Behind broken windows: children living on the frontline in eastern Ukraine

Providing children affected by conflict with a safe place to learn

Yuliya Surkova
Ten-year-old Artem Metiolkin gazes sadly out of a shattered window
UNICEF/Ukraine/2019/Fillipov
06 February 2020

Ten-year-old Artem Metiolkin gazes sadly out of a shattered window at his house in Zolote, eastern Ukraine. For the last five years, his view has not changed much. A military checkpoint, minefields and a red sign that reads: “Stop! No trespassing! We’ll shoot!”

While most Ukrainian schoolchildren spend their afternoon playing outside and enjoying outdoor games with their friends, Artem is forced to stay at home.

“They constantly shoot around here,” the boy explains. “I don’t go for a walk, it’s dangerous. I stay at home and I try not to get bored,”

The town of Zolote where Artem lives is just yards from the frontline of a conflict that is now in its sixth year. Children on both sides continue to suffer, with nearly half a million girls and boys facing grave risks to their physical health and psychological well-being.

Artem spends his days helping his mother and building lamps. His interest in electricity has become an escape from the dangerous world outside.

“I like to make lamps with a cord and with batteries,” he says, holding up a small lamp with a colourful cardboard lampshade. “When I learn to solder, I think I will do better.”

Facade of the house
UNICEF/Ukraine/2019/Fillipov
This school in Zolote was holding classes even during active hostilities

Not a single day without shelling

“We no longer live normally,” says Artem’s mother, Antonina Metiolkina. “There was no single day that they did not shoot. Every night you go to bed with the feeling that you are waiting for something, every morning you wake up with the feeling that something can happen.”

Antonina‘s hands are dark and coarse from her job as a stoker, shovelling coal. She works at Artem’s school, so that in case of danger or shelling she would be close to him.

She keeps one room in their apartment completely closed so they use less coal for heating. The balcony is covered with a blanket so as not to let out the warmth. Along with Artem, she moved to Zolote two years ago after their house was badly damaged by shelling.

“When the shell hit our roof, we left home,” recalls Antonina. “The buses were not running, so we walked more than 40 kilometers to get to Lysychansk where we could spend some time with our extended family. Artem went through so many scary things and never complained.”

After they left, their house was looted. Antonina and her son decided not to return, moving into an empty apartment with stove heating that belongs to their relatives.

“They still shoot both at our old village and here,” she says. “But here, the school is near the house, and there, Artem would have to walk far to get to school.”

Mother
UNICEF/Ukraine/2019/Fillipov
Artem's mother works as a stoker in his school

“For sure, it is not easy for me. I do all the jobs, do repairs for people, help with the garden and now I work as a stoker. Relatives sometimes help – someone will give a few kilograms of potatoes, someone will give sugar.”

Like many places, Zolote has been devastated by the conflict. There are no jobs, prices for essential goods have increased, and people have been forced to spend most of their money fixing their houses that have been damaged by shelling. The local coal mine, the only major employer for residents in the area, has not paid its employees for the last four months.

Store owners say that they have started giving people food on credit. They are also a place where residents can hear the latest news. On the walls and shutters, posters warn about mine danger and announce the date of humanitarian aid deliveries.

A school with only 15 students

The number of students in Zolote schools has plummeted by more than half compared with the years before the conflict. But for the children who still live here, they are critical.

At Artem’s school, the windows are covered with anti-shatter film, and wooden shields are installed on the outside. Only one girl is studying with Artem in his class. In total, the school has just 15 students.

“Many left when they started shooting,” says Artem. “Some of my former classmates live in Ukraine, some even moved to Russia. Of course, I miss them.”

On the exterior walls of his school, a mural depicts children standing near a mine. Another shows the emergency number 101, which people can use to report explosives.

“I don’t let Artem go anywhere,” says Antonina. “I meet him and pick him up from school. He stays alone only in the apartment when I leave to work the night shift.”

Coal
UNICEF/Ukraine/2019/Fillipov
The local coal mine is the only major employer for residents in the area,

There are no hot meals at the school. Instead, it has a buffet with tea and cookies.

“Previously, parents gave their children lunch with them, but now they don’t.” says Anna, principal of school # 14 in Zolote-3. “For many, it’s financially difficult to give even a sandwich to their children when they go to school.”

However, schools here have never closed, even during active hostilities.

“Even now children continue to leave, and the number of students is declining. We have no objections, we understand everything,” says a teacher. “But for those who live here and want to study, we never closed. We just want people to know that we are here.”

UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that conflict-affected children, adolescents, teachers and their caregivers in eastern Ukraine have access to a protective and safe learning environment in educational facilities and in their community.

 

Thanks to funding from the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), projects are underway to enhance resilience and coping mechanisms, rebuild schools and kindergartens, train teachers and caregivers, strengthen knowledge on risks and life-saving skills, and improve access to safe drinking water.