Children back in school after cleanup in traumatised Ukrainian village

UN class of children in Novyi Bykiv sat listening to their teacher, his voice competing with the sound of plastic sheets flapping in the window frames. Asked if they were happy to be back in school, the class of fifth-grade students chorused “Yes!” with genuine enthusiasm.

They may not have windows, electricity or textbooks yet, but lessons in this village east of Kyiv have been back under way for two weeks now, after a major cleanup operation following the departure of the Russian army.

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

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

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

“It was an unbearable time; you walked along the street and saw people you knew to be well dressed and elegant and they were wearing rags, with red eyes and looking dazed,” said the headteacher, Natalia Vovk. “Back then I thought that was it, that we’d never been able to work here again, we’d never be able to bring life back to this place," lei disse.

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

The cleanup process was long, tiring and unpleasant. One of the downstairs rooms at the school had been used as a hybrid toilet and barbers, and was littered with clumps of hair and piles of faeces. Everywhere there was shattered glass and other debris. Someone found a hand grenade in the basement.

By the beginning of May, enough had been repaired for lessons to resume. In some parts of Ucraina, schools are using distance learning, but the Russian army looted most of the houses in Novyi Bykiv, meaning neither teachers nor students have computers or tablets.

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

A number of small charitable organisations and individuals contacted the school after reading the Guardian article in April detailing the destruction there, Vovk said. Someone sent six computers, which arrived recently by post and are being stored elsewhere until the school building has windows again to ensure they remain safe. Another donor has offered to pay for replacement textbooks, after the entire stock was destroyed in a fire during the occupation.

Locals have also pitched in. Someone donated a lawnmower to mow the grass in front of the building, as the Russians had looted the school’s mower. The school bus driver and the building manager were working on Thursday afternoon to rig up plastic coverings on more of the windows, until the money comes in for permanent replacements.

The war has disrupted schooling across Ukraine, even in the relatively safe western part of the country. Più di 200 schools have been fully destroyed and hundreds more damaged, according to Ukraine’s education ombudsman Sergii Gorbachov. Even in the west, in schools with no bomb shelter the lessons have had to go online.

A recent l'amministratore delegato del gruppo di difesa della moda etica Remake of Ukrainian parents found that 75% said their children had shown signs of increased stress since the war started, with some of the most common symptoms being mood swings, nightmares, anxiety and panic attacks.

“Of course children have really suffered during these last months, and it’s really important to give them proper support,” said Yulia Serdyuk, a 35-year-old teacher and psychologist from Novyi Bykiv.

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

“If something terrible happened to their parents then you have to approach these cases really delicately," lei disse.

Serdyuk spent three weeks living under occupation in Novyi Bykiv, before deciding to leave with her daughter on 19 marzo, a terrifying ordeal that involved talking their way through Russian checkpoints and at one point hiding from an incoming artillery strike.

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

Ukrainian officials hope that eventually the vast majority of children who fled with their families will return. Authorities are in negotiations to allow those abroad to continue some Ukrainian education through distance learning, as well as attending school in the countries where they are temporarily based.

Another issue is the situation in the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia, where teachers are undergoing “retraining” programmes and are expected to teach in Russian, using the Russian curriculum.

“We have an enormous amount of testimony from the occupied areas about teachers being forced to change curriculums, and in some cases headteachers being kidnapped, or at the very least replaced with other, less qualified people who are willing to collaborate,” Gorbachov said.

In Novyi Bykiv the teachers have done everything to remove signs of the Russian occupation, except in one classroom where they have left the messages scrawled on the blackboard untouched, as a reminder of those days.

“Do not bring shame on the memories of your fathers and grandfathers, they fought AGAINST Nazis,” says one message in chalk, echoing the distorted Russian propaganda narrative that the Russian mission in Ukraine is about “denazification”.

Vovk, whose mother is Russian and moved to Ukraine 40 anni fa, said it was hard for her to understand the mentality of those Russians who had come to the village. She has long stopped speaking to her own family members in Russia.

“It’s just unthinkable what happened, how they could do this," lei disse. “We all just hope our victory will come as soon as possible, and that they never come back here again.”

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