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Childhood Underground

Entered in Non-Profit


“Childhood Underground” had a clear objective: To remind the world that the war is a terrifying child protection crisis. In July 2022, with the six-month mark of the war in Ukraine fast approaching, this special feature aimed to shine a light on the devastating impact of the war on children, ensuring they remained front and center of any conversation about the effects of the conflict.

When the war broke out and the fighting moved closer to civilian populations, life for many Ukrainian children moved underground. Some families moved to basements and underground car parks. In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, thousands of children took shelter in the city’s metro stations. Some children didn’t set foot outside for weeks on end. Days or weeks could go by without access to sunshine as children sheltered in dark, damp conditions.

With the conflict raging above ground, daily activities like learning and playing moved underground. Children tried to focus on studying, even as air raid sirens rang out. They searched for a phone signal – and word from friends and loved ones on the outside that they were safe.

As the war raged on above, children struggled to piece together a semblance of normalcy below ground. UNICEF believed it was essential that these hidden children’s stories were not forgotten, and that their voices were heard.


Through the use of haunting photography, video and interviews with families who spent weeks – in some cases months – sheltering in subways, basements and underground car parks, “Childhood Underground” offered the world a view into the reality facing thousands of Ukraine’s children, in their own words. 

By the time the “Childhood Underground” feature launched, around two-thirds of all Ukrainian children had been displaced – inside and outside the country. As the war  entered its sixth month, hundreds of children had been killed and millions more had been uprooted from their homes. Massive destruction of civilian infrastructure was disrupting access to critical services. 

Through all of this devastation, UNICEF staff provided support for many of these families and helped to capture their stories – of the lives they had left behind, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Through a series of interviews, as well as images collected by award-winning photographer Ashley Gilbertson, Kristina Pashinka and Aleksey Filippov, we heard from Alina and Artem, nine-year-old siblings forced to sleep and learn in a carpark. “In the first days of the war, I didn't understand anything...I was trembling,” Artem said.

Stepan, who spent his fourteenth birthday in the basement hiding with his family during an attack, watched from a window as flames licked at the walls of his school. “Our school was bombed for 12 hours,” he said. “I was feeling extremely sad.”

Nine-year-old Viktoriia took shelter in a metro station with her family and her pets. “It gets really cold at night, so I need to cuddle up with my mother and grandma and the cats,” she said. “The subway protects us against shelling and shrapnel, but if there’s a bomb, it won’t be able to protect us.”

Gathering content amid an ongoing conflict poses obvious challenges. Beyond the immediate physical risks, attacks on infrastructure created significant challenges with securing access to shelters. Power cuts were frequent. Interviews with children and families had always to be undertaken with the utmost sensitivity as they were coming to terms with this new, devastating reality in real time.

While the stories drew attention to the horrors of the war, they also offered a powerful reminder of the extraordinary resilience of  children. Children smiling and playing with new friends showcased their spirit. Volunteers setting up makeshift schools staffed by teachers and psychologists demonstrated the dedication of humanitarian workers during harrowing emergencies. Teenagers like Polina shared their hopes and dreams for the future. “I’m really interested in how people react to things, in their mind and their actions,” she said, explaining that she wants to be a psychologist one day.

These deeply relatable stories brought children’s voicest to the forefront of our storytelling  and helped to raise awareness and compassion and to call for an end to this war.


The digital results around the six-month mark of the war demonstrated an extraordinary level of public interest in Ukraine-related content. The significant engagement with UNICEF’s human-interest content gave increased visibility to the impact of UNICEF’s work for families, helping to ensure continued international attention and media coverage, which bolstered fundraising efforts that helped make the response possible.

The “Childhood Underground” feature had an average time on page of over 7 minutes, while all human-interest content on combined has received more than 10 million pageviews in the past year. Creative videos related to the themes of Childhood Underground – protection, education and mental health – were watched tens of thousands of times.

UNICEF’s digital content in the first six months was cited and shared by international media and influencers and amplified on social channels by celebrities including Hugh Jackman and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors David Beckham, Orlando Bloom and Priyanka Chopra. 

The support of donors enabled mobile child protection teams to travel across Ukraine to reach families. It contributed to the establishment of Blue Dot hubs providing safe spaces for children to play, learn and receive emotional support - and boosted  other humanitarian interventions, from delivery of medical supplies, to health and sanitation services and social protection programs.

Sometimes the impact of this increased visibility was very personal – a little boy whose community raised the money he needed to buy a guitar after hearing about his plight. 

The content was also a reminder that every bit of help is essential, and that every child’s story matters.


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