‘An Act of Terrorism’Putin’s War on Ukraine’s Children
Sian Norris reports on Russia’s armed violence against Ukraine’s schools, and the impact of the war on the country’s most vulnerable population
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Russian forces have attacked and damaged dozens of schools in Ukraine, as part of an assault designed to break the country’s infrastructure and morale, Byline Times can reveal.
Data from the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) records 23 direct hits from Russian explosive arms on schools where civilians have been killed or injured, with a further 40 incidents of schools damaged by shelling, leading to civilian casualties. Its data is based on reports of civilian casualties in English-language news media.
However, data that focuses more broadly on attacks on infrastructure puts the figure far higher. Plan International, an NGO focusing on children’s safety and rights, told Byline Times that 361 schools have been destroyed in the war since the escalation of the conflict on 24 February last year – with more than 2,600 being damaged.
For Dasha, a former headteacher in Donetsk who is now living in Poland, the destruction of her beloved and prestigious school was devastating. The school, she said, “used to represent the future for Ukrainian children and now it’s all gone”. Dasha is receiving direct cash support from Plan International.
The most deadly attack on a school took place in July 2022, in Bilohirivka in the Luhansk Oblast. The Russian airstrike killed 62 civilians. AOAV has also recorded incidents of children killed during strikes against schools – on the second day of the war, a child was killed when a cluster bomb exploded and damaged a school in Sumy, north-eastern Ukraine.
In March 2022, a boy was killed during an attack on a school in Mariupol, while in Donetsk in May, one child was killed and three schools damaged by Russian forces.
One attack on a school in the Kyiv Oblast was described to Byline Times by Sven Coppens, Plan International’s director of its Ukraine response. “It was devastating,” he said. “There was a kindergarten opposite the local health centre. The Russian forces used the kindergarten as an ammunition depot and when they left the location, the kindergarten was blown up.”
“I’m not going to mince my words, this is an act of terrorism,” the Global Fund for Children’s Joseph Bednarek told Byline Times. “If you shell a few schools you could claim it as an accident, but not this. This is deliberate destruction and that is state-sponsored terrorism. There is only one reason why you would do this, and that is to terrify the population.”
The Attack on Childhood
Since the war began, there have been 341 child casualties of explosive armed violence in Ukraine. This figure includes children who have been both injured and killed and is based on English-language media reports.
The United Nations estimates there are 2.5 million children internally displaced in the country, with a further two million refugee children living outside of Ukraine.
All of these children have been witness to the horrors of war and have had their education interrupted. For some, that will be because their school was destroyed by Russian shells, or occupied by Russian forces for military purposes. For others, it will be because they have been forced to flee.
Losing access to education has a profound impact on a child’s cognitive development. School, says Coppens, is a “stabiliser” for children in times of disruption and a safe haven, particularly for at-risk children.
“We are getting alarming evidence that children, parents and teachers – whether in Ukraine or in a neighbouring country – are reaching the limits of their resilience,” Coppens told Byline Times. “The longer the conflict, the longer that children do not have access to safe spaces, the higher the impact and the longer the impact on psychosocial development and wellbeing.”
Children dealing with the violence of war are struggling with withdrawal. Charity workers and teachers supporting refugees scattered across eastern Europe describe how children have stopped speaking – a symptom of extreme trauma. Discipline is another issue, with children acting out and engaging in anti-social behaviour.
“It is vulnerable kids who are hit hardest,” Coppens said.
While children of both sexes are vulnerable to the emotional and physical health impacts of war and lost education, girls are at specific risk of sexual violence and exploitation. Safety nets for girls from abuse and violence are eroded, while those crossing borders are at risk of trafficking.
“Rape is a weapon of war and we are seeing that in places that have been occupied,” said Bednarek. “We also know that girls crossing borders, sometimes getting separated from their caregivers, are at risk of trafficking. That robs them of their autonomy and their childhoods.”
Hope for the Future
While the attacks on Ukraine’s schools and education infrastructure are devastating, Coppens told Byline Times that “we are not yet talking about a lost generation”.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Education has implemented various measures to encourage continued learning, including online lessons – although it’s estimated that in December, half of online lessons were cancelled due to attacks on energy infrastructure.
“The Ukrainian people take education very seriously and they are resilient and adaptable,” said Bednarek. “They see education as desirable and are committed to keeping it going”. The Global Fund for Children supports efforts to help children carry on their lessons, including projects that help children learn from home, and that support children to process trauma through the arts.
Coppens and his team at Plan International are working with partners on the ground in Ukraine and neighbouring countries to support children’s education, including through funding play activities for refugee families, and projects offering school rehabilitation and psychosocial support to those struggling with trauma.
There are no illusions, however, about the challenges children face. The longer the war continues, the more harm will be inflicted on children’s education and development, which in turn has an impact on Ukraine’s social and economic future.
“You can rehabilitate infrastructure very quickly,” Coppens told Byline Times. “But if we don’t rehabilitate the population of affected people, by taking care of their mental health, that’s going to be the hamper for the longer-term development.”