June 22, 2022

Children return to school after cleaning traumatized Ukrainian village | Ukraine

A A class of children in Novyi Bykiv listened to their teacher, his voice rivaling the sound of plastic sheets banging in window frames. When asked if they were happy to be back in school, the class of fifth graders answered in chorus, “Yes!” with genuine enthusiasm.

They may not yet have windows, electricity or textbooks, but classes in this village east of kyiv resumed two weeks ago after a major clean-up operation following the army’s departure Russian.

Novyi Bykiv was one of a series of settlements occupied by the Russian army for a month as part of Vladimir Putin’s failed attempt to reach the capital from three directions. For a month, residents lived in terror, with summary executions and widespread looting a part of life.

The school was the main Russian base in the village, and when the Guardian visited just after the Russians left, there were clothes, food and broken glass strewn on the floors, graffiti painted on the walls and messages left by the Russians on the blackboards.

“I thought we could never work here again,” said manager Natalia Vovk. Photography: Sviatoslav Medyk/The Guardian

The Russians launched BUK missiles just outside the school, drawing Ukrainian artillery fire which blew out the school’s windows, destroyed much of the Russian equipment and eventually led to their retreat in the final March days.

“It was an unbearable time; you walked along the street and saw people you knew were well-dressed and smart and they were wearing rags, with red eyes and looking dazed,” said director Natalia Vovk. “At the time, I thought that was it, that we could never work here again, that we could never bring this place back to life again,” she said.

For the children too, the occupation was a traumatic time, as they saw adults helpless to protect their homes and loved ones from the Russian onslaught.

The cleaning process was long, tiring and unpleasant. One of the ground floor rooms in the school had been used as a hybrid toilet and barbers, and was littered with clumps of hair and piles of excrement. Everywhere there was broken glass and other debris. Someone found a hand grenade in the basement.

students in class
Students in class. Photography: Sviatoslav Medyk/The Guardian

By early May, there were enough repairs for classes to resume. In parts of Ukraine, schools are using distance learning, but the Russian army has looted most homes in Novyi Bykiv, which means neither teachers nor students have computers or tablets.

About 100 of the school’s 188 students now attend school regularly for short days. Many others are still abroad or in western Ukraine, having fled with their families.

A number of small charities and individuals contacted the school after reading the Guardian article in April detailing the destruction, Vovk said. Someone sent six computers, which arrived in the mail recently and are being stored elsewhere until the school building has windows again to keep them safe. Another donor offered to pay for replacement textbooks, after all the stock was destroyed in a fire during the occupation.

Residents also participated. Someone donated a lawn mower to mow the grass in front of the building, because the Russians had looted the school lawn mower. The school bus driver and building manager were working Thursday afternoon to install plastic coverings on several windows, until the money came for permanent replacements.

Repair work in progress
Repair work in progress. Photography: Sviatoslav Medyk/The Guardian

The war has disrupted schooling throughout Ukraine, even in the relatively safe western part of the country. More than 200 schools were completely destroyed and hundreds more damaged, according to Ukrainian education ombudsman Sergii Gorbachov. Even in the west, in schools without bomb shelters, lessons had to be delivered online.

A recent survey of Ukrainian parents found that 75% said their children had shown signs of increased stress since the start of the war, with some of the most common symptoms being mood swings, nightmares, anxiety and seizures panic.

“Of course, the children have really suffered in recent months, and it is really important to provide them with adequate support,” said Yulia Serdyuk, a 35-year-old teacher and psychologist from Novyi Bykiv.

Serdyuk said she advises children to spend as much time as possible talking with their parents and with other children. She said it was important for the children to be able to discuss what had happened in the past three months rather than burying the experiences, although in some cases extreme caution was needed.

Students play outside
The students play outside. Photography: Sviatoslav Medyk/The Guardian

“If something terrible happened to their parents, you have to approach those cases very delicately,” she said.

Serdyuk spent three weeks under occupation in Novyi Bykiv, before deciding to leave with his daughter on March 19, a terrifying ordeal that involved fighting his way through Russian checkpoints and at one point hiding from imminent artillery strike.

She spent a month in Poland, but as soon as she learned it was safe, she returned to Novyi Bykiv. “They took good care of us there, but I was so desperate to come back,” she said.

Ukrainian officials hope that the vast majority of children who fled with their families will eventually return. The authorities are in the process of negotiating to allow people abroad to pursue certain Ukrainian studies through distance education, as well as to attend school in the countries where they are temporarily based.

A student holds a Ukrainian flag
A student holds a Ukrainian flag. Photography: Sviatoslav Medyk/The Guardian

Another problem is the situation in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, where teachers follow “refresher” programs and are supposed to teach in Russian, using the Russian curriculum.

“We have a huge amount of evidence from occupied areas of teachers being forced to change curricula, and in some cases headteachers have been kidnapped, or at the very least replaced by other less qualified people who are willing to collaborate,” Gorbachev said.

In Novyi Bykiv, teachers did everything they could to erase the signs of Russian occupation, except in one classroom where they left the messages scribbled on the blackboard intact as a reminder of those days.

“Don’t shame the memories of your fathers and grandfathers, they fought AGAINST the Nazis,” reads a chalked message, echoing the distorted narrative in Russian propaganda that the Russian mission in Ukraine is a “ denazification”.

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Vovk, whose mother is Russian and moved to Ukraine 40 years ago, said it was difficult for him to understand the mentality of those Russians who had come to the village. She has long since stopped talking to her own family members in Russia.

“It’s just unthinkable what happened, how they could have done this,” she said. “We all hope that our victory will come as soon as possible and that they will never come back here again.”