Education under attack: Six portraits

Violence is robbing children across the world of the chance for an education.

By Marko Kokic and Jason Miks
28 May 2019

Shattered glass. Rubble from shell-smashed ceilings strewn across floors. Walls pockmarked by bullets. These rooms are no place for a child. Except, they are supposed to be. Because they are classrooms, or what is left of them.

Around the world, attacks on children continue unabated, as warring parties flout one of the most basic rules of war: the protection of children. Children living in countries at war have come under direct attack, have been used as human shields, killed, maimed or recruited to fight. As a result, millions of children are being robbed of a safe place to learn and to play with friends. Without help, many will be robbed of their futures, too.



“I can’t stand the fighting”: Ehsanullah, Afghanistan
Ehsanullah, 11, stands in a classroom totally destroyed in the fight between anti-government elements and the US forces in 2007

Ehsanullah is one of nine children, but the only one attending school right now. He usually helps his father on the farm after school, meaning that there’s little time for him to play with his friends.

Ehsanullah lives in Zheray, a district in the southern province of Kandahar. The journey from the capital Kandahar City to Zheray passes through green landscapes dotted with the grapevines and pomegranate gardens it is known for locally. As you approach Zheray, single story houses made of mud come into view, surrounded by narrow, winding roads and walkways.

“I can’t stand the fighting. It destroyed our school.”

Zheray has been relatively calm over the past few years. But earlier fighting has taken a heavy toll on the district’s children, who were left with few options for an education after their local school was destroyed by shelling in 2007.

Ehsanullah and his family were forced to flee to nearby Arghandab, where he was able to attend school for the first time. “My first year was so good,” he says. “We had a proper building for our school.”

But on returning to Zheray, Ehsanullah found the contrast between the two schools striking. While the school had reopened, an establishment that once served around 1,300 students now had less than 400 pupils – and some classrooms remain unusable.


“Our school was burned, destroyed”: Kayenat, Afghanistan
Afghanistan. A girl sits in a community based education tent.

Kayenat says her family fled intense fighting in the Shinwar district of Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, two years ago. “Our school was burned, destroyed,” she says. By the time they left, though, Kayenat couldn’t attend classes anyway. “Girls weren’t allowed to go to school.”

Her story is a familiar one in a country where, despite progress improving access to education over the past decade, girls and children with disabilities remain especially vulnerable. About 60 per cent of children not in education in Afghanistan are girls. Those who defy the norms or the armed groups that don’t want them in school risk being abducted, or even murdered.

Faced with an impossible choice between his children’s education and their safety, Kayenat’s father decided the family should leave their hometown for Jalalabad, the provincial capital. But even as the situation felt increasingly hopeless, Kayenat remained determined to one day get back to school.

Since she enrolled at a temporary learning space established by UNICEF, she is feeling more hopeful about her future. She says that she’s doing well in math and Pashto language classes.

The most important consideration for a future career? For Kayenat, it’s finding a job that allows her to support her siblings.


“I want to be a kindergarten teacher”: Diana, Ukraine
Diana Fedorchenko, 14, at the last government checkpoint in Bakhmutka, Donetsk region.
UNICEF/UN0243118/Morris VII Photo

Thousands of miles away, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, lives Diana, 14. Her home is near the so-called contact line, which divides government and non-government areas and where fighting is the most severe. She has to pass through a checkpoint to get to school, or just to get to the local store. The other children in her village aren’t allowed to visit her home because it’s considered too dangerous.

“During the day, there’s no shooting, at least not in our direction,” Diana’s mother, Natalia, says. “At night we’re so tired that we don’t hear anything.”

It’s hardly surprising that Diana is exhausted. Since her school in Horlivka was shelled, she has been waking up at 5.30 a.m. every morning to get to her new school – a route that can take up to two hours each way.

For children like Diana who live in or near the conflict zone, the threat of being hit by a shell looms over their journey to and from school every day. But it hasn’t stopped Diana dreaming about what she wants to do after she graduates. “I want to be a kindergarten teacher,” she says. “I like taking care of children. I get along with them well”.


“I want to be a coal miner”: Yura, Ukraine
Yura Khromchenko, 9, stands in the classroom that took a direct hit from a shell
UNICEF/UN0243156/Morris VII Photo

Like Diana, Yura, who lives in the town of Novotoshkivske, is also pretty set on his future plans.  “I want to be a coal miner,” he says, explaining that his dad is getting ready to start work at a nearby mine. Yura says he enjoys English class and computer studies. He also likes to play in the park and collects chestnuts.

But just like Diana, Yura has seen – and heard – the devastating effect the conflict has had on education in eastern Ukraine. A little over four years ago, his school was hit by four shells and a tank round. The building was obliterated.

“It’s just adults playing their games”

“It wasn’t just the school: the whole town was shelled,” Yura’s older sister, Masha, recalls. “I was scared. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything for a while afterward,” she says, adding that her ears felt like they were blocked.

Masha says their youngest brother cries when he hears loud noises, so she brings him candies and tells him not to worry, that “it’s just adults playing their games.”


“I felt like I’d never be able to achieve my dreams”: Bintu, Nigeria
Bintu Mohammed, 13, stands in her home in Banki, in northeast Nigeria.

Bintu has seen for herself the devastating impact that conflict has on education – and the hope that school can offer.

She lives in the town of Banki, in northeast Nigeria, southeast of the Borno state capital of Maiduguri. Fighting has decimated Banki’s infrastructure. The outskirts of the town are deserted – it’s too dangerous for people to live there.

Bintu remembers the day, four years ago, when her life was turned upside down.

“I was going to school before the conflict started, but then the insurgents came,” she says. “I was in school in the morning and then went home. Then they came and we all ran, everyone ran.”

“They burned the school down. I was so upset, I felt like I’d never be able to achieve my dreams.”

Bintu says she spent the next two years with her uncle in Cameroon but wasn’t able to go to attend classes there. “Life was very difficult…I was missing my friends so much,” she says.

About a year ago, though, Bintu was given a chance to dream again. She returned home from Cameroon and enrolled in her newly rebuilt school in Banki.

“I’m so happy to be back in school because I’ll be able to get an education. And I’m learning something new.”


“If I don’t come back to teach, who will?”: Hawa, Nigeria
Hawa,12, stands in Sabo Garawi Primary School in Gwoza, in northeast Nigeria.

Like Bintu, Hawa also lives in northeast Nigeria. And like Bintu, she couldn’t be clearer about the connection between education and a more hopeful future.

Hawa fled her hometown of Gwoza at the bottom of the Mandara Mountains when it was captured by militants in 2014. She returned when Gwoza was retaken by Nigeria’s military the following year, a year later, but in that short time away violence had upended her world. She lost her father, her school, and, for a time, her hope for the future.

“The militants destroyed everything in the school. I thought that my future was over,” she says.

Fast forward to today and a more optimistic picture emerges. Hawa still doesn’t know what happened to some of her friends, and while life for those who returned remains precarious, they now have better access to services – including education. The local school has been rebuilt, new classrooms are being set up and the space is once again brimming with young people’s voices. 

For Hawa, all this is an opportunity give back.

Hawa says she now helps her sister and four brothers with their homework. “If I learn, then so will the younger children in the community. 

Ultimately, she would like to become a teacher, so other children can have the same opportunity she had. “I’m passionate about this because of the way the teachers have taught me,” she says. “And if I don’t come back to teach, who will?”


-- With additional reporting from Toby Fricker and Murtaza Mohammadi