The long and dangerous path to school in eastern Ukraine

Children and families who were unable to flee the conflict now face grave threats from shelling, landmines and unexploded ordnance

By Yulia Silina
Karyna, 14, walks down the road with her little sister Milana, 4, Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
20 September 2017

In eastern Ukraine, people who were unable to flee the conflict now face grave threats from shelling, landmines and unexploded ordnance. Karyna’s family still lives close to the contact line, and every day on her walk to school she is confronted with the risk of injury or death.

DONETSK, Ukraine, 20 September 2017 – Every morning, 14-year-old Karyna Shvets walks 2 km past piles of rubbish, abandoned buildings and unexploded landmines marked with bright orange ribbons.

“I am now used to walking alone on this road every day,” Karyna says, adjusting her pink backpack, on her way to school. “Last year though it was so scary to walk alone, especially when I could hear shooting from around Donetsk airport.”

Karyna and her family live in the dangerous settlement of Oktiabrskyi in the suburb of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, very close to the now destroyed Donetsk Airport and several military installations. It is also right next to the ‘contact line’, which separates government- from non-government-controlled areas. It is the hot spot of the conflict, which is now in its third year.

As of August 2017, approximately 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes due to the fighting. The situation is particularly grave for children living in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where they face grave threats from shelling, landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Two girls avoid a landmine in the road, Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
Karyna and Milana walk past a clearly marked landmine. Karyna learned how to spot and avoid landmines in her Mine Risk Education class - lessons she takes with her every day.
Living in a ghost town

Karyna is the only child from her neighbourhood who goes to school. There is destruction and despair all around, and the empty streets tell the story of an abandoned community.
Other families with children left long ago because of the proximity to the frequent shelling. Although the area is clearly unsafe, her family cannot afford a new house, let alone relocation costs to a different area, so they have stayed.

Before the conflict started, Karyna’s walk to school was uneventful and took no longer than 10 minutes. Back then, she went to school not far from her home. But it has been closed for over a year now.

“Shells hit my old school a couple times. They had to replace almost all the windows,” she says. Now the building has been renovated, and is ready to open, but most children moved, so it stands empty.

Her family made the decision to send her to school number 21, which is farther away. Public transport no longer operates in the area and she has to go to school on foot and alone.

“My dad leaves for work very early in the morning, and my mom stays at home with my younger sister Milana, so I walk to and from school by myself,” Karyna says. She often doesn’t meet a single soul on her way to school in the deserted settlement.

Last year, when the weather was good Karyna rode her favourite red bike to school, but recently the guard who looked after it while she in in class was laid off. There are fewer jobs available in the area, and the local community struggles to stay afloat.

An older girl holds her younger sister's hand as they walk by a destroyed building, Ukraine
UNICEF Ukraine/2017/Filippov
Karyna and Milana walk past abandoned buildings in eastern Ukraine. At least 1.5 million people including over 220,000 children have been forced from their homes due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Life-saving mine risk education

In order to prevent tragic events and provide residents in conflict-affected areas with safety information, UNICEF through its partners, is running a communication campaign to raise awareness for children and young people on the risk of mines and explosives.

Karyna has received mine risk education at school and has used the knowledge every day to stay safe. “They show us how the mines and shells look like. I know that I must not touch anything that looks suspicious, and I try not to walk close to the roadsides in our neighbourhood,” she says.

Now she knows the areas to avoid by heart, sticking to the cleared paths, away from the piles of rubbish and tall grass that could easily have land mines. Some are clearly marked and others are not.

So far, a total of 473,775 children and their families have received mine risk education. UNICEF plans to provide a total of 500,000 children and their parents with life-saving mine action information by the end of 2017.

Despite the road to school being long and dangerous, Karyna is anxious to go back to class. She spent most of the summer vacation looking after her sister Milana, as friends and family rarely visit them for fear of the violence.

“I missed my friends,” she says. “We were alone the entire summer, it will be more fun to be at school.”