Schoolchildren caught in the crossfire
In the small town of Novotoshkivske in eastern Ukraine children live under the constant threat of shelling
After armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine, the population in the small town of Novotoshkivske plummeted. Thousands fled the fighting that raged along the contact line just kilometers away. Others were injured or died as a result of shelling.
Five years on, life here – or what there is left of it – revolves around the school. The horseshoe-shaped grey brick building, which houses a middle school and kindergarten, has seen its fair share of the conflict, with one wing destroyed. Yet classes continue, as well as sports events, local elections and safety workshops. The school also becomes a shelter when shelling starts.
Although active shelling here eventually stopped when a fragile ceasefire was established in February 2015, many houses in the small town remain damaged and suburban areas are littered with mines and other explosive remnants of war. Children especially continue to suffer from the aftermath of a conflict that has overshadowed their education.
Since the fighting began in early 2014, more than 750 educational facilities on both sides of the contact line have been damaged or destroyed. Schoolchildren continue to be in grave danger. According to UNICEF, there was a four-fold increase in attacks on schools during the first four months of this year, compared to the same period in 2018, traumatising students and putting them at risk of injury or death.
Sonia, 14. “I cried a lot.”
Before the conflict, 14-year-old Sonia would visit her grandmother’s apartment to drink tea. Now it is destroyed, the shy schoolgirl with long dark hair only visits to collect belongings and check whether the ceiling is still in place. Rooms that were once cozy lie in ruins after a direct hit. On the wall, pockmarked by shrapnel, a calendar hangs open on September 2014, the month the armed conflict reached Novotoshkivske.
Sonia does not need a calendar to remember when the shelling first began.
“During the first shelling, we went to the school basement,” Sonia recalls. “We waited for it all to end. I was very scared they would hit our house. I cried a lot. They did hit my grandma’s house, she lost her apartment and had to move closer to us.”
Sonia remembers the teachers helping her to calm down.
“Nobody expected it to happen,” she says. “The mom of one of our classmates got hit in the leg by shrapnel when she was running to pick him up.”
After the first heavy shelling in autumn 2014, the children took their vacation early.
“The shelling got heavier in January, and we had only one school day. And after that, we spent three or even four months in the basement.”
Sonia’s family and others from Novotoshkivske were forced to spend several months sheltering in the basement of an apartment building.
Beds and stoves were hauled into the dark, damp room with an earthen floor. There was no electricity or water. During brief periods of peace, the adults left to fetch water from the nearest well, while children drew pictures and read books by candlelight.
“Between October 2014 and early 2015, the shelling was very heavy,” says Sonia’s mother, Inna. “All the stores were closed, and even to get bread, we had to travel under shelling. We were sitting in the basement without water or electricity. It was scary at home – windows broke, shrapnel was flying around, and we did not know what to cover them with.”
Because of the constant clashes, Novotoshkivske school was temporarily closed, forcing Sonia and her mom to move elsewhere so that the girl could graduate from elementary school.
“When it got quieter, we came back, because my dad was still here, and also we were scared that someone would rob the apartment,” says Sonia.
Sonia and her family have not been inside the bomb shelter for a long time now, but the teenager knows exactly what to do if the shelling starts again. “When shelling starts, I go inside any apartment building to escape the shelling. I call mom and I tell her I will be home when the shelling ends.”
Sonia plans her walks around the small town well in advance, since it is still littered with shrapnel and unexploded ordinance. “We do not go the woods on picnics any more. There may be mines and shrapnel, and this is very scary.”
“It’s not good that we get used to it,” she continues. “The war is very scary and I wish children would never have to go through it. People often say that we want to forget this, the shelling, as if it were a nightmare, but we won’t be able to forget this. It will remain in our memory forever.”
Oleksii, 14. “I graduated in a basement.”
Sonia’s classmate and friend Oleksii also remembers the date his school was shelled for the first time, because it was his father’s birthday.
“We were in the middle of our nature class,” says the 14-year-old. “We were in grade four. There were no signs of trouble. It was really heavy. We got scared, of course. The bell rang for a long time and all of us were transferred to the basement.”
