“Bang, bang”: Children live and play near the Ukrainian front line

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KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — The children flicker like ghosts in the empty playgrounds in herbaceous courtyards deep in a town whose residents have been told to get out now.

Six-year-old Tania no longer has any playmates on her street in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. She is sitting on a bench just steps from the city’s train station, which was attacked by Russia in April, killing more than 50 people who had gathered there to evacuate. The remains of a missile from this attack bore the inscription in Russian: “For the children”.

Tania and her parents are not afraid to stay. In the shade near the now-closed train station, they enjoy the silence that remains between the bangs of outgoing artillery trying to keep Russian forces at bay.

“The bombs are falling all over the country. There’s no point in fleeing,” said Tania’s father, Oleksandr Rokytianskyi.

Chatting to herself while curling up with a generous box of colored markers, Tania added, “Bang bang!”

It’s not uncommon for elderly residents of eastern Ukraine to refuse to heed calls to evacuate to safer locations around the country. What is shocking, however, is to see children – even a stroller – near the front lines. It is not known how many remain as the Russians press ahead with their offensive in the area.

Children cannot escape war, even in cities that are considered safe. Tania’s parents spoke on the day a Russian missile hit Vinnytsia far from the front lines in central Ukraine, killing 23 people, including three children – a 4-year-old girl named Liza Dmytrieva and two boys, aged 7 and 8.

Children who stay close to the fighting have linked their fate to that of their parents, and the dangers can be unexpected.

18-year-old Sasha sits with a 15-year-old friend in front of a hospital and smokes. Sasha’s right arm is bandaged and he looks out at the world with black eyes. He has scratches all over him after being hit while crossing the road by one of the military vehicles that rumbled through the area.

The Ukrainian soldiers helped him find an ambulance, he said, saying his speech was affected by his injuries.

Sasha doesn’t know why he still lives here. His mother decided that the family would not leave. Like some in eastern Ukraine, he did not give his last name out of concern for his safety.

“I would rather stay because I have friends here,” he said, but if he had small children he would take them out.

In the four-bed hospital room that Sasha shares with other patients, an elderly man named Volodymyr has his right hand heavily bandaged. He said he was in his garden in a village near Bakhmut when cluster bombs exploded.

His family, including his 15-year-old child, want to stay.

But “the little ones need to be evacuated,” said Volodymyr. “The little ones haven’t seen much in life.”

Maksym, a wounded soldier recovering from concussion sustained in the shelling, agreed.

For the first time since the Russian invasion on February 24, he is out of the forest ditches and on the phone to his teenage daughter, who is safe in the town of Zaporizhia, several hours’ drive away.

This is also Maksym’s first chance in almost six months to see what is considered normal life in Ukraine and he is surprised to see children still so close to the fighting.

“These are children,” he said with the same bluntness with which he called the whole war “nonsense.”

dr Vitalii Malanchuk said a “quite high” number of children are patients in the hospital. He finds it uncomfortable that some people who should be evacuating see his presence as a reassuring reason to stay.

As the latest air raid siren wails and artillery blares at a playground in Kramatorsk, a girl in pigtails shrieks and runs from the determined pursuit of a young boy. A small carousel turns.

Dmytro and Karyna Ponomarenko are waiting for their daughter, almost 5-year-old Anhelina, along with her pink bike with training wheels.

There are no safe places, they said, and Kramatorsk is home. They feel that leaving is hard and that starting over somewhere else is expensive. Some residents who left are now returning, they said, preferring to take their chances.

They will stay as long as they can, even if the Russians are closing in.

“She’s used to the sirens, but the explosions still bother her,” Dmtryo said of Anhelina. They tell her it’s thunder, but somehow she’s learned to fear planes, even Ukrainian ones.

There are fewer children to play with day by day, but Anhelina entertains herself, her father said.

“Hyperactive,” he added with weary affection.

As evening falls, the family leaves the house and walks past the statue of a tank that now outnumbers the real tanks on the streets.

Shadows cover the cracked concrete square. The air raid alarm siren is still working.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/bang-bang-children-live-and-play-near-ukraine-front-line/2022/07/16/1ddd6582-04cf-11ed-8beb-2b4e481b1500_story.html?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_world “Bang, bang”: Children live and play near the Ukrainian front line

Dustin Huang

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