move to Austria together with his mother. “I don’t blame Russian children, they might be brainwashed, told that we bomb ourselves,” he said.
He explained that now he was hoping for an iPad to play his favorite computer games. With a stern expression, he said: “I also want peace.”