War in Ukraine takes heavy toll on children and families who are being torn apart

Nearly three months into this bloody war in Ukraine, much of the focus is now on the eastern Donbas. But there is also a southern front, where Russia made early gains and occupied large areas of land. The fighting continues in the Kherson region. And as elsewhere, stuck in the middle are families struggling to stay united. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the first time since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart today, calling for an immediate cease-fire. That's according to the Pentagon.

    Nearly three months into this war, much of the focus is now on the eastern Donbass, but there is also a southern front, where Russia made early gains. The fighting continues in the Kherson region, and, as elsewhere, stuck in the middle are families struggling to stay united.

    Nick Schifrin reports from Southern Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At a center for families who fled their homes, the kids are all right, 9-year-old Kyrylo, his younger brother, 8-year-old Andriy, and their baby sister in the pink sweater, 6-year-old Anna.

    The city created this play area the day the war began, the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, the stuffed animals that line the shelves all donated. It's not home, but it's a space where boys can be boys, and even sit down when their mother, Liliya, tells them to.

    How are your children doing these days?

  • Liliya, Displaced Zahradivka Resident (through translator):

    They're fine, thank God. At first, they were stressed, but then they got used to being here, and now feel fine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They feel fine thanks in part to the center's psychologist, Lidiya Kuryatnykova. She uses drawings to measure a child's trauma.

  • Lidiya Kuryatnykova, Child Psychologist (through translator):

    Children mirror what their parents feel. If the parents are worried and anxious, and show that, children reflect it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The parents arrive in Volodymyr Zelenskyy's hometown from nearby villages needing everything and are greeted with bags of food, racks of clothes, and boxes of shoes organized by size.

    Oleksandr Vilkul was appointed mayor after the Russian invasion. In a side room, they sing a song of longing, missing the homes from which they fled.

    What are they fleeing from?

    Oleksandr Vilkul, Mayor of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine (through translator): The IDPs who come here are running from hell. The information we received from people in occupied territories, executions, torture, and rape are standard practice.

    Today, the Russians behave themselves worse than Nazi Germany during World War II.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's what Liliya and her kids feared. But her husband had to stay behind.

  • Liliya (through translator):

    I'm very worried about him. But we have no way out of this situation. I don't know.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How difficult for you have the last few weeks been?

  • Liliya (through translator):

    That we are not together, that our family isn't together, this is very difficult. We're used to being together all the time, and the war has separated us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We decided to try and find her husband. We traveled 30 miles south, down rutted roads.

    The Ukrainians bombed the nearby bridge, so the only way in is across the Inhulets River. On the other side is the Kherson region, parts of which Russia still occupies, and waiting for us, Liliya's husband, Stanislav. Stanislav and Liliya both grew up here in Zahradivka. Before the war, it had 800 residents, today, no more than 30.

  • Stanislav, Zahradivka Resident (through translator):

    A woman was killed in this house. She was in her yard, and the Grad rocket hit there, and she got killed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In mid-March, Russian troops, in red, seized the city of Kherson and pushed right to the edge of Zahradivka. They lobbed artillery, and Ukrainian and Russian soldiers traded small-arms fire.

    A Russian shell flew through the roof of the school auditorium that three months ago was full of children. The family's farm is down the road. This is where his wife grew up, where they moved in together after they married, the only home their children have known. As a couple, they have never spent more than a day apart.

    Stanislav wants to show me the reason his family fled, the Russian rocket that landed in their backyard.

    And where were you where it landed?

  • Stanislav (through translator):

    It was in the evening, approximately at 7:00 p.m. I heard the sounds of the Grad rocket, and I shouted.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The wall between the impact site and the house where his kids were eating now pierced by shrapnel.

  • Stanislav (through translator):

    I haven't seen them for a month. I don't have gas to go and see them because the gas stations are empty. So, I can't go there. Immediately, the day after the attack, I took them out of here, and they haven't been back since.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the middle of their property, where the family was forced to hide.

    This is the cellar?

    It's actually a food-storage-turned-shelter, with a child-size makeshift bed in the corner. They could always hear the fighting above.

  • Stanislav (through translator):

    The bullets whistled by here. It was scary. We got really scared for our kids.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's collected all the shrapnel that littered the farm, some of which landed just in the last few days.

    So, this is your home.

    And inside the house, past the window broken by shrapnel is his children's room, the bunk beds Kyrylo and Andriy have shared since they were born, and their toys mixed in with Anna's, untouched for a month.

  • Stanislav (through translator):

    It was always noisy here, and now it's quiet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tell me about the future. What do you hope for your future and your family's future?

  • Liliya (through translator):

    I hope the victory will come soon and that our family will be together again. This is my dream.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, for now, it is a dream deferred and a family that remains separated.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Zahradivka, Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So hard to see.

    And a note, again, that our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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