Speaking up on behalf of the children of Ukraine
Emily Wight, Save the Children’s Global Media Manager, is just back from L’viv, where she was tasked with speaking up on behalf of the children of Ukraine. Here, she reflects on her experience.
One image from my recent trip to Ukraine will be etched in my mind for a while: during our regular nightly stints in the hotel basement when the air-raid sirens went off, a little boy, no older than five, laughing and running around and playing with his toy car. He would be there every night, a bundle of intense human life and energy in a sea of people weary from weeks and months of trudging down to the basement with their duvets, from sleepless nights and from war. If there was hope left in L’viv, it was in him – perhaps because he seemed oblivious to the situation, a situation created entirely by adults who have shirked their responsibility to a generation of children.
Children bear the brunt of every war, and every war is a war against children. Since the escalation of the conflict on 24 February, more than 238 children have been killed, more than 347 injured. Two thirds of the country’s 7.5 million children have fled their homes in the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two.
Children also represent hope
But children also represent hope – that the next generation can give us something better – and I saw this during my two weeks in Ukraine, from the children sheltering in the hotel basement to the resilience of children in reception centres at the Polish border.
I arrived in Ukraine on 9 April after flying from London to Krakow where I was met by colleagues from our Humanitarian Surge team. The next day we crossed the border on foot as refugees on the other side of the fence queued up to leave the country. My remit was to act as spokesperson in Ukraine for media outlets interested in the impact of the war on children and in Save the Children’s work there. I was also helping prepare press releases and reactives on what we are doing in Ukraine.
Save the Children has operated in Ukraine since 2014, so we already had a presence to build on as the war escalated. Since then, our office shifted the focus of our activities to the centre and west of the country in order to respond to the huge number of people who have been forced from their homes. Our staff has worked tirelessly to establish partnerships with grassroots groups, at the same time as recruiting Save the Children’s world-class experts in various aspects of humanitarian response such as child protection, mental health, and cash assistance.
Save the Children staff prepare bunker kits for children sheltering from conflict in Ukraine. Image: Save the Children
A therapy dog plays a crucial role
Due to my limited time and the sheer size of the country, I was unable to see our programme work outside L’viv, and I relied on contact with colleagues further east to see if they had heard any powerful stories. I was told about a local organisation that we were working with, which was providing emotional support for children traumatised by the war through a therapy dog. It was hard not to feel moved hearing reports about a nine-year-old boy arriving at that centre with shrapnel wounds who had totally shut down to outside contact. He was refusing to talk to or listen to anyone, even his parents, and refusing to let anyone treat his injuries. Only after spending time with the dog, Eusey, did he accept treatment from the on-site doctor.
For our staff working in Ukraine full-time, the stress of operating in a war and seeing the day-in, day-out impact on children was significant. Just before I arrived, Pete Walsh, our Country Director had visited a hospital that had been bombed the previous day, putting two girls who were already in an operating theatre for existing war injuries in critical condition. For days, we didn’t know whether or not they would survive, but luckily they pulled through.
Talking to the media can jeopardise lives
For me every day brought new decisions and a struggle to find out what was going on and to verify the details. Not only did I need to be 100% certain that I had the facts right before talking to any media outlets, and I also had to explore the risks and implications of what we said with colleagues. We were fielding requests from all around the world so staying up until 1am to be available for interviews became the norm rather than the exception.
On my second to last night in L’viv, I was due to be interviewed on CNN. But less than a minute before going on air, an air raid siren went off and I had to pull out of the interview and head to the basement. The producers were understanding, and had me back the following night. I was able to talk about the support provided for children by Save the Children which has set up “child friendly spaces” in Ukraine and neighbouring countries where children can play, draw, and just be children again.
As I left L’viv, our driver pointed out a crater on the bank of a train track where an airstrike had hit just two days before, killing 7 people and injuring 11. A reminder that while I could return to my life in the safety of the UK and talk about my experience, millions of people, including children, are not safe, and won’t be until the war is over.
By Emily Wight, Global Media Manager at Save the Children