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Behind Blue Eyes project: children’s dreams and creativity against the backdrop of war

Russia’s full-scale invasion forced thousands of Ukrainian children to flee their homes, live through the occupation, and spend their childhood years close to the frontline. What do they dream about?

For almost two years, the Behind Blue Eyes charity project has been visiting children from the frontline and de-occupied villages in Ukraine, providing them with disposable film cameras and fulfilling their wishes. The idea behind the project is to support children’s ability to dream despite the traumatic experience of war and to show that creativity can be a powerful tool for realizing these dreams.

On their last expedition, 53 children from the southern regions of Ukraine joined the project, taking more than 1000 film photographs in total. On them – both the daily routine and the traces of the military invasion.

Here’s what children in frontline cities in Ukraine see through a camera lens – and what they dream about.

Bohdan, 12

Balabyne village, the Zaporizhzhia region

Bohdan’s family moved to Balabyne shortly before the full-scale invasion. They started building their own house here, which they did not have time to finish before Russia attacked. Nevertheless, their home became a shelter for many internally displaced persons from Mariupol and other occupied cities. Once, Bohdan recalls, they were able to host eight people at the same time. 

Before the full-scale war, Bohdan’s father had his own business but left it to join the Armed Forces, just like other men in the family. Despite this, they are always in touch. From time to time, the father brings home abandoned pets from the front, and then, together with Bohdan, they look for a new family for those animals. According to the boy, his family is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. 

Photo by Bohdan.
Photo by Bohdan, taken for the project

Fantasizing about his future, he imagines himself sitting on the couch and telling his grandchildren about the war. 

History is Bohdan’s favorite subject at school and his greatest passion. The boy knows a lot about the history of weapons, when they were invented, and what they were used for. On occasion, he shows his bulletproof vest, helmet, and a tube from a used anti-tank rocket launcher RPG-18 “Fly” brought to him by his godfather, who also serves in the Armed Forces. 

Photo by Bohdan, taken for the project
Photo by Bohdan, taken for the project

From the Behind Blue Eyes team, Bohdan received professional binoculars to complete his collection of equipment.

When asked what superpower he would like to have, Bohdan answers that it is superintelligence. As for his dreams, the end of the war is the first answer. 

Ania, 13

Bobrovyi Kut village, the Kherson region

The full-scale invasion has already forced Ania’s family to move twice. First, they moved from Kherson to a summer cottage near the city because it was becoming too dangerous at home due to constant shelling. The second move to Bobrovyi Kut happened after their cottage was flooded after the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station was blown up.

Ania has two siblings, Bohdan and Nastia, also minors. Their mother, Nadiia, says she likes living in the village and has always wanted her own private house. However, the family lives in a house partially damaged by fire, which needs constant repairs, and has a large household to take care of. Bohdan usually helps his parents with it.

Because of the constant danger and shelling, Ania, Nastia, and Bohdan study at school remotely, and there are no clubs or similar opportunities for the children. They are still “new” to the village and have not yet made many friends with the locals, so they stick to each other and value warm family relationships.

Despite the lack of direct contact with teachers, according to her mother, Ania is a good student. She enjoys drawing the most and math the least. In her letter, Ania noted that she would like to go on a long trip with her family, have headphones, learn to ride a motorcycle, have peace in Ukraine, and return to her hometown of Kherson.

Ania’s recipe for happiness is good friends and painting. She says that this world lacks peace.

Behind Blue Eyes fulfilled Ania’s wish for headphones and replaced her old skateboard with a new one. In addition, the team presented Ania with a professional camera to support her talent for photography. In Bobrovyi Kut, Ania photographed a cat on a tree in the sunlight, a lone skateboard on cracked asphalt, and grass covered with morning dew.

She is sure that it is never too late to try something new.

Vanіa, 12

Prymorske village, Zaporizhzhia region

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Vania’s mother died under circumstances unknown to the project team. Vania says that his mother was ashamed of his disability, cerebral palsy. In the past, he had not been outside much – the boy cried when his father took him for a walk for the first time in years. 

Nowadays, his father and older sister take care of him. They spend most of the time in Zaporizhzhia, where his father works at a factory, and his sister works in the emergency service. When the situation in the village becomes more dangerous, the boy is taken to his grandfather in Kushugum.

The village of Prymorske is just 15 kilometers from the front line. On a clear day, from the yards of Prymorske, one can see the pipes of the temporarily occupied town of Enerhodar from across the river. Today, the village can be accessed only with a pass from the Regional Military Administration.

It is never quiet in Prymorske: the artillery is often heard, and sometimes it hits the village. One day in 2022, a shell hit the yard where Vania lives, damaging the electricity and devices, including Vania’s computer, which was of great comfort to him.

Despite a life full of challenges, Vania has a great sense of humor. He also studies better than most, his classmates share. Most of all, Vania dreams of learning to walk. 

In the list of his dreams, Vania wrote about a Lego Star Wars set, 1TB hard drive, a wireless computer mouse, markers, and headphones – and all of them were fulfilled. After hearing the story about the hit in this yard, the project team also gave Vanіa a new computer so that he could stay connected to the world and play his favorite games again, as well as an exercise bike, which Vanіa is now using in his training.

Masha, 10
Lukashivka village, Chernihiv region

Masha and her family lived through the Russian occupation of their village. They spent most of their time in the cellar: first, because of the constant danger, and later, because the Russian military moved into their house. Masha tells with regret about her pet rodents that died then; only two of 9 remained alive. Now the girl dreams about having a chinchilla.

From Masha’s yard, one can see the destroyed Lukashivska church, with a large concentration of aggressor equipment next to it.

Masha’s home was not damaged, unlike her grandparents’ house: a shell completely destroyed a workshop there. The girl took a picture of all that was left of it.

“This is my grandfather’s workshop, he used to cut a lot of wood here, and there was sawdust for my hamsters. Now the workshop is destroyed, and I have to ask my neighbor for sawdust,” Masha says.

Photo by Masha

She also tells a story about another of her photos, a set of everyday items. “It was me “selling” the humanitarian aid you brought us. My mom bought cabbage, my grandfather bought a lighter, and my dad bought sneakers – when the Russians fled, they stole all the shoes, and my father walked barefoot.”

Photo by Masha

The Behind Blue Eyes team made Masha’s dreams come true by giving her a chinchilla and a bicycle.