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“To study, I had been going to the cemetery”: How Ukrainians struggle for children’s education in near-frontline Snihurivka

It was seven o’clock in the morning on February 24, 2022, in the town of Snihurivka, the Mykolaiv region. 14-year-old boy Vania woke up to go to school, local Lyceum No. 3. However, that is not what happened next.

“My mom said that everyone should stay home because a war had started. At around 10:00 in the morning, my mom’s brother, who was a soldier (he was a scout and died on October 8, 2022), called and said that tanks were coming from Crimea,” the boy recalls.

One of the schools in Snihurivka that was damaged by Russian shelling.
Photo: Maks Nemykin

Russia’s war against Ukraine had been going on for eight years at that point, with Crimes and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions temporarily occupied. With the launch of a full-scale invasion, it had reached Snihurivka. 

In more than a year and a half that followed, Snihurivka was occupied, then liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and now, despite the proximity to the front line, the town is trying to rebuild life and ensure children’s access to education.

The strategically important town

Before the full-scale war, Snihurivka, located on the banks of the Inhulets River, was home to 12,000 residents. There were four schools in the town, with nearly 1,235 children attending. Additionally, the town had the Children’s School of the Arts. Today, none of these institutions remain intact.

Initially, the town wasn’t shelled, but on March 2 and 3, 2022, Russian military columns passed through Snihurivka. The town holds strategic significance as it provides access to routes leading to Kherson and Mykolaiv, and further on to Kryvyi Rih.

“The columns were so large that people living on the central street counted over a thousand units. It was a continuous flow of people and equipment. The Russians thought they were expected here; they were sitting in their vehicles and waving. We still had electricity at that time, and people were doing live broadcasts to show to our soldiers from the Armed Forces what was happening,” recalls Victoria Chernysheva, the principal of the Snihurivka Lyceum.

Victoria Chernysheva in an episode of the show “20:23”, dedicated to education in Snihurivka.
Photo: Maks Nemykin

The situation was complicated by the fact that the town of Snihurivka is only 170 kilometers from Crimea and only 55 kilometers from Kherson, a regional center that was occupied in the first week of the full-scale invasion.

On March 19, 2022, Snihurivka fell under occupation, which lasted for a lengthy eight months. Russian forces immediately began fortifying their positions around the city to maintain control.

Life under occupation

Olena Lohvynova is the principal of Lyceum No. 3 in Snihurivka. Before the full-scale war, she led the Children’s School of the Arts.

“No one could have even imagined that the Russians would come to our town. On March 19, I watched from the window of my flat as the occupiers hung their pants on the trees in our schoolyard and dug trenches in the rose bushes. We had grown those roses with our students,” the principal recounts.

Local schools were concluding the academic year online due to the occupation and the proximity to the front line: the town was just a few kilometers away from the active combat zone.

Some students and teachers managed to evacuate, but the road was dangerous because Snihurivka lacked a “green corridor” to guarantee the safe passage of civilians.

Life in the town during the occupation was challenging. There was a shortage of food and medicine, and residents had to travel to the occupied city of Kherson to obtain them.

In September 2022, Vania was supposed to start the 10th grade. Snihurivka was still under Russian occupation, but the boy needed to continue his education.

During the Russian occupation, Vania continued his studies online.
Photo: Maks Nemykin

Vania remembers that, at that time, he could only get a cell phone signal in a few places.

“We went to the nearest spot. We called it the ‘dimple.’ It was a place behind the old cemetery. At the beginning of September, the orcs (the term Ukrainians sometimes used for Russian occupiers since the beginning of the invasion – ed.) banned us from being there, and we had to move to the cemetery. The signal was worse there, but I had no other options. Teachers sent assignments, and I completed and submitted them. It took a long time because the internet connection was almost non-existent,” Vania says.

The boy continued his studies in this way for two months, until November 10, 2022, when Ukrainian forces liberated Snihurivka. “It was a joy that I had never felt before in my entire life. My family and I made salads and organized a mini-celebration for our soldiers,” Vania recalls

Explosions are still audible

Since the beginning of the invasion, Snihurivka has become one of the most affected by combat operations towns in the Mykolaiv region.

It has been almost a year since Ukrainian military forces liberated Snihurivka, but local schools continue to operate remotely.

Firstly, Snihurivka is still located close to the front line: it is currently just 40 kilometers away. Secondly, not all schools have proper shelters. 

