LYUTIZH, Ukraine –
Inside a colourfully-painted school in the quiet town of Lyutizh, north of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, children are buzzing around as they start their day.
A group of joyful Grade 1 and 2 students laugh as they finish their mandatory warm breakfast of crepes and borsch soup in the cafeteria, while other children packed with energy skip through the halls and up the stairwells to class.
The squeaking of sneakers on a hardwood floor can be heard in the gym where a game of volleyball is being played. Another day of learning is underway, everything appears as it should, until you look a little closer and the bullet holes on the gymnasium wall come into focus.
Outside, the remnants of artillery fire from above mark the exterior walls. Near the monkey bars, where little ones hold on tight, eight craters once dotted the school yard following weeks of missile strikes.
In March 2022, Russian soldiers were just seven kilometres from this school, and waves of Russian helicopters from their 31st Air Assault Brigade were crossing over the Dnipro River within shooting range of the school. Fear paralyzed the community, innocent villagers lost their lives.
After months of repairs, broken shards of glass can still be found, though the school just managed to reopen in December. For these children, this is more than just a place of learning. It’s now a hub of safety and a haven of refuge during a time of war.
In teacher Alvina Pyrigh’s Grade 4 class, she points to the windows that were recently repaired after the entire frames were blown out by heavy shelling and gunfire. Pyrigh does her best to shelter and nurture her students each day, telling CTV National News, “I get emotional, these children mean everything to me. For our country, they’re the future.”
The day before we visit the school, only three children show up to learn in person. Early morning air raid sirens meant the majority of children stayed home. Concerns of an overnight barrage of Russian drones shot out of the sky has everyone on edge, and on high alert.
On a small wooden bench we sit down with a quiet, timid 10 year old named Sacha. His eyes light up as he talks about his favourite sport: boxing. He’s a southpaw and has a punching bag at home. But his eyes cast downwards when he opens up about what school is like these days. He tells us his wish “is for the sirens to stop, for the noise to stop.”
For schools to reopen in Ukraine, they must have a bomb shelter built. Every time an alarm sounds children must come downstairs and stay until they receive the all clear. The longest danger alert at this school lasted four hours.
A crater formed by shelling is seen in the schoolyard. (Photo: Adrian Ghobrial)
A bright, bubbly nine year old named Yulia shares that she’s “afraid of possible air attacks” though she also says, “I feel safe in the bomb shelter, that’s how we protect ourselves.”
There are multiple NGOs in the region helping repair schools, including Save the Children. Vsevolod Prokofiev, a spokesperson for Save the Children Ukraine, tells us that “more than 2,500 schools have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the beginning of the Russian Invasion.” The organization helped replace and repair the school’s boiler system.
“We offer psychosocial support for the kids by providing crafts and coloring books to keep their minds busy while in the bomb shelter,” Prokofiev also says.
Supporting Ukrainian children who’ve already lived through a pandemic, and now 12 months of war, is a full-time job as the Russian invasion enters its second year.
When the power grid is attacked it’s not just the electricity that goes out inside the school, but also the heaters. Young Yulia tells us “it gets cold when the lights go out both at school and at home,” where virtual learning can come to a standstill until the power is restored.
As she sings a song in Ukrainian while playing the piano in her classroom, teacher Lessia Herenco uses music to warm hearts and minds. “All of this have been very difficult for everyone here, for children and for teachers,” she says.
Many students at the school have fathers who’ve volunteered with the army. They’re now on the front lines fighting for their children’s future.
Shattered windows are seen at the school in Lyutizh, Ukraine. (Photo: Adrian Ghobrial)
When asked how her job as a teacher has changed since the war began, Pyrigh says: “now I’m not only a teacher but a mother too. I care for them all. When they go to the bomb shelter I worry if they’ll all make it there safely. Some of the kids’ hands begin to shake and I try and hide how worried I really am for their wellbeing.”
As she sits on the edge of a windowsill, little Yulia — who tells us she’ll soon turn 10 — says she hopes children in Canada “never have to go through what I’ve experienced. I want them to live in peace.” Yulia’s hope for her own future is for “everything to go back to the way it was.
“I want the war to end,” she says.
During our visit a group of camera-shy Grade 7s stops us. They have a genuine message they’d like to share with Canadians, as they look us in the eyes they simply say: “Thank you.”