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Ukrainian schoolchildren learn to the echoes of shelling

A boy runs along sandbags covering the windows of a school aimed at protecting children in case of shelling in the small Ukrainian town of Marinka on November 25, 2016. AFP / ALEXEY FILIPPOV

MARINKA, Ukraine: Two long bells mean children must pack their blankets and clothing and run into a bomb shelter at this dilapidated school on the front line of Ukraine’s smoldering war. The drills in the government-held town of Marinka that was once home to 10,000 people have been held monthly since the conflict broke out with pro-Russian insurgents in April 2014.

And sometimes there has been actual shelling. One rebel assault on the town killed 20 people in June last year.

“In the early days, I used to get frightened when every shot was fired,” 15-year-old Tanya Mokraya told AFP.

“I would cry and be unable to sleep. But now I am used to it. I often walk home from school to the sound of automatic gunfire,” the 10th-grader said.

Three hundred children used to attend the Marinka school before Ukraine was hurled into its worst military crisis since World War II.

The building itself looks more like a well-fortified military outpost than a school.

The doors are pockmarked with bullet holes while the walls are covered with posters warning about landmines that litter the surrounding fields.

The windows are protected with stacks of sandbags to make sure that no one gets hurt by stray shrapnel.

And the entrance is guarded by military policemen wearing body armor and carrying machineguns.

The kids are forced to stay inside until the fighting that periodically breaks out stops.

Many families fled Marinka after the June 2015 attacks – never to return. Mokraya herself went to five different schools across government-held parts of Ukraine after the fighting broke out.

She returned to Marinka in September and now attends half-empty classes taught only by teachers who are willing to brave the conflict.

“I am sad that the school has become kind of boring and there are so few children. But it is good that it is open at all,” Mokraya said.

“Last month the school came under fire. All the floors were hit and more than 40 windows were shattered,” Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Kindsfater told AFP.

“It is not the first time the rebels have targeted this school. It comes under constant fire.”

Kindsfater accuses the rebels of launching strikes to keep the locals fearful and angry that the Ukrainian army has been unable to protect them. “The first thing these kinds of attacks do is make people furious with us,” the Ukrainian military spokesman said.

“They think that if there was no Ukrainian army here, the insurgents would not be attacking them.”

The school’s teachers meanwhile are careful about assigning blame for why Western efforts and endless negotiations have brought no end to the 31-month war that has killed nearly 10,000 people and driven 1.7 million from their homes.

“We all live in hope that the fighting will end, that the children will return and we will resume work just as we did in the old days,” physical education instructor Tatyana Chaus said.

“We have learned how to cook on bonfires. We have lived without heat and lighting and hid from gunshots. And through it all, we have learned to love our town and our work. We want this school to survive,” Chaus told AFP.

On the opposite side of the front a similar school operates in the pro-Russian rebel-run town of Yasinovataya, some 20 km from the insurgents’ de facto capital of Donetsk.

It too is plastered with mine warnings and has had many of its windows blown out.

The school’s green and red markers point in the direction of its own basement bomb shelter.

Principal Yelena Averina said her school came under attack from Ukrainian government troops in both 2014 and 2015. She once had to order children to come just once a week to pick up homework for the week ahead while fighting raged around them.

A Sept. 1 schoolyear truce has allowed children to return to their regular routine as most of the fighting in the town has subsided.

“But we still conduct bomb shelter drills,” Averina said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2016, on page 6.

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