In Svitlodarsk and Novoluhanske, two villages in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk Region, a coach is helping children and teens to rebuild personal relations through boxing.
The lives of children in Eastern Ukraine changed forever with the start of the Donbass war five years ago. Many families left behind their homes, cities, and even the entire region to escape from the conflict that has already left more than 13,000 people dead, with the youngest generation becoming the forgotten one.
The frontline has stopped moving, and the civilian casualties are at the lowest since the start of the war. In the villages closest to the frontline, hate is now the main threat to coexistence between the Ukrainians, since the vast majority of the population there is pro-Russian and feels occupied.
Two kilometers from the fictitious line that separates the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian sides from what they understand as freedom and imposition, the children in the villages of Svitlodarsk and Novoluhanske slowly rebuild their personal relations through boxing.
These enclaves suffered a different fate at the beginning of the war: the first was reconquered by Ukraine in the summer of 2014, while Novoluhanske, a few hundred meters from the separatists, was liberated in the last days of December 2016, allowing boxing training to begin months later.
The youngest of the 40 kids who come to exercise every Tuesday and Thursday is seven years old. He measures just under 4 feet, and arrives accompanied by his father. His name is Sasha, and he is the only one who won’t wrap his hands for the workout.
While the elders play basketball to warm up, he jumps into the ring with Mark and Lehor, 8 and 9 years old respectively, to do crunches.
Mark is blond, has blue eyes, but although he is the biggest kid, he closes them out of fear when his hands don’t protect him from being hit. In his black Adidas tracksuit with white stripes, Lehor listens very carefully to his coach.
Internally Displaced Trainer
At the age of 25, Aleksandr Shyrshyn understands better than many of his countrymen the suffering caused by war. He fled from his native Crimea following the Russian invasion, and after finishing his master’s degree in Poland, he decided to look for the best way to help his country. In the end, he entered an express course at a Protestant missionary school that took him three years ago to the frontline of Donetsk region, where he has set up the youth aid NGO VPN Zone.
Being used to hearing insults and being spat on by neighbors, he decided to gather the younger generations in a ring and try to make peace. And, despite what happens in the street or sometimes even in the center he co-directs, the children have found ways to be tolerant with each other through gloves.
“There are people with pro-Ukrainian and Russian positions, but in this place, we have never had an incident. We only do sport here,” explains Shyrshyn. “We don’t have time to think about this issue, and this solves the problem between the different positions. If people have a task in their head, they don’t have time to think about anything else.”
During the long hours spent with gloves and headgear, there are no insults, bad words, symbols, flags, or t-shirts that could raise conflict. Teenagers go to the old and reconstructed sports center of Novoluhanske to sweat and forget. Bag punches, the heavy breathing, and the shouting with each punch silence the sounds of nearby explosions that could otherwise still be heard inside the gym.
Fight to Forget
The constant threat from the rebel-controlled neighboring city of Gorlovka and the military checkpoints one needs to pass to reach the village have become an anecdote for the population that tries to turn the page.
Having to deal with unemployed, withdrawn and sometimes alcoholic parents, many children in the area feel emotional abandonment. Some of them smell like drugs their parents cook at home and others end up buying substances because there are no places where they can spend their pocket money. The luckiest are sent away with the excuse of continuing their studies far away from home.
“The children are more sensitive to what is happening, and sport helps them heal their trauma,” explains coach Shyrshyn, who is also a father. He relentlessly encourages boys during training and makes them feel that someone is paying attention to them.
After the warm-up, he gives instructions to the boys who came to the class and then fixates his attention on Sasha, who has no sparring partner. He holds the boxing bag, works with mitts, and explains how to hit without hurting the wrists to a young fighter who wears an oversized pair of blue gloves.
Shyrshyn takes on different roles. With teenagers, he is acting like an older brother: makes demands of them, fights with them and, above all, tries to listen to them, especially to the Svitlodarsk group, which he picks up in a van for a half an hour ride between the villages. Furthermore, he tries to make the little ones laugh, and allows them to escape from a daily routine that is based on going to school and returning home, only to be broken by the shelling.
As a form of therapy, Shyrshyn uses boxing to transmit universal values such as putting in effort, honesty, brotherhood, and respect. This message slowly begins to spread and allows residents to see groups of young people greeting each other on the street, even though years ago they would exchange insults. In the ring, they face complex situations, learn to control their feelings, and see the opponent as equal, something that helps many to mature and gives way to adulthood.
The low light that enters through the high windows of the gym and the arrival of a parent indicates that the training is coming to an end. Shyrshyn puts in his mouthguard and spars with his best student.
Sasha takes off his gloves and, holding his father’s hand, says goodbye with a gaze. Mark and Lehor hug Shyrshyn before running to the shower. Vlad, one of the other boys, picks up a ball and starts throwing it into the basket until his trainer ducks between the ropes to sit down for the interview.
Boxing is over for today, but the war is not. For children, who are still growing up, the toughest fight still lies ahead.
This article made the shortlist in The Globe Post’s 2019 writing contest.