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‘I hope you don’t get shot down by air defense’: Ukrainian children send Christmas wishes to St. Nicholas

By Svitlana Vlasova and Victoria Butenko, CNN

(CNN) — Children in Ukraine have wishes beyond just toys this holiday season, as Russia continues to target cities and towns with drones and missiles.

Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure have escalated over the past month, a winter uptick that has severely impacted kids. “These attacks have caused injuries among children, sent an intensified wave of fear and dread through already deeply distressed communities, and left millions of children across Ukraine without sustained access to electricity, heating and water, exposing them to additional serious harm as temperatures plummet,” said Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF regional director for Europe and Central Asia, in a statement Monday.

At least 10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, have been confirmed killed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said last month. More than 18,500 people have been injured. The UN believes the true figures are likely significantly higher due to the challenges and delays involved in verifying deaths in areas of ongoing hostilities.

Even in the face of such dire circumstances, children’s resilience is on display in their holiday letters as they live in the shadow of war.

CNN spoke with parents and caregivers, who shared their kids’ letters to St. Nicholas and their hopes this Christmas and next year.

Solomiya, 11 years old

Solomiya has one wish from St. Nicholas this year: peace. The 11-year-old knows the cost of war from personal experience. Her father signed up to fight in 2014 – when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and occupied parts of the east – and killed in action. Eight years later when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Solomiya and her family were living in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, but fled to seek safety in northwestern Ukraine three days after Russian troops occupied the area.

Solomiya used to love drawing on large canvases before the war. She has stopped for now but says she’ll start again once they are back in Bucha, according to her mother.

Kaya, 6 years old

Kaya wants a craft kit, a toy and to see her dad for Christmas. Her father is a member of the 47th Mechanized Brigade fighting in the hot spot of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. In her letter to St. Nicholas, she wrote: “I would like my dad, who is now defending Ukraine, to come to me for Christmas. Please help him to do it.” Kaya’s father, Dmytro, wants to see his family for the holidays but they have relocated to Germany and he is unable to make the journey.

Maks, 5 years old

Five-year-old Maks wants victory for Christmas. His letter is simple and short: “Dear Nicholas, bring us victory.”

His mother says Maks picked up his strong patriotism and the importance of Ukraine’s victory from overhearing adult conversations. The family left Kyiv for western Ukraine when the war started. He left his letter for St. Nicholas on the windowsill of their temporary new home.

Katya, 12 years old

Katya used ChatGPT to craft her letter to St. Nicholas, her father says. “I was really polite and sincerely grateful for the incredible moments,” she wrote about her year. The AI chatbot, which she turned to for efficiency, also helped her formulate goals for 2024. “My desire for the next year is to actively develop my drawing skills and improve my self-motivation skills,” she said in her letter.

She lives in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, a city routinely targeted by drones and missiles. Air defenses intercept most of the incoming barrages but loud explosions can be heard when they are activated. In her letter, she told St. Nicholas: “I hope you don’t get shot down by air defense.”

Anastasia, 10 years old

Anastasia and her family escaped from their hometown in Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region nearly two months ago. Under Russian occupation, the family was forced to change their Ukrainian IDs to Russian ones.

Occupation authorities demanded that Anastasia attend a Russian school and threatened to take her away from her family if they refused. Volunteers helped the family leave for Ukrainian-controlled territories. They are currently living in a rehabilitation center in Kyiv, where Anastasia is engaged in art therapy to help her cope with everything she has been through. Her wish this year is simple and modest – in her letter to St. Nicholas she asked for fluffy ear warmers.

Artem, 7 years old and Tymofii, 6 years old

Artem and Tymofii are brothers who left with their family for Munich 18 months ago because of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Before the war, the boys would visit their grandfather in the southern Ukrainian town of Nova Khakova on the Dnipro River. The dam on the river was blown up this summer causing an environmental and humanitarian disaster. The boys talk about wanting to go fishing there with their grandfather, according to their mother. The eastern bank of the Dnipro is currently occupied by Russia and the western bank is under constant shelling, rendering it dangerous.

In their short notes to St. Nicholas, the boys listed the most valuable things for them: “Peace, health, and a blooming Ukraine” for Artem and “peace, family, Ukraine, dad, God” for Tymofii.

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