“My childhood is lost!”: In Kherson, a stolen youth in search of escape

“My childhood is lost!”: Despite her round teenage face, Anastassia makes a categorical statement about her life, with a rare maturity for this 14-year-old Ukrainian.

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“Covid and war robbed me of a youth that should have been happy,” said the young woman, sweating in an oversized Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, slinging a sports bag on her back.

Due to the lack of school, he attends one of the last weight training rooms in Kherson, the only “escape” from the daily Russian bombing of this southern Ukrainian city. “You distract me from the war,” he explains as he exits the scene, his hair still damp.

The once bustling hall has seen its audience evolve since the March 2022 invasion of Kherson by Russian forces, and then its liberation a year ago by the Kiev military.


Between dumbbells and sweat, the handful of fragile teenagers collide with the muscular and bearded forty-year-olds who lift enormous weights.

“I would like to be with people my age, the ones I know are two or three times older than me,” laments Anastassia, many of whose friends have left the region.

Outside, the streets are empty and the cafes frequented mainly by soldiers in fatigues.

Marked “for life”

In one of these bars, Anastassia picks up her phone, where she receives her lessons and news from her loved ones.

She dreams of an offline social life. “I would like to finally see the people. When I went to Mykolaiv during the day, I was surprised to see the “life” in this city 60 km to the northwest, he said.

He also tries to escape by making plays, despite the ban on meetings due to missile threats. “We only meet in small groups to rehearse. It’s interesting to feel other emotions, to play someone else’s role.”

The fear during the occupation, the stress of the bombings, the joy of liberation, “are unforgettable emotions” for Anastassia, which help her find the right tone to play, but which will mark her “for life “.

“Young people aren’t supposed to know what it feels like when loved ones die,” she adds bitterly.

Did he grow up too fast? “It’s indisputable,” he says. “Before I thought about what clothes I wanted to wear, today I think about what to do under enemy fire. I learned to rethink my life in general.

She hopes for a future without war, for herself and the child she would like to have. “I don’t think the future is better than what I experienced a few years ago,” he concludes.

In Kherson, bordered by the Dnieper River, which has become the frontline, leisure spots for young people are rare. The busiest places are the few cafes on Iliucha Kulyk Street in the center.

Don’t stay closed

Night is falling fast, the avenue is empty and dreary, shrouded in a thick fog, lit only by car headlights and the signs of the few shops still open.

A bright spot stands out, however, the terrace of the “Ciao Cacao” cafe, where 18-year-old Dima works when he’s not at home playing the video game Counter Strike.

That evening, the young blond chats with his group of friends. They take selfies, laugh, talk about their homes destroyed by the strikes.

“We left despite the bombs. We don’t want to stay closed”, explains Dima.

He decided to join the naval school after first thinking about leaving the country. “Leaving is ugly. It’s a betrayal,” he judges.

“It’s a political war. It’s going to hit me at some point. I don’t have anything else to do anyway,” he says.

They also feel they have grown up too fast. “Adults say that at 18 you don’t know anything”, exclaims the young man, “but with what is happening, I think I have enough experience to understand what life is”.

His vision of the future is pragmatic. If Dima sees himself on the front line, his 18-year-old friend Anton dreams of only one thing: “I want to work and earn money to rebuild my house.”