As the war rages on in eastern Ukraine, schoolchildren on the front line are learning to be resilient

Equal Times, November 20, 2018

By Mathilde Dorcadie

This article is accompanied by the mini-documentary ’Ukraine: schoolchildren on the front line’. Click here to watch the video.

Life for children in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is not what it used to be. When the war between pro-Russian separatists and the government in Kiev broke out in the winter of 2014, schools found themselves on the front line: targeted by rockets and occupied by armed forces, they have also served as a temporary shelter for residents and a refuge for those displaced by the conflict.

More than 250,000 children and adolescents live in this region, both in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in loyalist territory. Nearly 55,000 of them live in direct proximity to the extremely volatile 470-kilometre “contact line” that runs between the territories, where incidents of violence continue to occur almost daily despite ceasefire agreements.

The first two years of the conflict were the most difficult. The years 2014 and 2015 saw intense fighting that damaged buildings and roads and forced thousands of people to flee. The land remains visibly scarred and littered with landmines and other explosive devices. After being suspended for several weeks, classes eventually resumed; but in 2018, this generation of children growing up in wartime has had to learn to live with trauma and danger that are never far away. Keeping schools safe is a big challenge because parents must overcome their fears of danger so as not to deprive children of their right to education.

Despite the dedicated efforts of teachers and principal Victor Shulik, the school is not safe from danger. In 2014 and 2015, it was hit several times by artillery shelling and Grad missiles, destroying one classroom and the teachers’ room. Fortunately, the incident took place in the middle of the night.

“We’re doing our best to erase the visible traces of war,” says the principal, who stands guard over his school like a fortress. The windows that were shattered by the explosion have been replaced and reinforced. With the support of the Red Cross and UNICEF, a French street artist collaborated with children to paint large, colourful murals and a brand new playground was built over the damaged concrete.

“The warring parties must commit to protecting the schools, teachers and children,” explains Dariusz Zietek, director of advocacy at Save the Children Ukraine. “We are working with other NGOs to get government officials to adopt the Safe Schools Declaration as a demonstration of their political will to address this problem. Children are the most vulnerable people in times of war. Schools can’t be military targets, they have to remain places where children feel safe.” In 2018, some 50 schools on both sides of the conflict were affected by clashes.

The trauma of war

Every time a siren sounded during the school day in Popasna, the students knew that they had to get to the basement of the building as quickly as possible, to a shelter constructed during the Soviet era for the event of a nuclear attack. Many have traumatic memories from that time.

“Once the first crisis was over, we had to provide psychological support, not just for the children but also for the teaching staff, who were themselves deeply impacted,” remembers Nadia Oksenchuk, who headed the department of education of the province of Donetsk throughout the crisis from 2015 to 2018. “We organised training sessions on how to react during the conflict. Soldiers and military doctors came to provide information and support. The damaged buildings were quickly reconstructed and there were donations of school supplies from all over Ukraine,” she tells Equal Times.

Olesya Chernyshova also witnessed the generous outpouring that came from all over the country. She works for a local protestant youth NGO in Sloviansk, one of the first cities affected by the conflict, which suffered several months of occupation by separatist forces. Her organisation, which translates to ‘Your Victory’, has worked in particular with ‘internally displaced’ children, according to the terminology used by regional authorities.

Chernyshova herself was forced to leave the town for several weeks to protect her family. “We were able to house people in the camps at first, but things got complicated in the winter. Our parish organised for children to stay with families in western Ukraine and Ukrainian families abroad for several weeks so they could see something other than this oppressive environment,” she tells Equal Times.

UNICEF and other groups have organised psychological counselling sessions to teach children how to express what they’ve experienced and teachers how to better support them. In addition, important work is being done to raise awareness of the dangers of explosive devices left behind by soldiers, which have killed 600 people and seriously injured more than 1,000 since 2014. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, used theatrical media to teach young children the importance of not handling objects found around their homes that could turn out to be anti-personnel mines.

Children: the first victims of the humanitarian crisis

With death toll of more than 10,000 and a disastrous impact on the local economy, the war has also severely impacted families. Poverty in the area has increased by 72 per cent. “The problems affecting low-income families have increased significantly with the conflict. In the territories no longer controlled by the government, the majority of vulnerable children depend on humanitarian aid. And the country remains relatively poor,” says Zietek.

According to UN estimates, more than 3.4 million people in the region rely on humanitarian assistance to meet the basic needs of food and medical care.

For Chernyshova, “Ukrainians too have grown tired and are starting to wonder why these people continue to live in a place that is so dangerous. But when you talk to the people here you understand why they want to stay. It’s their home and they don’t have to pay rent. They take the risk, even if it’s hard on the children. They don’t have a choice.” She goes on to tell Equal Times that international aid is not always well distributed and some villages have had to rely primarily on local mutual assistance. “We’ve also seen the creation of unofficial cooperative networks with civil society ‘on the other side’”.

Resilience and desire to learn

When recounting the events of the last four years in the Donbass, the people we talked to consistently praised the work done by adults to protect children and preserve the school as a symbolic space. Occupied and damaged by pro-Russian groups, the education and leisure centre in Sloviansk was the first building to be rebuilt because, as Chernyshova says, “it was what mattered most to the community”.

“The resilience of all these children, teachers and families is incredible. It helps to keep the community united and strong. And it has been largely the work of women,” says Miladin Bogetic of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

They also want to learn. One of the major challenges faced by Oksenchuk was ensuring that children were able to complete their school year despite the difficult conditions. Distance and remedial courses were offered. But something also had to be done in order for students attending schools in areas controlled by the separatist republics to receive their diplomas issued by the Ukrainian state. Travel documents were issued and ‘summer universities’ established in record time.

In 2016, against all odds, the Donetsk region rose significantly in national school rankings. “I don’t think that it will be a lost generation. Attitudes are changing very quickly. The young people that I’ve met are intelligent, educated and patriotic. They will be the leaders of tomorrow. But we can’t forget the children on the other side. We have to maintain exchanges and contacts between schoolchildren,” adds Oksenchuk.

She emotionally recalls an event for St. Nicholas’ Day (the equivalent of Father Christmas bringing gifts in December) where thousands of children wrote letters to St. Nicholas. “Usually they ask for presents. But the last few times, they’ve simply asked for peace.”

This story has been translated from French.

With additional reporting by Natalie Gryvnyak.