On the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) presents accounts of children, born in the first year of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and of their parents about their respective expectations from the first year of school: “My children have never seen a peaceful sky”.

The children’s everyday life, their daily roundabouts and school expectations are shown in 59 photos made in different towns and villages along the conflict’s contact line in the Donbas.

Many schools, kindergartens and other educational institutions in eastern Ukraine have been affected by the armed conflict; some of them directly damaged by shelling and shooting. Even nowadays, more than six years into the conflict, educational institutions continue being directly affected by hostilities. For many children, the daily walk to school can be dangerous, and in some cases the education process in schools situated on the very line of contact is interrupted by armed hostilities.

Within the broader Access to Education Framework, the ICRC delegation in Ukraine is using a multidisciplinary approach to address the situation of people affected by the conflict in the Donbas, and tries to improve safety of schools and kindergartens, thus contributing to the creation of a child-friendly atmosphere and safe environment. The ICRC’s Safer Access to Education program also aims to increase risk awareness among children, their teachers and parents, to improve evacuation procedures, and to reinforce their resilience.

Key activities include safe behavior development, providing a safe environment for children and the wider school community and helping them cope with the effects of the conflict: mine risk awareness sessions, psychosocial support and training sessions for teachers, distribution of educational and child development materials, anti-blast protective measures, repair/rehabilitation of educational infrastructure, enhancement of school kitchen facilities, creation of safe play spaces, provision of play and sports equipment, equipping of school basements/improvised shelters and provision of first aid training and kits.

Since 2015, this ICRC program has been extended to hundreds of educational institutions along the 450-km long conflict’s contact line in the Donbas.

“I’m going to be the best student in a school and become an architect in the future. Then I will rebuild all damaged houses in my village”

Volodymyr, 6 y.o., Chermalyk village

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Vova’s family resides in the outskirts of Chermalyk village only a few hundred meters away from the contact line. Unfortunately, it means that shooting and shelling has become a routine for Volodymyr and his relatives. Vova’s mother Ludmila came under sniper fire for several times trying to milk a cow in the courtyard of their house. The life in the conflict-affected area has impacted the boy greatly. For example, his parents say that Vova’s favorite toys are pistols and rifles.  At the same time, he wants to become an architect, when he grows up. His parents are happy that in the end he wants to build, not to break.

“I’m dreaming about making a lot of new friends at school”

Tamara, 6 y.o., Chermalyk village

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Tamara and her two brothers are inseparable and like to spend free time together playing outside. The kids are climbing trees, playing ball and riding bicycles all day long like other children around the world. Where Tamara and her brothers are different from most other children is that they do not cringe and scream when they hear gunfire and artillery or find fragments of exploded ammunition. Tamara’s mom Yulia says that her kids simply got used to live in an armed conflict: “I’m haunted by the idea that Tamara and her little brother Tikhon have never seen a peaceful sky above their heads”.

“I want to go to school because I want to learn everything about this world”

Sofia, 6 y.o., Krasnohorivka

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It happened in 2018. Sofia was in the room where her friends were trying to dismantle an unexploded ordnance. It exploded. Sofia suffered multiple shrapnel injuries and almost lost a finger on her right hand. Doctors saved the girl’s life, however, around 50 pieces of shrapnel remain in Sofia’s body.

Sofia is energetic and inquisitive child who loves to explore the world around her. She has a great interest in English language learning. She spends hours with her laptop studying online.

Sofia’s biggest dream is to become a world-famous ballerina.

“I think that school is the place where you don’t feel lonely”

Mykyta, 5 y.o., Bakhmutka

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When Mykyta was a baby he and his family spent a lot of time in a basement due to intense hostilities going on around his native village. Those troubled days have affected the boy. Mykyta’s relatives believe that life in the conflict affected area resulted in certain memory and speech issues. “Mykyta is a very gifted and talented boy, however, sometimes it is hard for him to remember new information”, says his mother. Mykyta loves to play with other children, but most of the time, for security reasons he must play alone in the courtyard of the house.

“I want to learn how to read so I could read my favorite books about animals”

Kamila, 6 y.o., Bakhmutka

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Kamila has grown up too fast alike many kids of the Donbas Region. Today she helps her parents to run their household at the cost of her playing with other kids. Kamila spends hours and hours with domestic animals and her pets. She really likes all her kittens, chickens, cows, piglets and it seems that her future is in the veterinary medicine. For now, Kamila’s great love for animals remains a good coping mechanism to deal with multiple stresses of her life at the conflict’s contact line.

