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The Russia-Ukraine war is taking a dramatic toll on children

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.N. officials say the war in Ukraine has caused devastating harm to children. More than 500 kids have died or been injured. Millions more are living in cities threatened by the Russian army, or they've been forced to flee. NPR's Brian Mann has been talking to young people near the frontlines in southern Ukraine.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's mid-morning in Mykolaiv, a city on the Black Sea. Anya Voychuck has come with her son, Arthur, to fill jugs of water. The main water system here was knocked out three weeks ago when Russian soldiers pushed to the outskirts of the city. I ask Anya if I can talk to her boy about how this war looks through his eyes.

ANYA VOYCHUCK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "Sure, you can ask him," Anya says. She tells me Arthur, who's 11, has been really scared, trembling because of explosions caused by the Russian missiles that land here almost every day.

ARTHUR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "Yeah, it is scary," Arthur says. "The ceiling in our apartment fell down." He's a small boy wearing a green puffy coat, his hair neatly combed.

ARTHUR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: School's been canceled because of the fighting, Arthur says, so he plays with his toys to pass the time. A lot of people have left Mykolaiv, but officials say roughly 200,000 civilians, many of them children or teens, are still here.

MARIA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: Maria is a high school student. She says when the war started, it was really frightening at first. But people can get used to anything, she says. She's angry at Vladimir Putin and still worries sometimes that the Russians will fight their way into Mykolaiv.

MARIA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "We are afraid of what might happen," Maria says, "especially when we think of Bucha and Mariupol. We're heartbroken, and sometimes I can't control my tears."

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

MANN: Every day, air raid sirens sound in Mykolaiv. Arkadiy Dabagian (ph), who heads the Red Cross here, says anxiety and fear are taking a toll on young people.

ARKADIY DABAGIAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: Children and teenagers here are really stressed. It's obvious, Dabagian says. This war is horrible for them. The Red Cross created special programs in Mykolaiv, including a separate shelter for kids, a relatively safe place where they can play, where there are also therapists to provide counseling.

DABAGIAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "We know sooner or later this war will stop," he says. "We don't want these young people to suffer long-term mental trauma, so we're trying to help."

Some young people are able to leave these cities close to the front lines, but that can be dangerous, too. The United Nations has warned that young Ukrainians, especially women and girls, are being actively targeted by organized crime groups after they leave home.

JULIA SACHENKO: The war is the perfect background for the human trafficking.

MANN: Julia Sachenko heads the Ukraine office of an aid group called A21 that's working to protect young women here and in other countries. Sachenko says after Russia first invaded the Donbas region in Crimea in 2014, many Ukrainian girls wound up abused by sex traffickers after they fled to what they hoped would be safety.

SACHENKO: Those were terrible cases, and it was very difficult to assist those people because they have suffered through the nightmare - hell, in their lives.

MANN: I meet two young women, high school students aged 17 and 15, in a bomb shelter under the train station in Odesa, a city close to Mykolaiv. There's been a missile alert, and they're waiting for the threat to pass before boarding the next evacuation train.

NIKA: A building been bombed in a kilometer from our home, so we decided to leave.

MANN: That's Nika, a small woman surrounded by suitcases. She tells me they hope to cross the border into Poland.

Are you traveling with your parents?

NIKA: We are traveling alone 'cause my mother have a job here so she can't leave.

MANN: That's really scary.

NIKA: It is.

MANN: I ask Nika about the U.N.'s warning about sex traffickers, and she says she understands the risks they're taking.

NIKA: I read a lot about it 'cause I'm a feminist, so I know a lot about it. And I'm worried about it, too, about all the women that are in danger now.

MANN: But she says there are no good answers during this war, whether they stay or go.

NIKA: We are in danger there, too. I don't know how to deal with that. Just be careful.

MANN: Every young person I speak to says they believe Ukraine will win this war, but no one thinks victory or peace or safety will come any time soon.

Brian Mann, NPR News, southern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.