When the children eventually emerged from the shelter, they discovered that an apartment building near their school had taken a direct hit.
Oleksii’s family had nowhere to go, so the boy spent late 2014 and early 2015 living in a basement with his parents and younger sister. Oleksii thinks that those few months he lived in the shelter were some of the hardest in his life.
“We had candles and mom cooked our meals right on the stove,” he remembers. “It was very inconvenient and hard. There was a family with a five-month-old baby in the basement with us, and that little girl cried and cried all the time.”
During the fighting, all of Oleksii’s friends and classmates left town. Only six children his age remained. “There was just the elderly, my friend and I, and my sister. It was very hard and hurtful, and we even prayed to God for it all to end.”
Novotoshkivske school was closed for almost a year, and Oleksii had to study in the basement in candlelight.
“I am very lucky that my mom is an elementary school teacher,” he says. “And she still had her old handouts. She gave me assignments and that was how I graduated from elementary school in the basement.”
Today, although his school has reopened, Oleksii studies in a class with only four other classmates. He still finds shell fragments around the school and neighbouring houses.
After class, he stays behind to study and take part in chess tournaments.
“I try to study English because I want to be an interpreter,” he says. “I want to travel and communicate with people from other countries.”
In 2015, 38-year-old Kateryna quit her maternity leave in order to start working at Novotoshkivske school, after the conflict forced most of the teachers to leave.
“I started working at the school when my son was only 10 months old,” says the mother-of-two. “It was hard, but I thought about it and decided to do it.”
Kateryna and her family live in the neighbouring village of Orikhove, and she travels to school in an old car. On the way home from work she gives rides to her students, so that they do not have to walk or wait for the school bus.
“Sometimes, girls from the fourth grade put kindergarten kids on their lap, and two children share a front seat. That’s how we ride – nine kids and three teachers,” she says.
“It was eye-opening,” she recalls. “I was impressed when my younger daughter told me: ‘Mom, it’s bang-bang, we need to run to the basement. I was afraid that it would impact her. And now we are used to it. My children do not see it as a threat, because we do not emphasize that it is.”
She distracts her children from the armed conflict by reading fairy-tales to them.
“My children like kindergarten very much,” she says, smiling. “And my daughter Olesia dreams of going to school. She is six, and it is an obsession for her.”
Daryna, 25: “They dream of peace.”
English teacher Daryna first moved to Novotoshkivske in 2017. It took the 25-year-old just two years to win the students’ hearts.
“Our English teacher started playing volleyball and so everybody started playing it too,” says Sonia. “Everyone loves her, from grade one to grade eleven.”
Daryna also admires her students, who live in one of the most dangerous areas in Europe. Recently, the children and their parents helped to renovate the school.
“Children in the conflict area are very mature, you can distinguish them by their statements,” says Daryna. “I am surprised that it is as if they are used to it and as if they pay no attention. They live their lives, they go to school. It is surprising that they remained humane under these conditions, and they still have kindness and love.”
And despite living so close to the contact line, the children’s only wish is for peace.
“When they wrote an essay about their biggest dream, all of them wrote that it was peace,” says their teacher. “One wants to become a singer, another wants to be a doctor. But the first thing that all of them write is peace, and everything else follows.”
UNICEF and European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations assistance
The conflict in eastern Ukraine is now in its fifth year with 3.5 million people, including half a million children, in need of humanitarian assistance. The situation is particularly severe for 400,000 children who live within 20km of the contact line. Destroyed classrooms, paved with sandbags to protect children from stray bullets, are no place for a child to learn.
Thanks to the support from the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), UNICEF has been able to reach over 26,600 children and adolescents in 2018 with education supplies, child protection services and improved access to safe drinking water near the contact line in conflict affected eastern Ukraine.
UNICEF is also providing support to education facilities so that repairs to damaged schools and kindergartens can be made, and education supplies such as educational kits, furniture and sport equipment can be replaced.
In total, ECHO has made available over US$ 4.5m for UNICEF to support the wellbeing of conflict-affected children and their families since 2015.