”My new school will have the best bomb shelter”
Children are getting back to learning, while dealing with the daily reality of war
War has destroyed much of nine-year-old Diana’s neighborhood in the Saltivka area of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. Every apartment building in her complex is damaged.
“When the war started I thought it was thunder,” she recalls. “There was light in the distance and it turned out that it was [missiles]. We all ran into the basement to hide there during the first couple of days".
"If we had been hiding in the basement of my school that was bombed, we would have been dead.”
The war has destroyed or damaged an estimated 10 per cent of Ukraine’s schools over the past six months, Diana’s school is one of them.
Across the country, unabated attacks have left children sleeping and studying in basements, bomb shelters, underground stations and temporary accommodation.
As the new school term gets underway, UNICEF is working in partnership with the Government of Ukraine, determined to get every child back to learning safely.
Diana’s school was reduced to ruins by the fighting, so she is attending online in the meantime. She longs for the building to reopen.
“They’re going to build a bomb shelter and on top of that a new school. And the bomb shelter is going to be the best one in the area. It will even have a kitchen.”
Seven-year-old Davyd is from Kramatorsk. The family had been at the train station enquiring about evacuation. Later that day, 52 people were killed in an attack there.
“Every time the air raid sirens sound, Davyd gets scared and cries,” says his grandmother. “So I always try to be nearby to comfort him whenever that happens.”
The youngster misses the school and friends he left behind in Kramatorsk.
"I want to go to school and meet many new friends,” says Davyd. “I like to study maths, writing and reading. I like to play during the break and I like the after-school activities.”
At the height of violence in the village of Olyzarivka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, 13-year-old Nazar and his mother, Alina, would pore over textbooks together in their basement, to the sound of shelling and bombing above.
“The scariest moment was when the airplanes were flying very low and dropping bombs.,” says Nazar.. “They flew from over there, behind the forest, and dropped the bombs on my school. I was upset when I went to school and saw that it was destroyed.”
Denys, 8, and his younger sister are from Kherson in the south of Ukraine, on the Dnipro River, where they liked to swim.
During the fighting, their mother was caught in the crossfire and detained. After her release, they fled. “Denys was begging me to take his toys,” says Nadiya.
“He likes his teacher and misses her,” she continues. “He would ask me, ‘Mommy, when can I go back to school?’”
This September, Denys started at a new school in Lviv, repeating his first grade so he can catch up on the fundamentals. “I like school because we can play there,” he says, happily. “When I grow up, I want to become a policeman because they have nice cars, and they protect the shops from being robbed.”
Mariia, 12, lives in her home city of Kharkiv. “My school was hit about a month ago, in July,” she says, sadly. “I don’t know why they bombed it. I thought COVID was bad, but this has been the worst time of my life.”
Over time, Mariia has found strength in adversity – and hopes to help others find the same. “Since I was not spending time with my friends because all of them were gone and I didn’t go to school, I could continue my self-development in other ways,” she says. “I started a gratitude journal and started meditating. I started getting interested in psychology even more, and I realized who I want to be in the future and what I need for that.”
“I like to talk to people to learn about them and I want to help with their mental illness or difficulties,” she continues.
“There’s going to be a lot of need for psychological help because of the war. I want to be able to help to solve problems.”
“I like my school because of the teachers, who respect and love us and try to teach us a lot,” says Mariia. “I prefer studying at school because I have friends there, and I enjoy seeing them and chatting with them.”
Nazar, 12, is from Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine.
When they fled the fighting, Nazar’s mother, who worked in an orphanage back home, helped to evacuate 100 children from the city.
"In my free time, I like learning about programming,” says Nazar, who is has also started starting an online school programme this September. “When I grow up, I want to work in IT and do programming because programmers earn a lot of money and it's very interesting. I want to create my own company that will be creating video games.”
In Lviv, Nazar met his new friend, Karyna, 10.
Karyna and her mother fled their home city of Myrnohrad at the beginning of August. She and Nazar love to play Jenga and games in a nearby park.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen from here. I don’t know where I’m going to go to school either,” says Karyna.
“Last year, I went to school just half of the time because of COVID-19 and the war.”
“I miss my classmates,” Karyna continues. “Many of my friends left for different cities and countries. I want to go back to see my friends and play and be able to sit at the same desk as them.”
When Sofiia, 13, and her family fled attacks in Irpin, they only narrowly escaped, navigating a maze of destroyed buildings and bridges just before the people who were left in the city became trapped by fighting.
“The past six months were difficult for me,” says Sofiia. “I was thinking about the war all the time. But I was doing my best to cope with it. I did not go to school.”
Now the family has returned home. “I was really frightened at first, but then I saw all the people starting to live their lives like normal again and I had hope for our future,” says her sister Lyudmyla, 16.
“My favorite subject is history,” says Sofiia. “I think I'm going to choose a job that will help me to interact with a lot of people, maybe a journalist or a news presenter. I'll need to study a lot for that, maybe I'll need to improve my English skills. I hope that in 20 years I'll have my own place, will be doing a job that I like and will live my life the way I want.”
“I really want the war to be over,” she sighs. “I want it to be peaceful, so we can have a good life.”
Ukraine’s children urgently need safety, stability, access to safe learning, child protection services , and psychosocial support. But more than anything, Ukraine’s children need peace.