For the past seven years, I have been the ombudsman for children in Ukraine. This is the work of my lifetime. With the support of the president, the first lady and my determined staff, we work to end violence and exploitation of children in every way, and return those harmed to health in body and mind. Today, every child in Ukraine is my charge because violence and terror rain upon them all.
Childhood cannot coexist with war. And, for humanity, childhood must exist.
Every child deserves that the promises made to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child be kept. Every child deserves a family who she loves and keeps them safe. Every child deserves school and play and friendships and joy. Every child deserves to come home to a safe warm house, a nourishing snack and a loving parent excited to hear about their day. With war, no child in Ukraine can depend upon these fundamental rights.
Daily, parents call me pleading for assistance to evacuate their children, willing to take any risk to find safety. I cannot help them all now. I cannot tell them they are wrong to ask. As families are divided, mothers and fathers pin their names to their children’s coats and inhale the smell of their hair before the bus door must shut. To answer their plea is also to break their hearts. To those who have Ukraine’s children in their care – know they are loved and cherished. Please tell them this and put them to bed each night with a kiss on their foreheads, as their mothers and fathers would.
For the children who are still here, there is no safety, only terror. Across the country, schools are being deliberately destroyed, leaving wreckage strewn with tiny chairs and brightly colored paper. Small shoes, left neatly lined up for the next day, are scattered and charred. There is no military purpose to attacking primary schools, only savagery.
Food of any kind is scarce and becoming more so. Destruction of key infrastructure by invading forces means there is no water in many places and, if there is, it is too contaminated to even safely bathe a baby, drink much less. Hunger and disease march towards us like another army. History tells us these will cut down the young first and hardest.
When they are felled by artillery or disease or illness caused by too little food, warmth and medicine, there is nowhere to take them and few supplies or treatments. Damaged hospitals and devastated medical staff cannot even provide the promise of safe haven, as they are bombed themselves. Decent people are not meant to know what gunfire does to a six-year-old child’s body. Today in Ukraine, we do.
I have seen depravity and violence in these past few weeks beyond any I had previously imagined. My staff and I committed ourselves to ensuring that every child in Ukraine would receive the full rights due to them under Ukrainian and international laws. We have made sure that children had families not institutions to raise them, and we have begun to turn back generations of disconnection, suffering and neglect. Ukraine made real progress on these goals. We have much yet to achieve and the will to do it. I will continue – even in fatigues with a rifle on my desk.
Life is fierce. Every two minutes, a baby is born and takes their first breath in the Ukraine. We make the same promise to them as every child: you will be safe, healthy, fed and loved in a free and thriving Ukraine. No mother imagined she would be welcoming her baby under gunfire, in mud and dark and dirt. But, in our bombed hospitals, homes and underground shelters, mothers bring their babies into this world with pain, sweat and fear. They welcome their babies in love and whisper their prayer for peace and freedom into tiny ears that God may hear.
We cannot fail them. Help us.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism