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During the holiday season, attempts to distract Ukrainian children from the war

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In a carpeted meeting room of what used to be a posh hotel, Ukrainian children scream with happiness at a performance being performed for them and at the prospect of unwrapping presents.

In a country where children have seen the horrors of a 10-month war, there are those trying to bring them some peace and happiness, at least for a moment during this holiday season in Ukraine.

The luxurious Venice Hotel on the outskirts of Kiev is now a rehabilitation center for children who have lived through the horrors of the Russian invasion.

“If it’s a holiday, it’s easier,” said Ksenia, a 12-year-old girl from Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

“We forget the war. It’s easier to distract,” she added after a performance by actors, some dressed as Disney characters.

Ksenia was one of 62 children aged 6 to 12 who celebrated St Nicholas Day on Monday. It is a traditional date for Ukrainian children to receive presents and marks the beginning of the winter holidays.

“Why are our soldiers fighting? For the sake of the future, because without it there is nothing. And children are our future,” says Artem Tatarinov, the director of the rehabilitation center.

Here, he said, they sheltered children who, instead of playing, had to hide in bomb shelters to escape bombs and discovered grief when their relatives were killed.

UNICEF estimates that of Ukraine’s approximately 7 million children, at least 1.2 million are displaced within the country because of the war.

In this center children are cared for for two weeks and during that period they receive therapeutic lessons and sessions with psychologists to process the trauma they have suffered. “It’s like a temporary rehabilitation from the war,” said Alevtyna, a teacher, who declined to give her last name for security reasons.

She works around the clock with the children, sacrifices her ordinary life, but also finds a safe place for herself. Like other mentors at the center, Alevtyna comes from eastern Ukraine, which is now under constant fire. Her native Kostyantynivka is only 22 km from Bakhmut.

For children, Alevtyna said, the center can be like an island of happiness, but it’s not easy for them.

“They often talk about the war [and] cry,” she said. “Children are afraid to fall asleep, are afraid to turn off the light.”

In the past six months, the center has welcomed more than 1,300 children from all over the country.

“It’s hard to work like this when you see children who don’t smile, when their childhood was taken away,” Tatarinov said.

He told of his encounter with a 12-year-old boy who had discovered his brother’s decapitated body 10 meters away from their home after a mortar attack. “This is impossible to forget, but we are doing everything we can,” Tatarinov said.

So he and the teachers tried to focus on the holidays this week. On Monday, the theater performance brought the children some joy.

“They can at least believe in miracles again for an hour, believe in goodness again, where fairytale heroes come,” said Tetiana Hraban, head of the Golda Meir Institute of Civil Society, who helped organize the performance.

The actors on stage asked the children what they wanted for this holiday. The heartbreaking answers were shouted over each other: ‘a generator’, ‘a power bank’, ‘a house’.

“Bless!” said one child, and everyone else repeated it in a single shout, followed by applause.