Since the beginning of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, more than 750 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and dozens of children and teachers have been affected by the shellings. Every day, 670,000 children have to make extra efforts to pursue their studies in the areas near the demarcation line. Their stories formed the basis of the photo exhibition “Schools as a territory of peace for children”.
“When mommy was braiding my sister’s hair, fragments of shattered glass from the window fell on them. A missile fell down close to our backyard. Often, we were hiding in basements but didn’t feel safe there, because it was dark in there. The school was the only safe place, because it had a bomb shelter… We would want to go to a school that was safe and protected, for example, a school on the clouds, protected by unicorns.” It’s a tale of two ten-year-old sisters who live close to the separation line. The girls were, apparently, lucky, because many other schools don’t even have a bomb shelter.
Since the outbreak of war in the east of Ukraine, more than 750 schools were damaged or destroyed, dozens of children and teachers were wounded in shelling, and 37 instances of using schools for military purposes were recorded. It’s hard even to imagine what efforts 670 thousand children living in the areas close to or near the separation line must take to receive education.
The aforementioned story and a number of other stories could be heard thanks to the photo exhibition Schools as the Territories of Peace for Children, opened by Save the Children organization in cooperation with the Ukrainian Presidential Commissioner for the Rights of the Child, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), and the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The exhibition also features, next to the works by renowned photographer Sasha Maslov, the stories of children, their parents and teachers depicted on his photos.
Maryna, 42, teacher
“I was shocked by broken windows, bomb shelters where children and teachers have to stay
The present academic year is special not just because of the quarantine restrictions but also because this year’s first-graders are children who never saw peaceful life. And in addition to their stolen happy childhood and stolen past, their future is also in danger. Erik Svedahl, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Norway to Ukraine, said: “If children are deprived of access to quality education, they will not only be deprived of this right to education; their future will be stolen. And afterwards, it will affect all of us, for when these children will grow up without proper education, they won’t be able to play a proper role in the society in order to build a well-functioning world in which democracy and inclusion reign.”
It only increases the importance of improving conditions for gaining education, which presently are, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. In particular, Samuel-Marie Fanon, Head of ECHO Mission, shares his impressions from the trip to the East: “During the five years I’ve been working in Ukraine, I have traveled a lot across the territory affected by the ongoing conflict. I was able to visit both the Ukrainian government-controlled and -uncontrolled territories. During these trips (sometimes with Save the Children, sometimes with UNICEF or the International Committee of the Red Cross), I visited many schools. And I was shocked by these broken windows, buildings damaged by missiles, bomb shelters where children and teachers have to stay.”
Vira and Ira, 10
The photographer, Sasha Maslov, who wasn’t able to attend the exhibition personally, sent his testimonial: “When you travel from Kyiv to Severodonetsk and look into window, you realize that the growth and progress visible along broad avenues of large cities and intercity highways are almost disappearing as soon as you get closer to the separation line, which hangs right next to the life of people who became hostages of war like a dark cloud, ready to strike with thunder at any moment. In small towns and villages, people and their lives – the most valuable thing that could be in the hierarchy of any society – look forgotten by the government, by the compatriots, and sometimes even by themselves. That does not apply to the heroes whom we met during Save the Children project. They, on the contrary, gave hope for the better.”
“During classes, we were departing from the subject, because children wanted to get it off their chest”
Here’s, for example, the story of 14-year-old Lev: “Windows in our home were shaking. We simply sat on the floor as far away from them as possible, and waited until it all ends. It went on like that for approximately four days, until my father made a dugout for us. We stayed there for some three days under the noise of overflying warplanes, gunfire, tanks and APCs riding over the place, simply waiting until it ends. And approximately in the morning of the fourth day, we realized that it will never end. All these events evoked a lot of negative emotions in me, a lot of various worries and thoughts which I could escape from by repairing my bicycle, drawing and doing sports.”
The story of a teacher whose photo is also presented at the exhibition is no less impressive: “We, the teachers, had to stay calm and not to show our fear to children. During classes, we would often depart from the subject, because children wanted to get it off their chest and tell about their worries. Like many other women, I thought that we must keep ourselves busy in order not to live in fear all the time. We tried to sign some songs, and it wasn’t bad. The rehearsals were held in a cold room; we made concert costumes ourselves, and embroidering was a good distraction, too. I decided that children must join in, too, for that will help distract them from sad thoughts. It worked. Some were singing, others dancing, making decorations and costumes. Our concerts in the neighboring villages not only filled us with emotions but also returned interest in life in the people for whom we performed and who would often lose it.”
