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The trauma of a childhood on the front lines of Ukraine's war


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The newly elected president of Ukraine has been sparring politically with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the fate of those trapped by a war.

Since April 2014, Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian military in two districts along the Ukraine-Russia border. The battle has killed at least 13,000 people.

As Nick Schifrin reports, civilians are caught in the middle, and the most affected victims are children.

Nick Schifrin: Along the front lines in Eastern Ukraine, mattresses become shields from shrapnel. And the only safe space is the basement.

And when 10-year-old Oleg is cold and scared, his grandmother Alexandra sings him an old lullaby to distract him from the war above.

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): Don't lie down on the edge of the bed.

Oleg Afanasyev (through translator): Are you afraid?

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): Yes. That is very scary, sweetie.

Nick Schifrin: But there is no escaping this war. On and off for five years, after the sun goes down, Ukrainian soldiers fight these Russian-backed separatists

The U.S. and Ukraine blame Russia for giving them funding and logistics. At one point, Russian soldiers invaded Eastern Ukraine. Today, the front lines are frozen. And the film "The Distant Barking of Dogs" shows how residents are caught in the middle and children can suffer the most.

It was directed and filmed by Simon Wilmont.

Simon Wilmont: Children like Oleg, and Oleg himself also, has been forced to grow up way too fast. He lives in a place where he's now able to tell, by the sound of mortars, roughly how far they are away. And no child should have to be able to do that.

Nick Schifrin: It wasn't always that way. Their village runs along a stream where Oleg and his cousin Yarik grew up swimming.

They are best friends, and even on the front lines, boys find time to be boys. But, at school, the camera lingers on Oleg's face as classmates talk about what to do if they find mines. Elementary school students practice going to the basement to escape bombs.

And Oleg gets caught out of house too late, after the nightly shelling begins. It was overwhelming and scary, he told us in an interview earlier this year.

Oleg Afanasyev (through translator): Each time we went to the basement, I was afraid. I was scared that shells would fall somewhere near. I was hoping that our house and school would remain unharmed. It was very scary to me. I was worried for everyone in my family.

Nick Schifrin: As time goes on, especially with his older friend, Kostya, Oleg's innocence evaporates. He pretends to be a soldier. When the kids are in an old industrial warehouse, they're fascinated by the tools of war.

Boy (through translator): Wow. Cool.

Boy (through translator): It's a mine. Idiot.

Nick Schifrin: And Oleg begins to lose his fear, not for the better.

Boy (through translator): We're men. We have to be able to endure everything, like fear and everything else.

Simon Wilmont: One of the very severe effects it has on them psychologically is that they get desensitized, and that might lead to depression in a lot of cases. That kind of overload of fear, I think, makes them withdraw within themselves, and lose that interest in life and lose that appetite for life.

Nick Schifrin: That's exactly what Oleg's grandmother says she tried to shield him from.

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): We need to do everything we can to make sure they're not broken by this war. We have to teach them, help them. And we try our best to raise our children so they will pay less attention to what's happening.

But it's very hard when you live under stress every day, all the time. It makes you crazy. We are just trying to protect our children.

Nick Schifrin: This conflict has split many families. But for Oleg and Alexandra, it has helped provide mutual protection.

Simon Wilmont: It's not only the bad. It's also the good and the beautiful in the film, which is the relationship between Oleg and Alexandra. They lean upon each other and they feed each other strength, so that they can both get by. It's a mutual dependency.

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): We support each other. And when he sees that I am stressed and panicking, he always finds the words that calm me and that support me. So we support each other, and that's why it's easier for us to survive.

Nick Schifrin: And she helps him maintain his humanity. Toward the end of the film, egged on by Kostya, Oleg shoot a frog with a BB gun, for no reason.

Oleg Afanasyev (through translator): I killed a frog.

Nick Schifrin: His grandmother tries to readjust his moral compass.

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): One shouldn't take weapons into one's hands. Never do that again. Later on, you may be tempted to take a real gun into your hands.

Simon Wilmont: I think that Oleg is a unique kid, a very lucky kid, no matter what, because he has Alexandra. One of the reasons why he's not traumatized to a more severe degree is that he has Alexandra, and that she does everything right to take care of him.

Oleg Afanasyev (through translator): You shouldn't leave me ever.

Alexandra Ryabichkina (through translator): Oh, Oleg. I wouldn't even think about it.

Nick Schifrin: The last scene shows the two of them looking out over the valley, and suggests there is hope for the future. Oleg says he wants to be a chef.

But during the credits, Alexandra films on her cell phone as bombs erupt in the distance.

Simon Wilmont: The reason why I took the last clip was to say, listen, people, no matter how strong these people are, it's still a conflict that's raging. It's still claiming civilian lives. We need to be looking at this.

Nick Schifrin: To this day, Oleg, Yarik, and Alexandra are still living along the front, still suffering the trauma of living in the middle of war.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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