Schools under attack in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine

Where going to school is fraught with danger

Cathy Otten
A child stands in the remains of a classroom in eastern Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0243156/Morris VII Photo
13 December 2018

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – As the yellow school bus rounds a bend, the children call out “Can we get out here?” “The road is bad!” “The bus is going to break down if we go down there!”

You might hear these kinds of complaints anywhere in the world. But in eastern Ukraine, for children living in the conflict zone, getting to school means traversing dangerous, pot-holed roads and passing checkpoints. The journey can take up to two hours in the winter when the snow falls. Some of the roads are barely roads at all. And at any moment, the bus could be shelled.

“You’re never sure if they’re going to make it home or make it to school,” says Opytne school principal Volodymyr Zhuchok.

The previous day, the bus broke down in the centre of Bakhmutka, not far from the so-called line of contact that divides the government and non-government controlled areas, and where fighting is the most severe. “It’s a pile of metal scrap that shouldn’t be used as a bus. We repair it ourselves because we have no money,” Volodymyr says.

A child on a school bus school bus in Donetsk region.
UNICEF/UN0243114/Morris VII Photo
A child looks out of a school bus window on the journey from Opytne to Bakhmutka in Donetsk region.
“This isn’t normal”

Most of the children on the bus used to go to a school now located in the non-government controlled area. Hundreds of schools in the conflict affected areas have been damaged or destroyed in eastern Ukraine, with more than 50 educational facilities affected by ongoing hostilities in just the past two years.

Sasha, 9, sits at the front of the school bus and looks out of the window quietly. When the bus turns the corner into her part of Bakhmutka, Sasha can see her mum, Lyubov, and grandma, Iryna, waiting for her at the bus stop.

“Going to and from school is really hard for Sasha,” Iryna says. “There are no roads, and she doesn’t get home until 5 pm.” She says Sasha also struggles to do her homework in the evenings because there isn’t enough light in the house: the windows are boarded up because of the near constant shelling.

“Every day we live with the fear that something might go wrong. It’s not normal for kids to be living” in places like this, Volodymyr says. “They play there thinking it’s normal. But being among mine signs, unexploded ordnance and metal hedgehogs [anti-tank obstacles] isn’t normal.”

Children’s toys lie on the ground of a school in the Luhansk region.
UNICEF/UN0243146/Morris VII Photo
Children’s toys scattered among the rubble of a damaged school in the Luhansk region.
Stressed and tired

The town of Novotoshkivske, Luhansk region, is located near the line of contact. The town’s school was destroyed in January 2015 when it was hit by a tank round and four shells. The floor of the school is still strewn with debris, while a tangled mess of metal and concrete litters the abandoned building; toys and school supplies are scattered around.

“The whole street was targeted. I don’t know why,” says school principal Olena Zgurska. “There wasn’t a single window on the street left intact. Everything was shattered and on fire. It was really cold and the shelling was so intense that people started fleeing the town.”

Olena says the scene when she eventually emerged from the basement was horrible. The school was shut for repairs until September 2015, when half of the building was able to reopen. UNICEF provided a back up water tank in case their water supply gets cut off, as well as equipment for the repaired school’s gym.

But Olena says the children need more help to cope with the stress created by the conflict. She says the children struggle to focus in class. They want to talk about recent attacks and listen out for the sound of firing. Some are simply exhausted from having been awake at night because of the shelling.

Children attend a mine risk education session at a UNICEF supported school.
UNICEF/UN0243097/Morris VII Photo
Children attend a mine risk education session at a UNICEF supported school in Opytne in the Donetsk region.
Too dangerous to play

After more than four years of fighting, children, teachers and other education staff are experiencing severe psychological distress. Psychologists report that children attending schools in areas which have seen the heaviest shelling show symptoms of psychological trauma.

Masha is a bright, bubbly 11-year-old. She lives next to the school with her parents and two younger brothers, Yura, 9 and Denis, 2.

Masha says it’s too dangerous to play wherever she wants. “Yura never cries and he does not get scared very often,” she says. “But Denis is always crying when he hears loud sounds, so I bring him candies. I tell him not to worry, everything is alright, it’s just adults playing their games.”

On the road leaving Novotoshkivske, two boys can be seen walking home to the neighbouring village, through the conflict zone. The road is scarred with holes from the ongoing fighting, while beyond the road is the no man’s land swathed with fields.

Swinging their backpacks, the boys look tiny amid this hostile scene.