“Worrying about whether we’ll wake up tomorrow…”
Nevertheless, the fact that children, their parents and teachers could find the way to support themselves and their close ones in difficult situations does not mean that they don’t need help. And Dmytro Stus, General Director of Taras Shevchenko National Museum, stressed upon that: “Since 2015, our museum has been working closely with the library in Druzhkivka where we made a hub, and therefore, we know firsthand about children’s pains and tragedies from the eyes of the children whom we talked to. There was something we were able to do and something we weren’t, but the cultural space was created after all, and it brings at least some joy to children “burnt by war”. Still, people get tired of that. The five years of war seem to have taught us to perceive children’s sufferings as something ordinary and banal. Therefore, I’d like to thank the organizers for reminding all of us that it should not be like this.”
Daryna, a girl, agrees with that: “I want you to understand that we are like all other children. It’s just the circumstances that caused many factors to accumulate where we now live and to affect our life in a very adverse way. Even at this age, we have to go through a difficult time in life. Many children are worrying about how to enroll in a university and what to do in their free time. We are also worrying about that, but in addition, we are worrying about whether we’ll wake up tomorrow. And if we will, would it be in the Ukrainian territory? Or we’ll get a new status and live in the occupied territory? We want adults to understand that there should not be a situation a priori when a child is frightened by a loudly shut door and falls into hysteria. When a child wakes up stricken by panic, thinking that it’s gunfire erupting in the street, and runs away, and the parents have to calm the kid down, explaining that it was just rain and thunder. Every day, we are worrying about the safety of all of us. We come home and cannot tell what we feel, because we know that we have parents who are already worrying too much about us, and if we tell them we’ll only make the situation in family worse. Therefore, all that is just piling up.”
There are many stories at the exhibition, where you can hear that the consequences of these emotions don’t go anywhere. Surely, the methods of psychological escape found by children and adults help them get distracted and clam down for at least some time, but they don’t heal wounds. The entire pain is accumulating.
Yulia, the mother of two twins, says: “I was able to find strength, because I have a lot of friends who help me cope with stress. This is, probably, the most important thing in the conditions of conflict: to be calm and composed. If you’re not, there will surely be a lot of ailments. That’s what’s happening to our children: they are already very sick, they have very difficult diagnoses.”
Declaration adopted, waiting for implementation
“We are aware very well of the impact from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Without help, psychological effects and the stress which children are presently experiencing can last for a very long while, even after the conflict ends. Children must be safe at school, and if we are unable to protect them, it would be a serious tragedy. Last year, when we launched our Protect Children from War campaign, we wanted to protect children who live in the areas affected by a conflict, and therefore, our key goal in the context of Ukraine was the signature and implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration,” Dariusz Zietek, Save the Children’s Ukraine Country Director, said.
The Declaration, which Save the Children and their partners have been advocating for so long, has finally been signed in November of last year. It stipulates a number of concrete commitments concerning protection of educational institutions during an armed conflict. They include documenting victims and damage resulting from assaults at schoolchildren, teachers and educational institutions, helping the victims, supporting development of humanitarian programs that help continue education during a conflict. The Declaration also contains several clauses concerning protection of schools and universities from being used for military purposes during armed conflicts. They state practical recommendations, and the commentaries cite examples of how other countries implement this document.
Almost a year has passed since the Safe Schools Declaration was signed, but the issue of its implementation remains unresolved. Mykola Kuleba, Ukrainian Presidential Commissioner for the Rights of the Child, maintains that protection of education occupies an important place on the agenda of the President of Ukraine. Therefore, we hope that the aforementioned document will be eventually implemented. Not only adults but also (and especially) children of the Donbas are waiting for that to happen. Daryna says: “A year ago, we also came to Kyiv and rallied in support of Ukraine signing the Safe Schools Declaration. We really want the handling of these documents to get off the ground and start rolling. For when you live in that territory, you don’t see the results.”
Dariusz Zietek stresses: “The children born when the armed conflict broke out in the east of Ukraine are now first-graders. Let’s hope that for these schoolchildren, as well as for their older compatriots, going to school will no longer be a matter of life and death.”
By Maria Chadiuk
Photos by Mykola Tymchenko