According to a statement released on 4 May by The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 200,000 children in war-torn eastern Ukraine are forced to learn in classrooms riddled with bullet holes and school-grounds scattered with metal remnants of war. The ongoing conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists has severely impacted the region’s education system, with classrooms turned into militarized environments. This is illustrated by UNICEF’s Ukraine Representative, Giovanna Barberis, who said, “Children are learning in schools with bullet holes in the walls and sandbags in windows, bomb shelters in the basements and shrapnel in schoolyards.”
War broke out in April 2014 when pro-Russian troops seized control of government-controlled buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions). Since the conflict began four years ago, an average of two schools has been damaged or destroyed every week. This has disrupted the education of 600,000 children. Within the past 16 months at least 45 schools have been targeted, with an additional 700 schools affected since the conflict started. Many of these schools are located within close proximity to the “contact line” which is a 500-kilometre strip of land dividing the government and non-government-controlled areas; fighting is most severe in these areas. Classrooms are located near military bases and security checkpoints. The military and armed groups have occupied or used former school buildings or have been based within 500 metres of a kindergarten or school.
Some schools have been so severely damaged they have faced closure, including a secondary school in the town of Krasnohorivka which has been closed since last May due to damage caused by shelling. The conflict and disruption of schooling have had an impact on children’s psychological well-being. Elena Mihatskaya, Principal of the Krasnohorivka school said, “It’s hard for kids to cope because they are nervous and stressed.” One in four children suffers psychological trauma, according to Save the Children.
Internal displacement and family separation are also significant issues. Families are divided by the contact line and military checkpoints. Many areas are inaccessible and dangerous; this has forced 1.5 million people to flee from their homes. Children living alongside the contact line are especially vulnerable; they are at risk of being caught in the crossfire or encountering explosive remnants of war, including bombs and landmines. UNICEF has warned that the lives of children in eastern Ukraine are threatened by shelling and unexploded ordnance; they are in constant danger of injury or death. Last year, on average one child died every week from a conflict-related casualty. Many children have been left with lifelong disabilities.
In response, UNICEF provides psychosocial support and conducts mine-risk education programmes to protect children and to raise awareness about the risk of mines and explosives. However, inadequate funding has severely hindered the response.
The European Union and the United States support the Ukrainian government and have imposed sanctions on Russia for backing separatists and the illegal annexation of Crimea in eastern Ukraine. Russia has been accused of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and directly fuelling conflict. UNICEF demands that both fighting parties, including the government, immediately cease conflict by discontinuing the use of lethal weapons. Fighting must cease to allow the clearance of mines to safely remove remnants of war which pose threats to civilians. This will help facilitate the repair and reconstruction of school buildings which will allow schools to become fully operational again. The UN agency has urged that both sides need to respect international law and ensure that schools provide a safe learning environment for children.