The yawning crater, carved by a Russian missile strike and flooded with water, cut a jagged path through the middle of a city street. The small clique of teenagers passing by found it funny.
“Look, it’s our local pond,” said Denys, 15. “We could dive in for a swim.”
In their baggy sweatshirts, backpacks looped over one shoulder, youths walk the streets of Sloviansk, a frontline town in eastern Ukraine, for lack of anything else to do on a spring afternoon.
They slip past soldiers in full combat gear, carrying rifles and headed to the trenches about 20 miles away, and watch military trucks rumble past, kicking up clouds of dust. They are living their teenage years in a holding pattern because of the war that rages around them — without prom, graduation ceremonies, movie theaters, parties or sports.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused tremendous direct damage, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing millions of Ukrainians from their homes. But the war has also claimed another casualty: the normal experiences of teenagers like those in Sloviansk who live near combat zones, hanging out in ravaged cities where rockets fly in regularly.
“I wish I had an ordinary life,” said a 16-year-old named Mykyta.
His days, he said, have boiled down to walks with friends and playing video games in his room. “We studied this whole city, we know every corner,” Mykyta said. “It’s not so fun anymore.”
During a meandering walk around town on a recent afternoon, a half-dozen teenagers said they mostly handled the hardships of war, and the terror of Russian attacks, with humor — making fun of everything around them, including one another. They are identified only by their first names because of their age.
Sloviansk, a small city on a crossroads that was briefly occupied by Russian proxy forces in 2014, was again afflicted by war after the full-scale invasion last year. Frontlines drew close, and artillery strikes began to pound the city. It is seen as a likely next target if Russia captures Bakhmut, its neighbor to the east.
And yet many teenagers remain despite the danger, their parents held to the city by jobs or a reluctance to abandon their homes and live as refugees. The youths’ last day in a school classroom was Feb. 23, 2022, the day before Russia invaded. The authorities canceled all organized activities for young people, lest a rocket hit a gathering.
Russia bombards Sloviansk about once a week, possibly aiming for the thousands of soldiers garrisoned here. Residents are regularly killed by the ones and twos, though a strike last month killed 11 civilians as they slept.
When explosions echo through the streets, the teenagers fall to the ground for safety, lest a strike land close and send shrapnel whistling toward them.
Then the horsing around starts.
”Just don’t hit us!” they joke, covering their heads with their hands, said Kristina, 15, one of the teenagers on the stroll about town.
“It’s just easier to handle this way,” she said. In fact, she admitted, “it’s really scary.”
Denys, nicknamed the Guitarist for his music skills, said he sometimes got up after a strike and did a little dance, to lighten the mood.
“We fall on the ground and then laugh,” said Daniil, 16, another member of the group. “We need to be positive.”
The hollow, distant booms of artillery along the front wafted through the city. Daniil laughed. “We are walking under explosions,’’ he said. “Here we go! For us, this is typical.”
On the city’s central square, an expanse of asphalt rimmed by hedges and flower beds, the teenagers coalesce into ephemeral cohorts that linger for a few minutes and then evaporate, as friends go their separate ways.
“Why didn’t he want to walk with us?” one girl said as she walked away. “We are the same age. Oh, he can go to hell.”
Mykyta, who has gray-green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, has not been in a classroom for more than a year. He wants to be a chef, he said, and enjoys making meals for his mother, who is an employee of the state railroad company and is raising him alone.
He hopes the war will be over by the time he graduates next year, after finishing online classes from teachers who sometimes provide instruction from abroad. Then he may move away, he said.
But Mykyta also said he has affection for the city, even after living through the months of war. “There’s nothing here,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave.”
The friends don’t talk much about the war, he said, or the battle over Bakhmut that might at any day determine the fate of their own city “There are themes that are much more interesting than war,” he said, such as movies and music.
The Russian invasion changed everything. The normal angst of teenage years, and the first ventures of independence, it all now takes place amid the ruins of a mostly deserted city. With danger ever-present, the 9 p.m. curfews are enforced not by parents, but by soldiers at checkpoints.
Parents are desensitized to the air raid sirens, and in any case feel they have no option but to let their children out for walks after endless time indoors. War has not cured ennui.
The teenagers stopped at a favorite hangout, the steps of a shuttered movie theater near a park where the lawn was pocked with shell craters. They gravitated to the empty bleachers of a soccer stadium, where no games are held lest a crowd form, inviting a more tragic outcome from a single rocket strike.
“There used to be more people, more shops, more cafes, concerts, cool holidays,” lamented Daria, 15, sitting in the bleachers, looking at the empty field.
“I miss my city without damage,” Denys said. “I miss my calm life. I miss security.”
They laugh, he said, but without joy.
“What else can we do, cry?” said Daniil.
After months of practice, he said, he can very accurately gauge from the boom the distance to a strike.
Before the war, Daniil said, he used to attend barbecues outside town, and he looked forward to a municipal holiday in the fall — now canceled — called City Day. He used to spend time with a far larger group of friends, he said, about 20 in all, but now only five or six remain. All the others have left the city.
Sonia, 14, whose mother owns a beauty salon in Sloviansk, said she misses the time before the invasion. “There was no need to be scared for my life,” she said.
She misses friends whose families left, seeking safety. “I get attached to people very fast,” she said, “and it’s very painful to let them go.”
“Once I went for a walk with my friend and the shelling started,” Sonia said. “I was in a panic and started stopping passing cars and crying and asking them to bring me back to the center of the city. Basically, if there are many bombs falling then it’s scary but if just one then it’s fine.”
One strike in particular rattled Rostyslav, 15. He was playing a video game in his room at about 1 a.m. when a nearby explosion shook the building. “My parents told me to be ready to leave, if needed.”
“I try to prepare myself for it,” he said of the Russian attacks. “I live halfway between normal and this situation.”
After passing the flooded missile crater, Denys spotted a bed of tulips in a front yard. He picked one, walked up to a group of girls and gave one of them a bloom. “You are very cute,” he said.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Sloviansk.