“The war will end, I make a wish”: the words of children in Kharkiv

Children and their families shelter from bombs in an underground car park, April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

The ages of Alina, Alex, Daniel, Kirill and Lilia range from 8 to 14 years old. Since the war in Ukraine began two months ago, they and their families have been sleeping safe from bombs in a large underground car park in Kharkiv, in the east of the country.

Ukraine’s second largest city—almost 1.5 million pre-war residents—is targeted daily by Russian missiles. Random, sporadic strikes, at any time of the day or night, sometimes fatal, targeting especially residential areas in the North and Northeast, near the front line.

In the cold and damp underground car park where they shelter, the five children told AFP how they experienced the onset of war, their daily lives, the bombing, and their hopes for peace.

Here are their testimonials.

– 9-year-old Alina: “The war will end, I made a wish”

Alina, 9, lives with her family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Alina, 9, lives with her family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

“On February 24, I was so scared, I was shivering. The first night we slept on the chairs, our parents later brought cribs for the kids, the kids slept on the beds and our parents on the beds and chairs.

On the first day here, there were only two seats. Then we brought everything: blankets, pillows, plates.

I began to cry a lot: I was worried about everyone, when there was a bombing or the sirens. I am especially worried about my family and friends, who left (from Kharkiv), for my grandmother who recently left for her village located 15 kilometers from Russia.

I do not want to leave, because there is my family, my city. I was born here.

In the morning we have online lessons, I do my homework in the afternoon, and we come here in the evening.

I miss my kickboxing training and my dance lessons.

Victory will be for me when I am very happy. The war will not end immediately, but in a few weeks it will, I made a wish.

My birthday was February 25th. I woke up, and my parents wanted to go home to cook for me, but there was a bombing. I was worried, I was shivering, it was my birthday, the second day of the war, and we couldn’t celebrate it.

I hope to celebrate my next birthday under fireworks, but not like this (explosions).”

Alex, 14: “I still don’t realize what’s going on”

Alex, 14, lives with his family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Alex, 14, lives with his family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

“At first someone called my father and told us to go to western Ukraine or somewhere else. My father did not want to leave, he said we would stay in Kharkiv.

The first week was scary. Then we got used to it. On the first day, we stayed at home, listening to the news. Then my parents saw that people started coming down here (into the underground car park). We settled there too, and brought a table and chairs to make the beds.

At first, there were too many people, and we couldn’t turn around. After that, half of the people left, but some people are now coming back.

I miss my friends, school and kickboxing practices.

On weekdays, in the morning, I come home to do my homework, then I come back here for lunch, play games, cards, on the phone…we used to. Our parents do not tell us the details of the war. We know that rockets hit buildings and stadiums. We know the war is going on.

I still don’t realize what’s going on or why. I only know that people are dying, and that missiles are hitting buildings.

I hope it ends, that the two (Ukrainian and Russian) presidents will agree to make peace.”

– Daniel, 13: “I just thought it wasn’t right”

Daniel, 13, lives with his parents in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 24, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Daniel, 13, lives with his parents in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 24, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

“I was very nervous when I started. I was worried about myself and my parents. I didn’t hear the first bombing. My mother woke me up saying: + My son, there is a war + I didn’t know what we were going to do, if we were to leave, or if there was a bomb shelter. I didn’t want On leaving, I wanted to stay here. I was worried, I didn’t quite understand what was going on, I just thought it wasn’t right and it would be over the next day. I later realized it wouldn’t finish the next day.

When we got here the place was very crowded, I think everyone (from the neighborhood) came here. In the early days, we slept on crates.

I usually get up, have breakfast, play with friends, and get out of the cellar outside for a while.

We study online, through Zoom, and do our homework in a virtual ‘classroom’. My classmates, who have moved to another city (from Ukraine) or another country, do not study online: they go to the schools where they moved.

I hope there is peace, no explosions, sirens. That everything will be calm.

D-Day for me will be when I wake up and my mom says + my son, it’s all over now +.

– Kirill, 13: “No one has to fight”

Children live with their parents in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Children live with their parents in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

“I woke up (February 24) and thought it was fireworks: but no! I called my friends to ask them what was going on. Everyone was terrified. My mother works in the hospital, she was called to go.

I came here with a friend, but it was closed. But then I came back with my dad. It was completely dark, it was filthy. The next day people brought sofas, the place became more comfortable.

Before (the war), I could walk in a park with my friends and my parents, and visit my grandmother. I had even planned to go see her, but the war began and all plans collapsed. I thought it would take a week, but now it’s been two months.

I’m always trying to find ways to bring something here to people. Many people are afraid, but I am not afraid, I try to support everyone, I know everyone here, so I do it for them, I want to be kind.

It is clear that we should live in peace, and no one should fight. Someday it will end anyway. I want the presidents (Ukrainian and Russian) to talk to each other to stop (the war). Of course, I would like us to win and take back our lands.”

– Lilia, 8 years old: “I want to breathe fresh air”

Lilia, 8, lives with her family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Lilia, 8, lives with her family in a bomb-proof underground car park, on April 23, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine (SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

“My mother woke up when my grandmother called her and said, ‘(The Russians) started shooting.’ I heard that and was very scared, I was crying. Later, at 6 in the morning, we came to Grandma’s house—she lives here—and then we heard people going into the bunker. (the parking lot) and we joined them, there were 200 people on the first day, it was very cold. The parents made us a bed. We have been sleeping here since the first day, it was very cold before.

We breathe a lot of dust. I do not like it, I want to breathe fresh air.

I thought there would be no war in my life. Before that, I took dancing and figure skating lessons. Now I can’t do that anymore.

I think we’ll celebrate our birthdays, Alex and Alena’s birthdays…we’ll have barbecues, and everyone will be with us. This will be the end of the war for me.”

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