WhatsApp became a live feed of horrors for teachers in occupied Ukraine as 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and 16-year-olds all began sharing their stories of being bombed

Ukrainian teachers have shared the horror of trying to teach kids while being bombed by Russian missiles.

In the town of Ivankiv, trenches dug by Russian soldiers around the school are now being filled with plants and flowers by the few residents who remain in the heavily-bombed town.

Planting flowers to cover the horrors shows “how important those schools are to communities and it is also part of the healing for them as well”, spokesperson for Save the Children in Ukraine, Kim Gardiner says.

Ivankiv, the town halfway along the road from the Ukrainian border to Kyiv, is recovering from a month of brutal occupation.

Its mayor says Russians left more mines behind than the number of people in the city.

“When you come back to your workplace and see your classroom door has bullet holes in it, you think why would you do that?” 25-year-old newly qualified teacher Viktoria Timoshenko whose school in Borodyanka is barely standing tells the Mirror.

Perched on the Zdvyzh River, the small town of Borodyanka, about 20 miles northwest of Kyiv, faced some of the most brutal shelling at the start of the war.

The agricultural hub of about 12,000 was a critical strategic objective for Russian forces heading to the capital.

The horrifying images and stories from the massacre in Bucha made headlines, but it was Borodyanka that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said was “more dreadful”.

He said almost 1,000 residents of Borodyanka died, including those “who fought and defeated Nazism. To ensure: never again. They fought for the future of children, for the life that was here until February 24”.

Russian shelling tore through the walls and ripped down the ceiling. Piles of rubble and burnt books lie where children’s desks once stood.

Intentionally attacking schools and other civilian infrastructure is a war crime, but it does not stop the Kremlin’s forces.

As the war shows no sign of abating, attacks on education by Russian bombs have become common, with twice as many schools having been attacked in the past 100 days than between 2014 and 2021, Save the Children says.

Timoshenko’s boss and headteacher of Borodyanka’s school, Inna Romaniuk, describes the horrifying moment when they realised the war was coming.

She says: “I text parents and staff in capital letters and said do not to let children go to school today.”

WhatsApp became a live feed of horrors for Anastasiia Holovatiuk, a 24-year-old teacher from Makariv, 36 miles west of Kyiv.

She said: “You have 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds all typing saying: ‘we cannot turn the gas generator on because it will attract soldiers.’

“Another student was caught in Russian shelling while trying to flee and said they had to step over pieces of human bodies to get to safety.

“There are still students that we cannot get in touch with. These stories and absences haunt me.”

Some teachers have been able to resume classes for students online, using virtual classrooms over zoom, which the coronavirus pandemic somewhat prepared them for.

But for others, where internet connection is dormant and fighting too heavy, lessons have ground to a halt.

Save the Children found one in every 10 schools that came under attack this year was completely destroyed, and more than half of the 1,708 schools that were damaged were located in eastern Ukraine.

The children, traumatised by their experiences, find it hard to concentrate, but their teachers endeavour to preserve some normality while also offering extra emotional support.

Even if lessons are regularly interrupted by the wailing sound of an air raid siren.

According to Serhiy Shkarlet, Ukraine’s education minister, about 12,000 schools were holding classes online and 3.5 million students had returned to some form of learning, as of the start of April.

Romaniuk’s student was hit by Russian shelling and severely injured her legs, currently unable to walk she still joined online classes.

Another student who was single-parented by his father was left orphaned when his dad died as a result of abuse from Russian soldiers.

It is the weight of these stories that teachers carry, with little headspace for their own wellbeing.

“There’s this whole process of caring about my students and there’s no time to think about what I think and feel. Now, it’s actually harder after it got quieter… or let’s say calmer, there’s more thinking space and it is scary,” Timoshenko says over Zoom from the safety of a village in western Ukraine.

Surrounded by the absence of so much normality, education has taken on a prominent nurturing role in children’s lives.

“There’s a sense of responsibility when you realise that your lessons are perhaps the only safe space that these kids have because whatever circumstances they’re in, they do not have access to qualified psychological care,” says Holovatiuk.

Wellbeing has taken centre stage in Ukraine, “now, it’s not so much about giving children academic knowledge, but about helping them get back to their normal working routine”, adds Oksana Matiiash, Chief Executive Officer at Teach For Ukraine.

Targeting schools is not a new strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose intervention in Syria with its leader Bashar Al-Assad was characterised by the indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure essential to a society’s survival, namely schools.

When Russian bombs hit two schools in Chernihiv, about 200 civilians were sheltering in the school basement.

The strike destroyed most of the building and three civilians were killed and 19 others were wounded, Human Rights Watch said.

In western Ukraine, some schools continue to function, but their role has changed almost beyond recognition.

In Chernivtsi, schools are now housing internally displaced people (IDPs) and acting as temporary refugee accommodation.

Humanitarian charity World Vision said the official number of arrivals in Chernivtsi alone stood at 70,000 in April.

For Milla Vatamaniuk, deputy director of a school in Chernivtsi, this meant missing her daughter’s birthday to help support the influx of IDPs.

Gardiner explains the oddity of seeing school work displays on the walls, with desks, and “then there are just tonnes of beds everywhere”.

She continues: “People are attracted to schools because they see them as sanctuaries and safe places.”

Mariia*, 13, fled her home town with her mother Olena*, her six-year-old brother Mykyta* and their cat.

The family have been living in a school in western Ukraine since early April and not long after they arrived, Mariia’s* grandparents came to join them.

They all live in one classroom and share bathrooms with 60 other people.

Mariia said when they left their home region, she was glad that they would not hear explosions but was sad to be leaving home.

“I chat and have calls with my classmates, some stayed in our home town. I asked them how things were, they said that they could hear the explosions. I’m really worried about them,” she says.

Olena is worried about her daughter and does not know how much longer they can live as they are.

She adds: “My daughter misses her previous life, her school, her class. She is constantly watching videos and photos, which she has from school, with her friends.”

While Vatamaniuk feels lucky her school can be such a safe haven for people like Mariia and Olena, she also feels the pain from across the country.

She continues: “All schools in Ukraine are my home, when schools were bombed, I felt like I lost something very, very important and I was empty inside.”

As the ferocity of fighting continues, Holovatiuk feels hopeful Ukraine will win but is still frightened.

She says: “Just moments before this interview a plane went by and the sound caused me to panic.”

Romaniuk is still in disbelief that her once-thriving school of over 1000 pupils is now all-but standing.

She adds: “You keep thinking that just three months ago, we were in this hallway arguing with the students and doing great things with the students.

“When you walked out the last time you didn’t know it was going to be your last time.

“The more I talk about it, the less proper words I can find to describe it, thinking that you will never be able to come into your classroom again.”

For now, her school is standing but is a shell of its former buzzy life.

Bombs blew off the windows, leaving the strewn desks visible to the street as curtains and pages from school books float in the wind.

*names changed

Translation by Alina Opriatova and Nataliia Vatamaniuk.

Source: The Mirror

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