Ukraine: “War machines were everywhere”

Maths teacher Elena in the gym of her school in Debaltseve, which lies damaged and unused after shelling.
Maths teacher Elena in the gym of her school in Debaltseve, which lies damaged and unused after shelling.

It’s 1pm on a Friday but the corridors of a school in Debaltseve, a town in the east of Ukraine that has been the scene of some of the worst fighting of the conflict, are silent.

No children’s footsteps or shouts echo through the corridors. They should be returning to class for afternoon lessons but most will have already picked their way through the debris that litters the streets and returned home for the day.

We enter a classroom lined with empty desks. Here, maths teacher Elena, wrapped in a long coat and turtleneck, explains: “There is no central heating. It was damaged in the fighting and then the pipes were blown by frozen water.

“We reduced the length of the classes because it is so cold, but we hope soon we can return to full days.”

“The town was surrounded by armed men”

The lessons might be short, but it’s a wonder pupils can attend at all. The school was hit by shelling during the fighting which first engulfed Debaltseve in September, and then again with renewed ferocity in January.

Destroyed and damaged buildings line every street. Roofs lay in tatters, bullet holes riddle brickwork and we are forced to drive around at least one exploded shell we find jutting out of the road.

“The town was surrounded by armed men,” says Elena. “War machines were everywhere, there were explosions.”

The school had to close, and many people fled for safety. Today, more than 150,000 children remain displaced as a result of this crisis.

Respite shattered

A let-up in the fighting gave teachers and volunteers the chance to patch up some of the damage and re-open the school. But Elena tells me that, just four days later, the town was rocked again by fighting.

“At 7.45am, when children were going to school, the town was shelled. Some rushed with their parents to the school. Some dropped down flat on the streets to try and survive.

“From that day, we stopped all classes again.”

This second round of fighting hit the school even harder. A direct hit opened up a gaping hole in the roof. Walls were raked with shrapnel and windows shattered.

Working together to rebuild

“I was scared to come close to here,” Elena tells me. “Everything was blanketed with shattered glass. When we came back, at first all we could do was cry. But we were happy we survived and the school was still standing so we just hugged and cried.

“With our own hands we started bringing the place in order. We worked as volunteers six days a week and loaded two trucks with shattered glass.”

Along with help from the local community and some of the pupils they have once again partly resurrected the school.

Daylight peeks through gaps around the wooden planking fitted to obscure the hole in the roof. Elsewhere wind gusts through smashed windows. The gym and the school hall lie cold and unused, with leaking roofs and mouldy walls. Debris litters the grounds.

Damage from shelling at a school in Debaltseve. The teachers and volunteers from the local community patched up the roof themselves.
Damage from shelling at a school in Debaltseve. The teachers and volunteers from the local community patched up the roof themselves.

“Here live resilient people”

An estimated 472 schools have been damaged due to the crisis in the Donetsk Oblast region; with at least ten completely destroyed.

Now, Elena tells me the explosive remnants of the fighting pose a constant danger. “Every day we explain to the children that they should keep away from strange objects and not touch them. We’re afraid we might find a booby trap or step on a mine.

“There were weapons and grenades everywhere in the town afterwards. Sacks full of grenades just scattered around the town.” Recently, nearby, the grown-up son of another teacher was killed by unexploded artillery.

“Children have become like small experts. They can tell if it’s a howitzer, or a multiple rocket launcher, if it’s a mortar or a rocket propelled grenade. All types of weapons have been used here.”

And Elena tells me fixing the damage is just the start. “The first challenge here is basic stationery, pencils, simple things like that. At the moment no-one receives their salary. All the books are under rubble.

“Recently a shop has opened where you can by stationery but no-one can afford it. Prices here are double or triple what they were.”

Elena recalls her feelings during the bombardment. “Sometimes we had a wild desire to flee. And then we’d sit and discuss the situation with our friends and family, and it seemed like it wasn’t happening to us.

“It seemed like we were just observers of some horrible scenes in a movie. We just couldn’t accept it in our minds that this was happening in reality.

How do they carry on, in the face of such destruction without even their salaries to support themselves, I ask. “Here live resilient people. We will stand, and we will carry on,” is the response.

“But we will not survive a third bombardment.”

As I leave the distinctive boom of shelling rings in the distance. An ominous sign that this crisis is far from over.

Save the Children is working in government controlled and non-government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, and has distributed more than 1,500 back-to-school school kits containing notebooks and stationary to children affected by the crisis, including 450 to this school in Debaltseve. We are running an accelerated learning programme for displaced children who are lagging behind after missing school and training school psychologists and teachers in how to provide psychosocial support.

We know that once immediate life-saving needs are met, education is children’s number one priority in an emergency. The longer a child is out of school, the further they fall behind and the harder it is to catch up and have the future they want. It is unacceptable for education to become a casualty of conflict.