Hope over despair: how Belarus help Donbass children heal wounds of their shattered childhood

‘It feels like death is coming.’ How do children of Donbass live?

When arriving in Belarus, a land of peace and quiet, children of Donbass take note of and enjoy simple things. But when they talk to journalists they have to revisit terrifying experience. «When the war began, we were hiding in a basement and we stayed there for a month. We had a supply of potatoes. It was cold. We always had out jackets on,» one of the boys said.

Walking along the platform of the Belarusian railway station, another boy said: «A shell landed right next to us. A wall in the barn fell down. Everything was in shell splinters.

Talking about the homeland evokes the emotions that adults, and even more so children, do not want to experience. «Things are bad at home now,» one of the guys said. “Trenches were dug near our house. We had experienced shootings, shellings. We just run to hide in the corner. It’s very scary there. It feels like death is coming.» They have to live with this feeling every day.

Children say the most important things: «We want war to end; we want life to be wonderful.»

‘Time has come.’ How did children of Donbass find their way to Belarus

The notion «wonderful» is made up primarily of the things that the children see in Belarus. They first came to our country in September 2021. The first group of children from the DNR consisted of nine children with disabilities chaperoned by adults, parents or authorized persons. Two more groups from the DNR (14 and 28 people) came on rehabilitation holidays in 2022. All of them needed high-class medical assistance. Belarus, that has experience in helping children, lent a helping hand.

All this happened thanks to the foundation of Paralympian Aleksei Talai. The public figure began communicating with residents of Donbass on social media. Recalling how it started, the Paralympic athlete said: «When families, mothers shared their stories about tragedies, about children blown up by mines, wounded in shelling, maimed, left without legs and arms, I was deeply shocked.” Having survived his personal tragedy, Aleksei Talai could not stay away from the guys who suffered a similar fate. «I had this inner dialogue ‘I can do nothing, I can’t influence the situation. The civil way is raging there, far away where there’s no way I can get in, give a hug, say some comforting words. But as time went on, the situation changed. I realized that the time had come, that the time was right. All the circumstances came together for me to go to Donbass, to those children, to the mothers,» Aleksei Talai said.

Aleksei Talai

During one of the visits he met a woman holding a baby in her arms. When it all started, she was 15. Nine years later, she is still in her turbulent homeland, and raising her child. Her memories are like everyone else’s — terrifying. «There were days we went to bed with our clothes on to quickly run out and hide in the basement in case shelling started at night,» she said. There are a lot of similar stories, about destroyed lives of children.

In 2021, Aleksei Talai, the multiple world and European champion, held a swimming tournament and a clinic in Donetsk. A year later, the boys came to Belarus for the championships. In Minsk, Aleksei Talai told the Belarusian president about what he had seen. He asked Aleksandr Lukashenko to help children of Donbass. The first group of children came to Minsk the same year.

Not only rehabilitation but also medical treatment

«First of all, we host children with disabilities. This is a priority. They get treated in our rehabilitation centers. They undergo a full rehabilitation course,» Aleksei Talai said.

And most importantly — this work brings good results. Children and their families have much hope in such work. This is also a very gratifying experience for all those who help bring these children here. «One of the kids whom I gifted the legendary electric wheelchair from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, finally learned to walk. We are incredibly happy about it! All the doctors who worked with him are very excited about it,» Aleksei Talai said.

This boy’s name is Ilya Konovalov. He has a severe form of cerebral palsy. After the third visit to Belarus, he learned to brush his teeth, but most importantly, he got up on his feet and made his first steps. His mother says that it was the first time he did that: «He could not walk before!»

“There are more than a thousand families raising such children in Donetsk,” Olga Volkova, Director of the Donetsk-based Dolphins center, a public organization for disabled children and their parents, said. “Mothers are very stressed out, because they cannot leave. It is very difficult for us to arrange such trips. It is hard to be around a sick child all the time, especially under fire, without water. I usually do not even bring this up in coversations, because we are used to living in such terrible conditions.»

How do children rebuild their childhood in Belarus

It is in Belarus that children of Donbass can reignite the joy of childhood and live without shelling, fear and losses. In 2021, a group of children without disabilities also came to our country. 131 people vacationed in the Zubrenok camp. Adults assure that the kids badly needed this trip. Seven years of war had their toll. In 2022 Belarus hosted the largest group of about 900 children. After that, there were several more small groups.

All of them come to Belarus squealing from joy and they cry when they leave. «Here we have constant access to hot water, electricity, good sound insulation,» a boy from Donbass said. “We love the food, it is very tasty,” a girl added. “It is not boring here, we are always busy; we have a lot of fun. And I’m very glad that I have come here,” another resident of Donbass added.

Psychological support is also important for children traumatized by the war. “When we came out of the basement, I didn’t know what to do. I lost my best friend. It was very scary,” a boy from Donbass said.

Why does a boy from Donetsk want to return to Belarus?

After visiting Belarus where children enjoy a peaceful and quiet life, many want to return here forever. One of them is Yaroslav Aksenov, a guy from Donetsk. He dreams of becoming a rescuer and is determined to study in Belarus: “I built some contacts that might help me get enrolled in Belarus, and not in Donetsk. I dream of becoming a rescuer. I got wounded in the neck, which frustrated my plans at the beginning. I was disheartened, but I am undergoing rehabilitation. I started doing some sports and recovering little by little.”

After returning from Belarus to his homeland, the young man did not abandon his dream and is confidently moving towards his goal. Yaroslav’s mother said: «We are grateful to the organizers of this trip, as the children spent at least some time in peace and quiet.»

«It’s very bad when children experience war»

Artur Tkachenko from Donetsk speaks like an adult. «Exactly one year ago, a bomb flew into this house. My aunt and my cousin live here. He is seven years old. We used to spend time in this yard, have fun, play, but now there is a burned-out car here. It is very bad when children have to live in the times of war,” he said.

“It is always nice to come back home, it makes you feel great. But not in our case. When you return home, you hear the sounds of explosions, airplanes flying overhead,” the guy added.

Artur had only heartwarming memories of Belarus: «A beautiful country. Football fields, tennis courts, ice arena — we played there. I miss Belarus because it is peaceful and safe there.”

«We will take a piece of peace home and share it with others»

Belarus is an example of how people can live, make friends, appreciate, love each other. Belarus teaches to believe that good will prevail over evil. “We will take a piece of peace, kindness, warmth with your permission. We will take it home and share it with others. We will be all right. And we will definitely invite you to visit us,” a young resident of Donbass said.

“I have made a wish: when I return to Lisichansk, I want to see it rebuilt anew, to look like a modern industrial town. Like a wonderful city of Novopolotsk. And I would like to see my mom and dad again alive and healthy,” a boy from Donbass said.

These are the thoughts and dreams of children leaving for their homeland. It is hard for them and for Belarus to say good-bye to each other. «We cry at railway stations, they show us the ‘hand heart’ gesture from the windows of their train compartments and cry. We do the same. What are we thinking about at this moment? We are sending them to the unknown, to war. We can only pray, and we pray,» Aleksei Talai emphasized.


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