Children in Ukraine still paying price for years of conflict
Armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has meant that youngsters like Liuba have not only lost their homes and schools, but also their chance at a happy childhood.
The brick wall of Pisky school, Donetsk, near to the contact line in eastern Ukraine, has a huge hole blown through it from a tank shell. Through it, you can see the ruins of the room where hundreds of children once studied, laughed, cried and made friends.
“Every morning I would go up the stairs and enter my class," recalls 18-year-old Liuba, who studied at Pisky for five years and would have expected to graduate last year. "Green birches were visible from its windows. It was very beautiful.”
Now, the school has almost been destroyed by shelling. Concrete floors have collapsed, wooden furniture has been reduced to ashes, and shards of glass and empty ammunition crack underfoot. Old textbooks are swollen from the rain and snow.
Only the birch trees, which Liuba loved so much, still grow in the courtyard. A cross is planted beneath their branches to mark the people died here in 2014 and 2015.
“Our life has changed a lot with the coming of the war,” says Liuba, sadly. “This was a watershed moment. The places where I lived and studied before, which I loved, I can no longer visit. Now everything there is simply unrecognizable."
Like most residents of Pisky, Liuba’s family fled the village with the outbreak of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. From 2014 to 2016, the village came under crushing artillery shelling. Today, 95 per cent of the residential buildings in Pisky are still seriously damaged. There is no permanent water or gas supply, and no post office or store. Buses no longer travel to Pisky – not that people can visit anyway. Due to landmines and the ongoing threat of shelling, the village is closed to outsiders. Today, just 13 people live in Pisky, mostly elderly people who had nowhere to go.
“It’s very hard,” says Liuba, who changed schools twice due to the conflict. “We lost our home, I lost my school. At first, I didn’t understand what happened when my parents told me that I would not graduate from fifth grade. But when I heard the shots, I realized everything.”
Over 750 schools and kindergartens have been damaged or destroyed since the hostilities in eastern Ukraine began. Although a fragile ceasefire is in place, nearly 400,000 children still attend school near the contact line, where shelling and landmines threaten their lives and wellbeing. Over the last three years, at least 118 attacks on schools have been reported, five of which in 2021 alone.
UNICEF is working hard to ensure that all children in Ukraine, including those out-of-school, living with disabilities and in conflict-affected areas, have access to education. They help to train teachers, provide supplies, build life skills and engage communities.
Despite distressing memories, Liuba still keeps in touch with former teachers on social networks, sharing photos and memories from more peaceful, carefree days.
And she hopes that the children of today can look forward to a brighter future.
“I hope that my school will be rebuilt, and children like us will go there, that there will be touching first bells and graduations,” says Liuba. “It was a good school. And the children are owed it.”