Thirdly, some of the city’s schools were destroyed by Russian shelling and can’t be restored. For example, the Taras Shevchenko Gymnasium was completely broken down in March 2022.

“On March 24, during a nighttime shelling, the Russians practically demolished our beloved, warm, beautiful school. They pierced the roof and the wall in the inner courtyard, shattered the windows, and broke the doors. Only a miracle can revive it,” says the school principal, Natalia Pastukhova, regarding the destruction.

In September 2022, a Russian rocket destroyed the Children’s School of the Arts. Olena Lohvynova recalls that she cried only twice during the war.

“The first time was on September 2, 2022, when I saw what Russians did with my beloved School of the Arts. It was a pile of rubble with surviving side and front walls, on which, through the shattered windows, you could see diplomas, thank-you notes, and photographs. And beneath the debris was a century-old grand piano on which, as a seven-year-old student, I played my first exercises. The second time, it was tears of joy on November 10 when our town was liberated,” Olena Lohvynova remembers.

The last time education in Snihurivka suffered losses was during the shelling of the community on Easter night, in the early hours of April 16, 2023.

That day, Russian missiles hit two schools – the remnants of the Taras Shevchenko Gymnasium and Snihurivka Lyceum. While the first institution is currently in the process of liquidation, the second lyceum requires extensive repairs.

Overall, as of October 2023, Russian shelling has affected 3,780 educational institutions in Ukraine since February 2022. Of these, 363 were destroyed, and half of them were schools.

Education remains one of the most affected sectors, according to “Russia Will Pay”, a project of the Kyiv School of Economics, which works with government agencies to collect data on the material damage caused by the war.

The documented direct losses from the destruction of educational institutions amount to $9.7 billion. The largest losses from destruction and damage to educational institutions occurred in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Chernihiv, Zaporizhia, Kyiv, and Mykolaiv regions.

Due to the proximity to the front line, 297 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged in the Mykolaiv region. Among them, 19 schools were completely destroyed, and 122 schools were damaged. 

And this is not just about the number of ruined buildings. It’s about years of normal education stolen from Ukrainian children.

According to Vitaliy Kim, Head of the Mykolayiv Regional Military Administration, 4,400 children in the region have no access to education because educational institutions have been destroyed.

Underground Education

The only relatively intact educational institution in Snihurivka today is Lyceum No. 3, where 240 children are currently studying. Their number is expected to reach 600 after another town’s lyceum, which lacks proper shelter, will be closed next year. 

However, Russian shelling did not spare this school either. The roof was damaged, and the windows were shattered. 

By October 2023, the roof was repaired by local craftsmen, and the charitable foundation savED helped to find resources for repairing windows. The company Rehau took measurements, and the Embassy of Lithuania contributed funds to provide the school with new energy-efficient windows. 

Currently, setting up a shelter is the most important task. Snihurivka is still under constant shelling. Therefore, it is impossible to organize a safe educational process without a proper shelter.

The uniqueness of the lyceum is that there is an “underground” school beneath it, a shelter that can be transformed into a full-fledged educational space. However, this requires significant funds.

At present, savED is helping with a shelter for the lyceum. In particular, in cooperation with the fund, popular TV presenter Zhenya Yanovich collected 1.5 million UAH ($41,000) for this shelter. To do this, Zhenya dedicated an episode of the show “20:23” to Snihurivka Lyceum No. 3 and its story. With these funds, one of the rooms of the shelter and a bathroom will be equipped. 

After Yanovich’s broadcast, Oschadbank and Visa decided to join the initiative. They launched the campaign “Give Shelter to Children”: the bank transfers one hryvnia for the arrangement of Snihurivka Lyceum No. 3 from any transaction made with a Visa card from Oschadbank.

In addition to that, with the support of Plan International, savED has already begun to set up a digital learning center in the school’s shelter. This will be a modern space with gadgets, books, board games, and, most importantly, new educational opportunities for children to learn and communicate.

“In the conditions in which Snihurivka currently exists, creating a full-fledged educational space within the shelter is perhaps the only option to return children to offline learning. We call this ‘underground education.’ Thanks to our partners, we have already accomplished a lot, but there is still much work ahead. The shelter occupies the entire school premises, so we continue to seek partners to set up additional learning spaces there,” says Anna Novosad, co-founder of the charitable foundation savED and the former Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine (2019-2020).

The foundation notes that there is still a lot of work to be done regarding the shelter. However, progress has been made. As soon as the shelter is completed, children will finally be able to return to offline learning – if the overall security situation in the region allows it.