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Russian bombs force Ukrainian schoolchildren underground

May 28, 2024

Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine, is under constant Russian fire. DW met children there who could finally attend class in person after two years of war — in an underground school.

A brightly painted and windowless classroom full of attentive Ukrainian third-graders on their first day of in-class schooling in more than two years
Some semblance of normal life: children in Kharkiv have not been able to learn and play with classmates for two yearsImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

People in the Ukrainian frontline city of Kharkiv are still searching for the dead, identifying corpses. On Saturday, Russian forces fired two guided bombs at a home improvement store, killing at least 18 people and injuring over 40 more — seven are still unaccounted for.

A DW reporter was in Kharkiv last week as air-raid sirens blared for 16 hours straight. It was impossible to sleep because the city was under constant missile and drone attacks. Still, the next morning, nine-year-old Sashko got up, combed his hair, ate his breakfast and went to school for the first time in the two years since Russia launched its invasion.

A red-headed female teacher in front of a chalkboard speaks to children seated at their desks, one of whom turns to smile at a classmate
"We are standing strong. We have chosen to stay in Kharkiv. It's our home," says teacher Natalya SchwezImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

An underground school for 900 children

"A real school bell," says teacher Natalya Schwez as she turns to a room full of third-graders at their desks. "Welcome to the underground school."

There are 11 children in the classroom, all of them wearing traditional embroidered blouses and shirts. Another nine are attending remotely from abroad. Schwez is no less excited about being in the classroom than the children. The last time she saw pupils in person was on February 23, 2022.

"The next day, we heard explosions," she says as she recalls the start of the invasion. "Some fled, others thought the school would be open, but everyone was wondering how it would be possible to continue holding classes."

From then on, there were only online classes. Since that time, Russia has destroyed more than half the schools in Kharkiv. That is why city authorities last year decided to use Kharkiv's subway stations to set up underground classrooms for more than 2,000 pupils.

On May 13, an entire school was opened — six meters (20 feet) underground — offering 900 pupils the chance to study in two shifts a day. City officials plan to open more such schools in other districts around Kharkiv as soon as possible.

Ukraine sets up wartime schools in Kharkiv subway

Ukrainian children grow up in a war zone

"My mother experienced war as a child. I never thought my daughter or any of these kids would experience it. They hear the explosions again and again," says Schwez.

Her daughter graduated after the war started, but there was no traditional graduation ball, no dancing, no gown.

The day in the new underground classroom begins with the Ukrainian national anthem. Lessons are often interrupted by air-raid sirens, and electricity is regularly cut off in various parts of the city. Still, the children remain at their desks. They have everything they need for class.

Sashko had only participated in online schooling until today.

"That wasn't very nice. My eyes got sore, and the power was often cut off," says the boy.

When explosions interrupted lessons he ran out into the hallway to protect himself.

"But I got used to it," he says about the constant Russian bombardments.

Sashko says he missed school, but he also knew that it was simply too dangerous to be in a normal classroom because bombs could always fall nearby.

"It's less sad and tragic when buildings get destroyed than when people die," says the third-grader.

'I don't want to leave without Papa'

Russia has been conducting a massive offensive in the Kharkiv region since early May. Its troops have increasingly shelled Kharkiv and seem intent on moving into the city. Residents know what that means — that their houses could once again come under fire as they did at the start of the Russian invasion. Though there is no sense of panic, many in the city are nevertheless thinking about leaving.

Sashko's family could leave, too.

"But I don't want to leave without Papa," says the little boy, vowing to stay despite the bombardment. "I've lived here for nine years."

Sashko was born here in Kharkiv. He says he has visited other cities, but he didn't like them.

"I just always missed my room," he emphasizes.

Serhiy Antonov, who walks his son Sashko to the underground school, waits at the door for a few minutes.

"This really brings our kids joy," he says with a smile as he takes a picture of his son at his desk.

Yegor, a classmate, was brought to school by his mother. Both his father and his older brother are in the Ukrainian army, fighting on the front.

"I was very sad," he says as he recalls the day that they both went to war. "I want the war to be over."

Then he runs off to join his classmates for recess. With them, he can forget his sadness for a while.

A young Ukrainian schoolgirl with long dark hair writes in her workbook during class in an underground school in Kharkiv
Russia has destroyed more than half of Kharkiv's schools and killed many children in the city since it invaded two years agoImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

'Kharkiv is the toughest city'

Lessons in the underground school end in the early afternoon, and suddenly another Russian rocket hits the city. This one blasts an apartment block, killing three and injuring more than 30.

"It just never ends," says Schwez. "It's a source of constant stress for us. But we are standing strong. We have chosen to stay in Kharkiv. It's our home."

A massive column of black smoke rises above Kharkiv's city center. People look up at it but then head back out onto the streets. The smell of acacia blossoms and flowers carefully planted in public beds fills the air. The blown-out windows and roofs of houses in the city are boarded up with plywood.

"The city is being bombed and rebuilt at the same time. Kharkiv is the toughest city," says Sashko when asked why he doesn't want to leave.  

"Ukraine had 48 million residents, but three to five million have left," says the boy, with sadness in his voice.

Hundreds of civilians have fallen victim to the non-stop attacks on Kharkiv. "Russia killed them," is written on a memorial stone dedicated to children killed in the war. It is surrounded by stuffed animals and fresh-cut flowers.

Just a couple of days later, the Russians attacked Kharkiv yet again — this time with 10 rockets. Seven people are killed in the attack, among them, workers at a shop printing children's books.

Kharkiv opens underground school to escape Russian bombs

This article was originally published in Ukrainian.