“I love a lot of things, and I do them with passion”

Yulia, 7 y.o., Pervomayske village

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Yulia lives with her family in the village of Pervomayske, and her room in the house is not much different from any other child’s room. It is full of toys, books, photographs and drawings, but there is one big hole on Julia’s wall that she covered with a puzzle poster. A hole was made by shelling of her village, reminding that the war is only a few hundreds of meters away. Yulia’s mother works in a nearby Selidovo village at the bakery and her father is oncology patient. In the free time between his disease treatments, he is almost all the time with his daughter.

Yulia is a very creative and friendly, only she gets afraid and shy with strangers. Her parents say that it is because of everything she has been going through living near the conflict’s contact line. She is relaxed and carefree only at home, with her family, where she is chatty, telling her stories about her toys or painting pictures.

“I like helping people and I would like it to be my vocation”

David, 7 y.o., Pervomayske village

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Some years back David lived with his mother in Donetsk, now his grandmother’s house in the village of Pervomayske is his home. David is looking forward to the school year to make some new friends. His mother, grandmother and grandfather are confident that David will succeed in what he wishes to do in life, but for now, they smile watching him happy fiddling with his grandfather’s old motorbike or go with his grandmother to swim in the pond.

David also likes playing football, and he is waiting for the moment when playing would be possible not only in his own yard. Upcoming school and studying does not scare him at all, the schoolbag is already folded and waiting to be used. The boy says that he dreams of becoming a firefighter. “Everyone needs a job, you know, and mine is to help others”, explains David.

“To be friends is to take care of each other”

Artem and Polina, 7 y.o., Troitske village

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Artem and Polina live in the village of Troitske. They are friends and often play together. And they hope to go to school together. The boy and the girl also dream of traveling, reading books, and they are inventing their own worlds through their games. Friends started the game of inventing the worlds because conflict limits them to go freely anywhere with their parents. The children also have no basement to hide. What they do is listen when the shelling starts and try to distinguish the types of flying shells by their noise, to know when it is nearby and how deadly it is.

Artem and Polina really want to go to school. Artem is waiting for physical education lessons, and Polina is dreaming about math. But they are sure that no matter what they will continue to take care of each other at school, because this is how strong their friendship is.

“We often sit and hug together and cry. And I want us not crying anymore”

Kateryna, 6 y.o., Troitske village

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Kateryna lives in the village of Troitske in a quiet street. During sunny summer days, it is only her sister’s and her laughter that disturbs the singing silence of the village. Of course, apart from the whistle of bullets or guns’ roar. And then Kateryna hides with her sister and mother in the house, hugging each other, and cry.

Katya really hates when the silence of her street gets disturbed by shelling. And she really loves that she will go to school. She says it will be her first step to becoming a hairdresser. Although she already does her mom’s and sister’s hairstyles.

“I love those who help others. And I want to be useful to others too”

Oleg, 6 y.o., Stanytsia Luhanska

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Oleg dreams of becoming a driver. To travel far destinations. To be able to travel to see his sister and brother more often. They are adults and live their adult lives away from him, in other parts of Ukraine and one of them in another country. Oleg and his mother had left Stanytsia Luhanska when it got dangerous there, and even now upon their return, they often must hide away, during many episodes of increase of hostilities in the ongoing Ukraine conflict. Oleg says that before they had to run to his grandmother’s house, but last year they built their own basement.

Oleg helps his mother with the housework and promises not to forget about her when he grows up and begins travel distant places. He is also happy to tell her that when he grows up, he will be able to help not only her, but all the people needing help.

“The most important is to become a “real” person”

Anton, 6 y.o., Stanytsia Luhanska

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When you talk to Anton, it’s hard to believe that he is only 6 years old. He gives you detailed list of his hobbies and explains them like an adult. His older brother is Anton’s role model. He would love to be like him in everything. It is also true that children in Stanytsia Luhanska grow up quickly, as Elena, Anton’s mother tells us.

Anton says that he has not yet decided who he wants to become when he grows up. What he is now thinking about is what school subject will become his favorite. Perhaps physical education, because he loves running and boxing so much. Or maybe mathematics or computer science, because these are his older brother’s favorites. “The main thing”, Anton says is: “to become a real person.”

“I love dreaming, because no one can take dreams away”

Victoria, 5 y.o., Stanytsia Luhanska

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Victoria will be six years old in October, but she hopes to go to school this year. She says that she has learned to read and count long ago, and therefore is ready for school. Victoria often imagines what it will be like to be a schoolgirl. And she is also dreaming of getting new friends there, and of how fun and interesting will be playing with them, and of whether it would be possible to share secrets with them. And she knows that dreaming about them is the first step towards making your wishes true.

All photos are by Yevhen Nosenko/ICRC

About the International Day to Protect Education from Attack:

For the first time, the international community is preparing to celebrate September 9 as the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack. Here you can watch statement on this important issue by the ICRC President Peter Maurer.