New school year, same old fears for children in Ukraine’s conflict zone

Ukrain Crisis 1
Lera Nagormay, 10, sits in a classroom at a school in Marinka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine (UNICEF / Gilbertson)

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies, Safe schools, Safe Schools Declaration

As a new school year starts, children in eastern Ukraine are still suffering – due to Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the early 1990s.

The fighting is in its fifth year and more than 10,000 people have been killed in unrest that the world seems to have largely forgotten.

The fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels has developed into Europe’s most protracted conflict since the former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s.

Some of the most vulnerable children live in close proximity to the “contact line” which divides Ukrainian-controlled areas and rebel-held land.

On the Ukrainian government-controlled side alone, it is estimated there are over 55,000 children living within around 10 miles from of the contact line.

In addition to dozens of ceasefire violations every week, children are also exposed to mines and unexploded ordnance.

Children should not have to worry about bombs, mines and attacks when they go to school. Theirworld and others have been campaigning for schools to be safe places for children to learn and be with their peers – and for countries to sign the Safe Schools Declaration.

UNICEF has been helping children in Ukraine for several years – and the United Nations agency spoke to Their News as the new school year began.

Nina Sorokopu, who is based in Ukraine, said: “Last time I visited schools in the field, we met teachers and children. According to their testimonies, children are still suffering from shelling and remnants of war. 

“Many schools near the contact line are protected by sandbags on walls and windows. Education institutions are being damaged now and again, by indiscriminate shelling, which makes the situation of children very difficult.

“Boys and girls in the conflict zone are having a different childhood, and they require support and assistance for the difficulties they’re facing.”

Four schools were damaged in Donetsk, Dokuchaievsk and Betmanove, according to the latest report by the Ukraine Education Cluster in June. It brought the total number of incidents in the country during the last 18 months to 55.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, more than 740 schools have been damaged, with 648,000 students and teachers affected.

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Liuda, a six-year-old displaced from Horlivka, a non-government controlled part of the Donetsk region in Toretsk, Ukraine (UNICEF / Gilbertson)

UNICEF has been training teachers and educators how to support children in the conflict zone.

Sorokopud said: “We help children to build and strengthen their skills to deal with hardships they face. 

“A lot of our work is focused on training teachers, trying to help them to provide better support to children, especially to address their psychological needs. 

“With our projects, we’re also trying to build up the resilience of children and their communities in the conflict zones.

“Last week there was an agreement reached about a school year ceasefire, as the conflict enters its fifth year.”

A recent report by UNICEF said the number of children living in areas along the contact line increased slightly last year. As of October 2017, nearly 56,000 children lived within around 10 miles of the contact line in the government-controlled area – up from just over 54,000 in October 2016.

Enrolment in standard schools increased from 28,987 to 29,883 and vocational schools and boarding schools saw an increase from 3427 to 3897.

But kindergartens did not see the same increase in enrolment despite a rise in the number of kindergarten-aged children.

Save the Children has also been working in the area since 2014. It says students and teachers are still suffering the effects of the armed conflict- including psychosocial risks and needs, and a disrupted learning process.

“Their chances to live a normal life and develop to their full potential get bleaker with every new attack on their education,” said Dariusz Zietek recently, Save the Children in Ukraine’s Country Director.

“Without access to quality learning, children are not only being deprived of education today, they are also being robbed of future opportunities. This affects all of us. 

“Attacks on education are therefore not only a humanitarian and development issue. They are also social, political, and moral issues, to which we are obliged to respond.

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After one child was shot in the arm in the playground, children at this school are not permitted to play outside (UNICEF / Gilbertson)

“Military use of schools leads to students being excluded and dropping out from schools and universities, lower levels of new enrollments into schools, poorer rates of attendance in schools, and lower levels of transition from one level of schooling to the next. 

“The education of girls seems to be particularly negatively affected by the practice of military use of schools.”

In July,  Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, together with Save the Children, UNICEF and the Education Cluster, met in Kiev to discuss the Safe Schools Declaration and how to protect education from attack.

The declaration – signed by 80 countries – is a commitment to keep students, teachers and their schools free from the fear of violence and occupation during armed conflict.

Liliya Hrynevych, Minister of Education and Science, said then: “We simplified the procedure for enrolment in educational institutions, as well as assured opportunities for teaching online.”

He said Ukraine “will join the Safe School Declaration as soon as possible”.

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