Growing up in eastern Ukraine today – anything but normal

More than four years of conflict in eastern Ukraine have taken a devastating toll on the education system.

by Christopher Morris VII Photo and Cathy Otten
A boy and a girl walk down the road in Ukraine
UNICEF/UN0263670/Morris VII Photo
19 December 2018

Bullet holes in classroom windows, perilous school bus journeys, bomb shelters in basements, and unexploded ordinance in school yards are all now commonplace in eastern Ukraine.

After four years of conflict, more than 400,000 girls and boys continue to live and go to school on the frontline. The psychological toll of the fighting – from sleepless nights due to the sound of incessant shelling, to the stress of knowing school buildings and buses are in the line of fire – has been devastating.

Meet the children trying to go to school, just like children everywhere – and the far from normal circumstances they are growing up under.

(Above) Masha, 11, and her brother Yura, 9, are just like any other children.

They live with their mother, father and little brother in the town of Novotoshkivske in eastern Ukraine. Yura’s favourite classes are English and computer studies, and he likes playing hide and seek in the park and collecting chestnuts. Masha prefers maths and reading. She wants to be a singer when she grows up.



A child in a destroyed classroom in eastern Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243152/Morris VII Photo
A child in a destroyed classroom in eastern Ukraine.

In January 2015, their school building was destroyed after it was hit by four shells and a tank round. “It wasn’t just the school: the whole town was shelled,” Masha says. “I was scared. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything for a while afterward,” she says, adding her ears felt like they were blocked.

Masha says her 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 was at home with my grandma once when the shelling started and the windows shattered. I was so scared and hid in the bathroom.”

Artyom, 10, is just like any other child.
A boy in a playground in Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243035/Morris VII Photo

He lives with his family in the town of Mayorsk, along the “contact line”, which divides the government and non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine and where the fighting is most severe. He loves football and his favourite team is Barcelona. When he grows up, Artyom says he’d like to play for the local team. He says that he’s allowed to watch TV at home, but that he’s only allowed to watch after he has done his chores and homework. In the winter, he likes to play in the snow with his friends. Last winter, the children in the town made their own ice rink, even though none them have ice skates.


A boy stands next to a checkpoint in Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243147/Morris VII Photo

Artyom has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his lower back. Doctors removed three other pieces after a mortar landed just metres from Artyom and his family when they were outside in the yard next to their home in September 2014. Artyom still gets headaches since the shelling, and has to visit the doctor a few times a month to have his eyesight checked.

Diana, 14, is just like any other child.
A boy and a girl ride on a schoolbus in Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243115/Morris VII Photo

She lives with her mum along the “contact line.” She goes to school each day in Opytne and wants to be a kindergarten teacher when she grows up. “I like taking care of children. I get along with them,” she says.


© UNICEF/UN0243118/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243118/Morris VII Photo

Diana has to get up at 5.30 am every day to make the sometimes two-hour journey to a safer school after her old school in Horlivka was shelled. She has to cross a checkpoint every day to get to school and to go to the local shop. The other children in the village aren’t allowed to visit her home because it’s considered too dangerous.

Diana’s mother says the family only use essentials at home, and keep everything else packed up in case they need to quickly flee. “We have our bags packed ready to leave if it gets really dangerous,” she says.

Sonya, 16, is just like any other child.
Three children outside a house in Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243137/Morris VII Photo

She lives with her mum and her little sister. She wants to be a prosecutor when she grows up. Or maybe a judge, her mum says. They live in an apartment block on the “contact line” in Mayorsk, eastern Ukraine. She used to play hide and seek with her friends or play in the woods, searching for sticks to use as goalposts.


A girl outside an apartment building in Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243132/Morris VII Photo

It’s too dangerous for Sonya and her friends to play in the woods now. “We have this football pitch where we play, but we can’t go anywhere else because everywhere is mined,” she says. Sonya and her family moved away from Mayorsk when the fighting was at its worst, but they returned in late 2017. 

Sonya says she was shocked when she first saw their apartment – windows had been shattered and the surrounding area was littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. “I didn’t recognise the place – it looked so different,” Sonya says. “The checkpoint, the cement blocks, the signs; it was all alien to me.”

Dima, 15, is just like any other child.
© UNICEF/UN0243117/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243117/Morris VII Photo

He lives with his mom and dad on the outskirts of a village called Bakhmutka, in eastern Ukraine. He likes sports and used to play volleyball at school or football after school with his friends. Dima loves animals, especially dogs, and wants to be a vet when he grows up.


© UNICEF/UN0243144/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243144/Morris VII Photo

Dima can hear artillery shelling most days. His house is close to the “contact line.” He says he has got used to this new way of life, although his mum says that he can get nervous and that sometimes at night he’ll wake up screaming “Stop! Stop!”

Dima says that children born during the conflict don’t get to have a proper childhood. “They’re growing up listening to the sound of shelling. I grew up in a peaceful country.”

Edik, 13, is just like any other child.
© UNICEF/UN0243126/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243126/Morris VII Photo

He lives with his mum, dad and baby sister in an apartment in the centre of Bakhmutka. Edik says he sometimes plays ball, and that he used to like going into the woods to pick berries and mushrooms. Now, he says he usually helps with the cleaning or bringing water from the pump with his dad so his mum can do the washing. “[If] I’ve done everything, I can go and play,” he says. He travels to school by bus and wants to be a police officer when he’s older.


© UNICEF/UN0243123/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243123/Morris VII Photo

Getting to school is tough. Edik used to go to school in Horlivka, but his school there was shelled. In 2015, when the fighting was at its most fierce, Edik had to be home schooled by a local teacher. He now travels to a safer school, further from the conflict zone.

But it’s an arduous journey over potholed roads. One time, the bus narrowly avoided a falling mortar that left a large hole in the road.

“I don’t have other kids to play with,” he says. “There used to be six other kids living on my block, but they all left in 2014.”

Sasha, 9, is just like any other child.
© UNICEF/UN0243127/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243127/Morris VII Photo

She lives with her mother, father and older sister in Bakhmutka in Donetsk region. Sasha says she doesn’t like school and prefers to stay at home with her mum and her six pet kittens and watch cartoons on TV, or play hide and seek with her friends in the village. At night, she sleeps with her favourite kitten, Mitiay, and a giant teddy bear named Bublik. She takes the bus to school.


© UNICEF/UN0243129/Morris VII Photo
UNICEF/UN0243129/Morris VII Photo

Getting to school isn’t easy. In fact, it’s dangerous. Sasha’s grandma says the route the bus must take brings it close to the “contact line”, and that it is within shelling range for much of its journey.

Sasha’s mum says their house hasn’t been hit so far, but that 4 or 5 mortars landed on their neighbours’ house in 2014. “They’re still too afraid to sleep in the house so they sleep in the basement,” she says. “Last year, in early March, there was really heavy fighting and shells flying over the house falling close by… Dad grabbed us and took us to the neighbours’ basement. We stayed there for two nights.”

Sasha’s mum says children in the area no longer have a real childhood. “When kids play, they’re playing war games or act out scenes with checkpoints and soldiers,” she says. “They grow up so fast and know everything: what kind of weapons are being used, when they’re being fired and where."



Children in eastern Ukraine need an end to the fighting. UNICEF:

  • Appeals to all parties to respect international humanitarian law, to protect civilians, including children and to spare schools and other essential infrastructure.
  • Urges the Government of Ukraine to endorse and implement the ‘Safe Schools Declaration’ and on all parties to adhere to the standards set in the ‘Declaration’, to protect and continue education.
  • Appeals for USD 21.1 million to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to children and families affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.