Slinging a bag over her shoulder, Anastasia headed out from the gym in Kherson -- one of the few places where she could unwind in a city on Ukraine’s front line.

“It distracts me from war,” said the 14-year-old in a baggy Guns N’Roses T-shirt, calling it an “escape” from the reality of living with daily Russian strikes.

Since school was online and many people have fled, the social life of teenagers like Anastasia revolved around a handful of places -- like the once-bustling gym.

The clientele changed since the start of the war, with an influx of teenagers joining the regulars -- muscly, bearded forty-somethings lifting heavy weights.

“I’d like to be with people my own age. The people I hang out with are two or three times older.

“Covid and the war have stolen my youth, which should have been so happy,” she said.

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Outside, the streets were mostly empty and the cafes frequented by soldiers in fatigues.

Anastasia clutched the phone on which she was following her school classes and receiving news of her loved ones.

She dreamed of having a fuller offline social life.

“I’d like to see people at last. When I went to Mykolaiv for the day, I was surprised to see some life,” she said, referring to a nearby city in southern Ukraine further away from the front line.

As well as sport, she also did theatre despite a ban on large gatherings and performances due to the threat of drone and missile strikes.

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“We only get together in small groups to rehearse. It’s interesting to feel other emotions, to play the role of another person,” she said.

- ‘Learnt to rethink my life’ -

Kherson was taken over by Russian forces at the beginning of the war and recaptured by Ukrainian troops several months later on November 11 last year -- the last major movement along a vast front line.

Anastasia remembered the “unforgettable emotions” from those events but said they have marked her “for life”.

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“Young people aren’t supposed to know what it’s like when people close to them die,” she said.

“I used to think about what I wanted to wear but now I think about what to do under fire. I’ve learnt to rethink my life in general.”

Many businesses in the city centre were shut and the sound of incoming fire from the other side of the Dnipro River became part of daily life.

On a street covered in thick, dark fog, one bright spot stood out -- the “Ciao Cacao” cafe.

Eighteen-year-old Dima usually worked at the cafe, and otherwise stayed at home playing the video game “Counter-Strike”.

“We go out despite the bombs. We don’t want to stay locked up,” said Dima, laughing with a group of friends who were taking selfies and talking about how their homes were destroyed by strikes.

Dima had dreamt of leaving Ukraine but was now enrolling at a naval military academy.

“Leaving is bad. It’s treason,” he said.

He assumed he would end up fighting in the war, adding: “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

Like Anastasia, Dima felt he grew up too fast.

“Adults say that we don’t know anything when we’re 18. But with what we’ve been living through, I think I have enough experience to understand what life is about.”

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