In Ukraine, school's out for the foreseeable future

The prospect of a generation of children being deprived of education is deeply worrying

A class room at a school building damaged during shelling in the city of Chuhuiv, Ukraine, last month. EPA
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One of my favourite times of year when I lived in France was "la rentree", the end of August when people returned from vacation and children began to prepare for school.

There was a run on fountain pens and notebooks; schools sent lists for specific art supplies; there was always an air of anticipation and future challenge. For me, the year didn't begin in January but in September with the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and brand-new notebooks.

Around the world, children are getting ready to go back to school. But not in Ukraine, where the education system has been mauled by the February 24 Russian invasion, and lives are shaped by war.

In June, Unicef said that at least 262 children have been killed in Ukraine since the war began, and another 415 injured. Of the country’s 7.5 million children, 2 million have crossed into neighbouring countries as refugees. Another 2.5 million are internally displaced. We have no idea how many children have been sent to Russia, some to adoption centres: some estimates claim as many as 30,000, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last June gave a much higher figure: 200,000.

So many children in the country are not in their own homes. They had to leave behind friends, pets, toys – their entire worlds. Unicef says all of them are in “grave danger of physical harm, severe emotional distress and displacement”.

“Russia has committed the gravest crime… it has deprived all Ukrainian children of their childhood,” Andriy Chernousov, a sociologist and lawyer who heads the NGO Voices of Children, told me in Kyiv.

War suspends childhoods, destroying any sense of protection. Worse is the fact that they are getting far too used to the sound of air sirens, missile attacks and losing family or friends. Cluster bombs fall in gardens. Schools are destroyed. In Kharkiv, where I recently was with my team doing field analysis, nearly 100 schools bombed. Air strikes have damaged other essential services such as hospitals, nurseries and municipal buildings.

Children jump on a trampoline against the backdrop of destroyed buildings in Borodyanka, north-west of Kyiv, last month. AFP
War suspends childhoods, destroying any sense of protection

It is not just the fact that children were already disrupted by in-person learning due to Covid-19 before the war started. It is also that they have no place to go. Many of the schools are being used as relocation centres for the millions of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes. The government estimates that there are 8 million internally displaced people, although no one knows for sure.

There are three ways to look at how the war has affected Ukrainian civilians. There are areas such as Donbas or Kherson that are currently occupied by Russian forces, and where people live in subjugation and the fear of being detained, tortured, killed, or simply disappeared forever.

Then there are areas such as Kharkiv and Chernihiv that have been bombed from Russian bases nearby, and where its residents haven’t had a good night's sleep in seven months because of air raid sirens and rushing down to shelters.

Speaking to a young woman who has been living in the basement of a local restaurant in Kharkiv – her 15th-storey apartment is far too dangerous to live in – she pointed to her “bed”, which is essentially a few banquettes pushed together, sleeping bags and books. “This is my life,” she said grimly. As the war stretches into months, many people are beginning to feel it will go on for years.

There is collective trauma in all of Ukraine, a country that has already endured untold misery during the Holodomor, or the great famine, of the 1920s and 1930s, when then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin starved people to death during his collectivism programmes. There was the Second World War when the Nazis occupied their land, then the battles with the Soviets. And there was the Maidan Revolution and the swallowing up of Donbas and Crimea by Russian forces in 2014.

Children badly need to be educated, and Ukrainian schools will not be ready in three weeks’ time. It worries activists such as Mr Chernousov, who told me his concerns were largely about a generation of children who will miss out on years of education.

Toys on the table in a classroom at the Lauder Morasha Jewish school in Warsaw, Poland, last month. A special summer camp was organised to help Ukrainian children. AP Photo

Another concern is for the most vulnerable: orphans and those with disabilities. Before the invasion, Ukraine had about 90,000 children in institutional orphanages and more than half that number with disabilities. Voices of Children helped evacuate some of them. It also set up a helpline for children to phone in for support and to voice their fears, frustrations and anxieties. Some of the stories I was told were heart-breaking.

Mr Chernousov said that during the first three months of the war, 180 educational institutions were completely destroyed and almost 2,000 damaged. “Children are virtually deprived of the right to development and the future. Tens of thousands live under occupation, and we have limited information about their well-being.”

Boarding the overnight train from Kyiv to Warsaw, Poland, the train was packed with mothers carrying babies, young women fleeing to Germany to try to find a new life, children trailing behind their mothers or grandmothers or aunts. It took me a moment to realise what was missing: there were hardly any men at all on the train. The UN says that 90 per cent of Ukrainians who have fled the war are women and children because the government does not allow most men between the ages of 18 and 60 to leave. They need them to remain in the country to fight or to provide other services.

Perhaps the most terrible thing about war is the complete dismantling of society. A train almost entirely of women and children. Education halted. The pencils that are not sharpened. The schools that are not opened. The childhoods frozen in time.

Published: August 10, 2022, 2:00 PM