SLOVIANSK – Anastasiia Aleksandrova doesn’t even look up from her phone as the thunder of nearby artillery rumbles through the modest house the 12-year-old shares with her grandparents on the outskirts of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine.
No one her age is in her neighborhood anymore and classes have been online-only ever since Russia’s invasionVideo games and social media have taken the place of the walks and bike rides she once enjoyed with her now-emigrant friends.
“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 draw and has a picture of a Siberian tiger in her bedroom.
Anastasiia’s retreat to digital technology to deal with the isolation and stress of war raging on the frontline just 12 kilometers away is becoming increasingly common among young people in Ukraine’s embattled Donetsk region.
With cities largely emptied after hundreds of thousands were evacuated to safety, the young people who remain face loneliness and boredom, painful counterpoints to the fear and violence Moscow has unleashed on Ukraine.
“I have no one to meet with. I sit on the phone all day,” Anastasiia said on 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, according to the UN refugee agency, and millions more are internally displaced.
The mass displacement has turned countless childhoods upside down, not only for those forced to start new lives after seeking safety elsewhere, but also for the thousands who remained behind.
In the industrial town of Kramatorsk, 12 kilometers south of Sloviansk, the friendship between 19-year-old Roman Kovalenko and 18-year-old Oleksandr Pruzhyna has grown closer since all other friends have left town.
The two teenagers walk together through the largely deserted city, sitting on park benches to talk. Both described being cut off from the social life they enjoyed before the war.
“It’s a completely different feeling when you go outside. There’s almost no one on the street, I feel like I’m in an apocalypse,” said 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 wanted to do became impossible, it all fell apart in an instant.”
Of the roughly 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 and 711 others injured in Ukraine since the start of the war by Russia on February 24.
Authorities are urging all remaining families in Donetsk, especially those with children, to evacuate immediately as Russian forces continue to bombard civilian areas while pushing for control of the region.
A special police unit has been tasked with contacting households with children individually and urging them to flee to safer areas, Kyrylenko said.
“As a father, I believe that 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 sitting in the shoe department of a clothing store where her mother works.
Sofia Mariia, a pianist and singer who plans to study art at university after her senior year of high school, said that there was “nowhere to go and nothing to do” after her friends left.
“I wish I could go back in time and make everything the way it was before. I understand that most of my friends who have left will never come back no matter what happens in the future,” she said. “Of course it’s very sad that I can’t have as much fun as other teenagers, but I can. do nothing about it, just deal with it.”
Her mother, Viktoriia, said that since the town is mostly empty, she can only sell one or two items a week.
But with the threat of shelling and soldiers in 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 at their home on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, where the risk of rocket fire is lower.
“I keep her close to me all the time so at least we’re together in case something happens,” she said.
Of the approximately 18,000 school-age children in Kramatorsk before the Russian invasion, only about 3,200 remain, including 600 preschoolers, said the city’s military administration chief Oleksandr Goncharenko.
While officials continue to urge residents to evacuate and provide information on transportation and housing, “parents cannot be forced to leave with their children,” Goncharenko said. When the school term starts on September 1, classes will be offered online for those who stay.
In Kramatorsk’s leafy but almost empty Pushkin Park, Rodion Kucherian, 14, performed tricks on his scooter on an otherwise deserted conglomeration of ramps, quarterpipes and grindrails.
Before the war, he said, he and his friends would have been doing tricks in the busy 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 taken up other solitary activities just to keep himself occupied, he said.
“It’s 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 age, but she’s made some new friends through the games she plays online.
“It’s not the same. Going outside to play with your friends is way better 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, wears the other half.
“I never take it off and neither does Yeva,” she said.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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https://www.local10.com/business/2022/08/15/boredom-loneliness-plague-ukrainian-youth-near-front-line/ Boredom, loneliness plague Ukrainian youth near the front lines