Young People’s Voices on the War in Ukraine

What do children and young people have to say about the war in Ukraine? And what can we learn by listening to them? 

In June 2022, the Visualising War project teamed up with the charity Never Such Innocence (NSI) to invite young people from all around the world to share their reflections on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their hopes for an end to the conflict. Children from Ukraine were joined by young people from South Korea, Russia, Lithuania, Canada, China, Sri Lanka and the UK. A panel of adult respondents included academics (Prof. J. Marshall Beier and Dr Helen Berents) and policy-makers in military and humanitarian roles (Lieutenant General Tom Copinger-Symes and Dr Sean Loughna). 

Since 2013, NSI has been giving children and young people a voice on conflict. Via an annual competition, schools workshops and high-profile roadshows, NSI provides opportunities for young people aged 9-18 to reflect on different aspects of conflict and conflict-resolution, and to share their views with politicians, policy-makers and other adults in influential, decision-making positions. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NSI has received many works of art, poems, songs and speeches from children and young people all around the world, expressing their horror at the unfolding conflict and their concern for everyone involved. This webinar featured the work of ten young people from eight different countries – all very powerful and thought-provoking in different ways. Many focused on the impact of the war on children themselves, depicting their loss of close family members, reflecting on the upheaval of forced displacement, and discussing mental health impacts and disruption to schooling, among other topics. But they also represented children as sources of hope and strength, highlighting their resilience as well as their need for protection. There were images of destruction and desolation, and words expressing pain, division, anger and sorrow; but also paintings infused with light and positive symbolism, and speeches and poems expressing pride, encouragement, gratitude and optimism.

Children from other parts of the world, with different histories of conflict, shared their experiences of displacement and survival, reaching out in solidarity to those affected in Ukraine. Their empathy and care for each other was powerful. Equally impactful were their insightful critiques of adult decision-making, both before and since Russia’s invasion. Their understanding of history stretched right back to antiquity, and their warnings and calls to action for the future demand our attention. As one panellist (Marshall Beier) observed: the adult-child relationship is often conceived as that of expert-novice or teacher-pupil. But another way of understanding it is to see adults as guardians and communicators of established knowledge, and children as askers of challenging, even ‘heretical’ questions, disrupting and stretching that established knowledge with new perspectives. Participants at the webinar learnt a great deal from the diverse reflections and thought-provoking questions which our young speakers urged us to think about.

In their responses, the adult panelists reflected on what these young people can teach us about the impacts of war in both time and space. Their contributions powerfully showed how war disrupts people’s experience of time, sometimes establishing strong divisions between ‘before’ and ‘after’ even as people try to hold onto continuity amid change. As Tom Copinger-Symes underlined, this brought us to questions of dreams and reality: one young participant asked ‘are we ever after conflict – or is that just a dream?’, while others depicted a mix of memories, hopes and fears, as they wrestled with what this war in the present means for the future and how it might change the way we look at the past. Helen Berents noted that, while news coverage tends to focus on global politics, desolated cityscapes and men in suits, the contributions submitted by young people to NSI draw our attention to the local: to everyday impacts of war in ordinary people’s lives and on people’s families, to local examples of survival, to personal acts of resistance and resilience.

Sean Loughna was particularly struck by the insightfulness of young people’s criticism of bodies like the UN, and also the implicit (not just explicit) reflections which their contributions encouraged into war’s impacts: for example, the painting of a crutch, which gestures to the huge challenge ahead of clearing land mines, a source of so many childhood deaths and injuries after conflict. Marshall Beier joined the other adult panelists in stressing the huge contribution that young people’s voices have to make to global politics, if only we are willing to listen and support. As he and Helen both stressed, children are the authorities on their own experiences, with unique things to say about people’s efforts to survive, resist and built peace in the long term. It is not enough to give them the microphone every so often: adults need to do more to validate and recognise their expertise and to make room for them routinely in discussions of war and peace.

You can watch a recording of the webinar below. Two Ukrainian participants recorded additional speeches which can be found here and here.

This webinar is part of a wider collaboration between the Visualising War project and Never Such Innocence to develop new mechanisms for involving more children in conversations on conflict.