In Botswana, a mattress is ready for each student at the shelter

Director Lyubov Alexandrovna, screaming with laughter, sits behind her desk in Butja’s number three school. The school is right next to the street where a column of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers were shot down by Ukrainian forces just days after the invasion began on February 24.

The school’s roof was badly damaged in that attack, and the upper floors suffered extensive water damage as a result. In addition, 280 broken windows must be replaced. In addition, all computers and television screens were stolen or torn down from the school during the Russian occupation. But that is not why Alexandrovna laughs so much. Exhausted and miserable that yet another reporter is coming to visit her ransacked school, she doesn’t want to answer any more questions.

Men are busy prying all the wood off the roof and letting it clatter into the yard. “All schools in Butja are open again, except ours,” says deputy director Tatyana Chekhova, who, unlike her boss, is closer to crying than laughing. “We had five computer labs and now all the equipment has been stolen or destroyed.” One of those rooms had an extra heavy metal door that was pulled out of the wall with anchors and all. The same damage has also been reported in looted houses in Botswana.

also read With ‘Boetsja’, Europe has a great trauma

‘Butsha’ has now become a symbol of the brutality of the Russian occupation. After the liberation of this suburb of Kiev, it was found that at least three hundred civilians had been murdered by retreating Russian soldiers. Many women who survived the occupation reported rape and sexual assault. Now the people are trying to get back on their feet.

The first bell

On September 1, Ukraine celebrates Knowledge Day, the start of the school year. For the first graders of six years, there is the ceremony of the first school bell. The girls have white stockings and tulle flowers in their hair, the boys a white shirt or a vyshyvanka: the national dress with embroidery. Schools have not been open since the start of the invasion, although education continued remotely in some cases.

Fearing a Russian attack, Mychailo Nakonechny (72), director of school number five, decided to postpone the celebrations at the first bell for a day. The fact that the windows, which were broken during the occupation, were only repaired the day before was a minor problem, because teaching indoors is not yet possible here. For this, the shelters must first be completed. “In the rare event that some kind of rocket comes flying in,” he explains. “Other projectiles don’t go far enough now.”

There is a faint smell of burning in the schoolyard. Soot signs on the apartment block across the street indicate that apartments have burned out. “There were tanks there,” whispers one of the parents. The six-year-olds are lined up in a semi-circle, in their finest clothes with flowers in the teacher’s hands. They look dead serious. Before the first bell is rung, the Ukrainian national anthem blares from loudspeakers and is carefully sung along.

“I didn’t want to show any weakness to the children and their parents, but it was very difficult,” director Nakonechny says later of the ceremony, in his office decorated like a living room, with a hanging lamp and wooden cabinets full of gadgets. “I have not seen any children with parents here since February. My head was full of emotions. Ukraine is still alive, but no one knows what lies ahead.”

Four million school children

Until the beginning of October, the children at Skole Nummer Fem will receive online lessons. The director estimates that around 40 percent of the students will continue to follow distance learning even after that – partly because the children still live abroad.

Ukraine has four million children of school age. In March, 2.5 million children of all ages had fled Ukraine. It is not known how many of these refugees have returned. At least 379 children in Ukraine have died as a result of the war, according to the Ukrainian Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Only 60 percent of Ukrainian schools were deemed safe enough to reopen. For School Number Five, this means that approximately 1,600 students use the online classes at the school, while there are only 650 physical places.

During the occupation, director Nakonechny stayed at the school to protect it “from the many Russian occupiers and our own unpleasant people. I took care of the school and myself.” Until March 11, “about seventy” people from the area also sought shelter at the bottom of the building. Shelling destroyed the roof of the church belonging to the school and an outbuilding caught fire, but was extinguished before the entire complex burned down. The canteen was also “very badly shot”.

All damage has now been repaired with money from eight international financiers. “After the liberation, all kinds of delegations came to Butsha and asked how they could help. A fund has emerged from this,” says Nakonechny.

I do not know what happened. They went to evacuate and the children were shot

Mychailo Nakonechny School director in Butcha

Three children from his school did not survive the occupation. “A very talented girl from eighth grade. She painted with great artistic quality. And a boy from the middle school and a girl from the graduating class. I do not know what happened. They went to evacuate and the children and their parents were shot.”

Nakonechny is still thinking about how to honor the slain students at the school. First the war must be over. The family must also agree, and it is difficult to get in touch with them. There is a grandmother who to this day does not believe that her daughter and granddaughter are dead. We need to find a common language for this.”

Air-raid shelters with mattresses

The modern Ukrainian high school Butja is fully operational. It is a four-storey pastel yellow building which was completed just two years ago. “Where is it going!” Director Larisa Storozjik sternly shouts at a boy who jumps through the bushes to cut off the road. “Wow,” the boy says, smiling shyly. “Good afternoon.”

Pupils from the brand new Gymnasium van Boetsja takes English lessons in a shelter.

Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Storozjik also stayed at the school during the occupation and opened the doors to the basement for about 350 local residents. Back then, the basement was just a basement. Storozjik points to the corner used as a toilet by people too afraid to go outside.

See also this photo series: On the first day of school in Ukraine, schools with bomb shelters receive children

The huge basement is now densely furnished with several classrooms, there is WiFi and there are even toilets and bathrooms with running water. The basement has four entrances and eight exits. Each school year, a room was designated for when the air raid siren sounds.

Should Boetsja really come under fire again, there will now be a mattress ready for every child at the Gymnasium. But here, too, many students still follow the lessons remotely, says Storozjik. “Parents don’t like to abandon their children.”

Leave a Comment