Apart from the odd roadblock and uniformed men carrying weapons and checking your car, in certain parts of Ukraine, it’s very easy to forget there’s a war going on.
In a completely non-descript town in central Ukraine, parents with their children in tow walked to restaurants and cafes, played in playgrounds, or waited for older siblings to finish big school and re-join the family.
It all seems normal. Nobody looks particularly stressed.
Spring is coming, and in eastern Europe there is always a tangible sense of joy as the months of snow and ice give way to the months of sun and flowers, green grass, blue skies, and bright yellow wheatfields.
But there is a darkness now that never lifts.
The dark of war is equally tangible, and even amid the laughter of children drinking sodas and eating pizza, there is a sadness that pervades everything.
In this apparent normality, there are little ones who have witnessed things they should never have witnessed and suffered more than anyone should suffer.
And despite their tough game faces, they’re breaking inside.
I met Oleksandr “Sasha” Radchuk sitting on a park bench, and I wished I could offer him some comfort.
Russian soldiers tore the 12-year-old from his mother a year ago in Mariupol and sent him to Russian-occupied territory in Donetsk.
He hasn’t seen her since.
Now he just has his grandmother Lyudmila Syrik, who travelled thousands of miles to find him and bring him home.
It all began for this little boy when he was injured in the eye by shrapnel from a rocket as he and his mother left their Mariupol basement to cook food outside.
“After 24 February, we were hiding in a basement, there was no electricity and no water, and we didn’t have enough food, we couldn’t buy anything because we had less and less money,” Sasha told me.
The family managed to find safety at a nearby factory housing Ukrainian soldiers and he received first aid for his injured eye.
The Ukrainian military looked after them until they had to surrender when Mariupol fell to the Russians last year.
Sasha and his 32-year-old mother Snizhana Kozlova were taken by Russian soldiers to a so-called filtration camp, where they were separated.
“They questioned my mum, and then they said that child services from Novoazovsk would come and will take me away from my mum, and they also told me that my mum doesn’t need me and that she will never get me back,” Sasha explained to me.
“We were in a camp, and they were doing the filtration process, and then they took my mom into another tent, and then they took me away.”
I asked him what his mother said when they were trying to take him away.
“They had already taken me away from her, and didn’t even let me say goodbye, and it’s been almost a year since I last saw my mum, since I heard her voice.”
In a café, Sasha showed me pictures of his mum on his phone.
I watched as his face lit up as he scrolled through photos and played videos of the two of them together, smiling and having fun.
To this day Sasha doesn’t know what has happened to his mother.
He was saved by his grandmother after doctors in Donetsk posted pictures of him on social media.
Sasha says he thinks the doctors were trying to help him find his relatives.
Outraged, his grandmother Lyudmila travelled through Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and then Russia to get him back.
Although she struggled to get her travel documents in order and had a little trouble at checkpoints along the way, she ultimately made it – and found him.
“I hugged him and told him, my child, now you will be with me, and I told him we will try to find your mum, because he had asked me earlier, ‘granny, are you coming to get me?’ And I said yes, I am coming to get you, I need to get to you somehow, he told me there was shooting where he was, and I told him, before they take you away from there, I need to get you.”
Like Sasha, Lyudmila doesn’t know what has happened to her daughter. But she chooses to hope for her grandson’s sake.
“Maybe she’s in a camp,” she offered up quietly.
Sasha hopes that by telling his story and telling the world about his mum, somehow, they will be reunited.
This is Sasha’s story, there are thousands just like his.