SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Anastasiia Aleksandrova doesn’t even look up from her phone as the drone of nearby artillery blasts through the modest house the 12-year-old shares with her grandparents on the outskirts of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine.
With no one her age around and classes only online since the Russian invasion, video games and social media have taken the place of the walks and bike rides she once enjoyed with friends who have since fled.
“She communicates less and walks less. She usually stays at home and plays games on her phone,” said Anastasiia’s grandmother, Olena Aleksandrova, 57, of the shy, lanky girl who likes to paint and has a picture of a Siberian tiger on her bedroom wall.
Anastasiia’s withdrawal from digital technology to cope with the isolation and stress of the war raging on the frontline just 12 kilometers away is increasingly common among young people in Ukraine’s disputed Donetsk region.
With cities largely empty after hundreds of thousands have been evacuated to safety, the youths left behind face loneliness and boredom as painful counterparts to the fear and violence that Moscow has unleashed on Ukraine.
‘I don’t have anyone to hang out with. I’m on the phone all day,” Anastasiia said from the shore of a lake where she sometimes swims with her grandparents. “My friends have left and my life has changed. This war made it worse.”
More than 6 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled the country and millions more are internally displaced, the UN Refugee Agency said.
The mass displacement has turned countless childhoods upside down, not only for those who had to start a new life after seeking safety elsewhere, but also for the thousands left behind.
In the industrial city of Kramatorsk, twelve kilometers south of Sloviansk, the friendship between 19-year-old Roman Kovalenko and 18-year-old Oleksandr Pruzhyna has grown closer after all their other friends have left the city.
The two teenagers walk together through the largely deserted city, sitting on park benches talking. Both described being cut off from the social life they had before the war.
“It’s a completely different feeling when you go out. There’s hardly anyone on the street, I feel like I’m in an apocalypse,” says Pruzhyna, who lost his job at a barber shop after the invasion and now spends most of his time at home playing computer games.
“I feel like everything I was going to do became impossible, everything collapsed in the blink of an eye.”
Of the approximately 275,000 children aged 17 or younger in the Donetsk region before the Russian invasion, only 40,000 remain, the province’s regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told The Associated Press last week.
According to official figures, 361 children have been killed in Ukraine since Russia started the war on February 24, and 711 others have been injured.
Authorities are urging all remaining families in Donetsk, but especially those with children, to evacuate immediately as Russian forces continue to bomb civilian areas as they push for control of the region.
A special police force has been ordered to contact households with children individually and urge them to flee to safer areas, Kyrylenko said.
“As a father, I think children should not be in the Donetsk region,” he said. “This is an active war zone.”
In Kramatorsk, 16-year-old Sofia Mariia Bondar spends most days in the shoe department of a clothing store where her mother works.
Sofia Mariia, a pianist and singer who wants to study art at university after finishing her senior year of high school, said there is “nowhere to go and nothing to do” now that her friends have left.
“I wish I could go back in time and make everything the way it was. I understand that most of my friends who have left will never come back, no matter what happens in the future,” she said. Don’t do anything about it, just deal with it.”
Her mother, Viktoriia, said that since the town has become largely empty, she manages to sell only one or two items a week.
But with the danger of shelling and soldiers storming the streets, her daughter is no longer allowed to go out alone and spends most of her time at her mother’s side in the shop or in their house on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, where the threat of missiles strikes. is lower.
“I keep her with me all the time so that if something happens, at least we’ll be together,” she said.
Of the roughly 18,000 school-age children in Kramatorsk before the Russian invasion, about 3,200 remain, including 600 preschoolers, said the head of the city’s military administration, Oleksandr Goncharenko.
While officials continue to urge residents to evacuate and provide information about transportation and housing, “parents cannot be forced to leave with their children,” Goncharenko said. When the school semester begins on September 1, he said classes will be offered online for those who stay.
In Kramatorsk’s verdant but nearly empty Pushkin Park, Rodion Kucherian, 14, performed tricks on his scooter on an otherwise deserted set of ramps, quarterpipes and gravel rails.
Before the war, he said, he and his friends would do tricks in the bustling park along with many other children. But now his only connection to his friends – who have fled to countries like Poland and Germany – is on social media.
He has engaged in other solitary activities to keep himself occupied, he said.
“It is very sad not to see my friends. I haven’t seen my best friend in over four months,” he said. “I started cycling at home, so I don’t miss them that much.”
In Sloviansk, 12-year-old Anastasiia said she can’t remember the last time she played with someone her own age, but she’s made new friends through the games she plays online.
“It’s not the same. It’s much better to go outside and play with your friends than just talking online,” she said.
Her best friend, Yeva, used to live on her street, but has been evacuated with her family to Lviv in western Ukraine.
Anastasiia wears a silver pendant around her neck — half of a broken heart with the word “Love” engraved on the front — and Yeva, she said, is wearing the other half.
“I’ll never take it off, and neither will Yeva,” she said.
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