Boetsja has a mattress ready for every student in the shelter

Screaming with laughter, director Lyubov Alexandrovna sits behind her desk at Botja School No. Three. The school is right next to the street where Ukrainian forces shot down a column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles a few days after the invasion began on February 24.

The roof of the school was badly damaged in that attack and the upper floors were badly damaged as a result. In addition, 280 broken windows must be replaced. Every computer and television screen from the school was stolen or demolished during the Russian occupation. But this is not why Alexandrovna laughed so much. She is exhausted and miserable because another journalist comes to visit her looted school, and she doesn’t want to answer any more questions.

The men are busy stripping the wood off the roof, letting it gurgle in the yard. “All schools in Botja are open again, except for ours,” says Deputy Principal Tatyana Chekhova, who, unlike her boss, is closer to tears than laughter. “We had five computer labs and now all the equipment is stolen or broken.” One of those rooms had an extra heavy metal door, which was pulled from the wall using the anchor and all. The same damage was also reported in looted houses in Poezia.

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“Bucha” has now become a symbol of the brutality of the Russian occupation. After the liberation of this suburb of Kyiv, it turned out that at least three hundred civilians were killed by the retreating Russian soldiers. Many women who survived the occupation reported being raped and sexually assaulted. Now people are trying to get back on their feet.

first bell

On September 1, Ukraine celebrates Knowledge Day, the beginning of the school year. For first graders, six years old, there is the first school bell ceremony. Girls wear white stockings and tulle flowers in their hair, and boys wear a white shirt, or vysjyvanka: the national costume with embroidery. Schools have not been open since the beginning of the invasion, although distance education continues in some cases.

Fearing a Russian attack, Mychailo Nakonechny (72), headmaster of School No. Five, decided to postpone the festivities of the first bell for a day. The fact that the windows that were smashed during the occupation were not repaired until the day before was a small problem, because teaching indoors is not yet possible here. Shelters must first be completed for this. “In the rare case that some kind of missile comes flying,” he explains. “Other projectiles aren’t doing enough right now.”

There is a slight burning smell in the schoolyard. Soot signs on the apartment building across the street indicate that the apartments have burned down. “There were tanks,” a parent whispered. Six-year-olds lined up in a semicircle, in their finest clothes with flowers in the hands of the teacher. They look serious. Before the first bell rings, the Ukrainian national anthem is heard from loudspeakers that are gently sung.

“I did not want to show any weakness to the children and their parents, but it was very difficult,” director Nakonichny later said of the ceremony, in his office furnished as a living room, with a pendant lamp and wooden cabinets full of utensils. I haven’t seen any kids here with their parents since February. My head was full of emotions. Ukraine is still alive, but no one knows what awaits us. ”

Four million students

Until the beginning of October, children of the fifth school will receive online lessons. The principal estimates that about 40 percent of students will continue to pursue distance education even after that – in part because children are still living abroad.

Ukraine has four million school-age children. By March, 2.5 million children of all ages had fled Ukraine. It is not known how many of these refugees have returned. At least 379 children have died in Ukraine as a result of the war, according to the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Service.

Only 60 per cent of Ukrainian schools were deemed safe enough to reopen. For School Number Five, this means that approximately 1,600 students use the school’s online classes, while there are only 650 physical places.

During the occupation, director Nakonichny stayed at the school to protect it – against the many Russian occupiers, and against our hateful people. I took care of the school and myself.” Until March 11, “about seventy” from the area sheltered under the building. The bombing destroyed the roof of the school’s church and the outbuilding set ablaze, but it was put out before the entire complex burned. The canteen was also shot “Hardly.”

All damages are now fixed with funds from eight international funders. “After the liberation, all the delegations came to Bucha and asked how they could help. Such a fund has arisen,” says Nakonichny.

I don’t know what happened. They went to evacuate and the children were injured

Mychailo Nakonechny Principal of the school in Bucha

Three children from his school did not survive the occupation. “A very talented eighth grade girl. She drew with great artistic quality. A boy from middle school and a girl from graduate school. I don’t know what happened. They went to evacuate and children and their parents were shot.”

Nakonichny is still thinking about how to honor the dead students at the school. First, the war must end. Also, the family should get along with them and difficult to communicate with them. There is a grandmother who to this day does not believe that her daughter and granddaughter are dead. We need to find a common language for this.”

Air raid shelters with mattresses

The modern Ukrainian gymnasium in Botja is fully operational. It is a light yellow four storey building, completed only two years ago. “Where is this going!” Director Larisa Storogic shouts loudly at a boy jumping through a bush to block the way. “Wow,” said the boy, smiling shyly. “Good afternoon.”

New gym students Van Boetsga takes English lessons in an air raid shelter.

Photo Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Storogic also remained at the school during the occupation and opened the basement doors to approximately 350 local residents. At that time, the basement was just a basement. Storozjik refers to the corner that people use as a toilet that they are afraid to leave the house.

View also this photo series: On the first day of school in Ukraine, schools with bomb shelters receive children

The huge basement is tightly furnished with several classrooms, there is also WiFi, there are also toilets and showers with running water. The basement has four entrances and eight exits. Each school year, a room was designated for air raid sirens.

In the event that Boetsja really comes under fire again, there will now be a mattress ready for every kid in the gym. Storogic says a lot of students are still taking remote lessons. “Parents do not like to abandon their children.”

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