Ukrainian children learn to the echoes of shelling
Two long bells mean children must pack their blankets and clothing and run into a bomb shelter at this dilapidated school on the frontline 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 10thgrader 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.
‘Furious with army’
“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.