More than four years of conflict in eastern Ukraine have taken a devastating toll on the education system, destroying and damaging hundreds of schools and forcing 200,000 girls and boys to learn in militarized environments, amid volatile fighting and dangers due to unexploded weapons of war.
Schools in the firing line
Children in eastern Ukraine face grave dangers to learn
Ten-year-old Lera Nagormay, in her classroom at school in Marinka, eastern Ukraine where sandbags are now set up around the classroom windows to protect children from shelling.
"We have to stay inside the school all the time, and are not allowed to play outside during the breaks. The boys play football in the school's corridors" Lera says, "they can't break the windows because of the sandbags."
Armed military personnel have become part of everyday life for children living closest to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, including on their journey to and from school.
For many children, frontlines are just meters from their homes, combat soldiers are seen throughout the towns, and armed guards are in their schools.
UNICEF and partners have monitored at least eight instances where military and armed groups’ sites are within 500 meters from a kindergarten or school, and two separate locations where schools and these sites are only a few meters apart.
Lara sits in her school’s bunker in Marinka, eastern Ukraine.
When conflict broke out in 2013, Marinka was heavily contested. "One time, I walked to school" Lera said, “and when I arrived all the kids were already in the shelter. Shelling had started while I was on my way, and I had to rush in there.”
The school still has weekly drills, corralling students into the bunker beneath the building. In a long cold room, seats line one wall for the smaller children. "Sometimes we bring our toys down here so we don't get bored waiting," Lera says.
Principal Elena Mihatskaya looks at the damage to Secondary School Number 2 in Krasnohorivka, eastern Ukraine. The school, which had been in constant operation since being rebuilt after being bombed in World War II, was shut down in May 2017, after a shell struck the building, causing massive damage to the roof and multiple classrooms.
“To me it feels like history is repeating itself,” said Elena who also attended the school as a child, “the school had become almost home to me."
At least 45 schools have been damaged or destroyed in eastern Ukraine over the last 16 months. This is in addition to more than 700 schools damaged since the conflict began.
Oksana Deynega, the director of School Number 4, in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, holds a shell fragment and bullets collected from the school grounds.
Fighting takes place throughout the school day, with shells landing hundreds of meters from the school. The school operates three times a week with classes cut short to 20 minutes each.
Children in eastern Ukraine face dangers due to the proximity of military sites, such as bases, storage facilities and security check points, to schools and kindergartens along both sides of eastern Ukraine’s contact line.
An armed guard sits in the lobby of a school while children run down the hall in Marinka, eastern Ukraine.
Across eastern Ukraine, UNICEF helps provide psychosocial support and mine risk education to hundreds of thousands of children, youth and caregivers. UNICEF also supports repairs to damaged schools and kindergartens and distributes vital education supplies such as educational kits, furniture sets and sports equipment.
First graders sit in a classroom where the windows have been covered with sandbags to protect children from shelling in Mariinka, eastern Ukraine.
UNICEF calls on all sides of the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and ensure that schools are safe places for children to learn.