Russia continues to bomb schools, bringing war crimes scrutiny
The International Criminal Court, prosecutors across the globe and Ukraine’s prosecutor general are investigating more than 8,000 reports of potential war crimes in Ukraine.
KYIV, Ukraine — Inna Levchenkoshe lay buried beneath rubble, her legs broken, her eyes blinded by blood and thick clouds of dust. Amid all of this, Levchenko remembers the screams.
It was 12:15 p.m. on March 3. Moments earlier, a blast had pulverized the school where she had taught for 30 years.
Amid relentless bombing, she had opened School 21 in Chernihiv as a shelter to frightened families. The word for “children” was painted in big, bold letters on the windows in hopes that Russian forces would see it and spare them.
The bombs fell anyway.
Levchenkoshe didn’t know it yet, but 70 children she had ordered to shelter in the basement managed somehow to survive the blast.
But at least nine people, including one of her students — a 13-year-old boy — did not.
“Why schools?” Levchenkoshe said of the Russians’ bombing target that day. “I cannot comprehend their motivation. It is painful to realize how many friends of mine died … and how many children who remained alone, without parents, got traumatized. They will remember it all their life and will pass their stories to the next generation.”
The Ukrainian government says Russia has shelled more than 1,000 schools, destroying 95 of them.
On May 7, a bomb flattened a school in the eastern village of Bilohorivka, which, like School No. 21 in Chernihiv, was being used a shelter. As many as 60 people were feared dead.
Intentionally attacking schools and other civilian infrastructure is a war crime. Experts say wide-scale wreckage can be used as evidence of Russian intent and to refute claims that schools were nothing more than collateral damage.
But the destruction of hundreds of schools is about more than toppling buildings and maiming bodies, according to experts, to teachers and to others who have survived conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Syria and beyond. It hinders a nation’s ability to rebound after the fighting stops, injuring entire generations and dashing a country’s hope for the future.
In the nearly three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” have independently verified that 57 schools have been destroyed or damaged in a manner indicating a possible war crime. And that likely represents only a fraction of potential war crimes committed during the conflict.
In Chernihiv alone, the city council said only seven of the city’s 35 schools remain unscathed. Three were reduced to rubble.
The International Criminal Court, prosecutors from across the globe and Ukraine’s prosecutor general are investigating more than 8,000 reports of potential war crimes in Ukraine involving 500 suspects. Many are accused of aiming deliberately at civilian structures including hospitals, shelters and residential neighborhoods.
Targeting schools is particularly harmful, transforming the architecture of childhood into something violent and dangerous: a place that inspires fear.
After a Russian bombing in the eastern Ukrainian town of Gorlovka, ageography teacher named Elena Kudrik lay dead on the floor of School 50. Amid the wreckage all around her were books and papers smeared in blood. In the corner, another lifeless body — Elena Ivanova, the assistant headmaster— was slumped over in an office chair, a gaping wound torn into her side.
“It’s a tragedy for us ... It’s a tragedy for the children,” said school director Sergey But, standing outside the brick building soon after the attack.
A few kilometers away, at the Sonechko preschool in Okhtyrka, a cluster bomb destroyed a kindergarten, killing a child. Outside the entrance, two more bodies lay in pools of blood.
Valentina Grusha teaches in Kyiv province, where she has worked for 35 years, most recently as a district administrator and foreign literature instructor. Russian troops invaded her village of Ivankiv just as school officials had begun preparations for war. On Feb. 24, Russian forces driving toward Kyiv fatally shot a child and his father there, she said.
“There was no more schooling,” Grusha said. “We called all the leaders and stopped instruction because the war started. And then there were 36 days of occupation.”
Russia also shelled and destroyed schools in many nearby villages, she said. Kindergarten buildings were shattered by shrapnel and machine-gun fire.
Despite the widespread damage and destruction to educational infrastructure, war crimes experts say proving an attacking military’s intent to target individual schools is difficult. Russian officials deny targeting civilian structures, and local news reports in Russian-held Gorlovka said Ukrainian forces trying to recapture the area were to blame for the blast that killed the two teachers there.
But the effects of the destruction are indisputable.
“When I start talking to the directors of destroyed and robbed institutions, they are very worried, crying, telling with pain and regret,” Grusha said. “It’s part of their lives. And now the school is a ruin that stands in the center of the village and reminds of those terrible air raids and bombings.”
Teachers and students who have lived through other conflicts say the destruction of schools in their countries damaged an entire generation.
Syrian teacher Abdulkafi Alhamdo still thinks about the children’s drawings soaked in blood, littered across the floor of a schoolhouse in Aleppo. It had been attacked during the civil war there in 2014. The teachers and children had been preparing for an art exhibit featuring student work depicting life during wartime. The blast killed 19, including at least 10 children.
But it’s the survivors who linger in Alhamdo’s memory.
“I understood in [their] eyes that they wouldn’t go to school anymore,” he said. “It doesn’t only affect the kids who were running away, with shock and trauma. It affects all kids who heard about the massacre. How can they go back to school? You are not only targeting a school; you’re targeting a generation.”
Jasminko Halilovic was only 6 years old when Sarajevo, in present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, was besieged. Today, 30 years after the Bosnian war ended, he and his peers are still picking up the pieces.
Halilovic went to school in a cellar, as many Ukrainian children have done. Desperately seeking safety, the teachers and students moved from basement to basement.
Halilovic, now 34, founded the War Childhood Museum, which catalogs the stories and objects of children in conflict around the world. He was working in Ukraine with children displaced by Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Donbas region when the current war began. He had to evacuate his staff and leave the country.
“Once the fighting ends, the new fight will start,” he said. “To rebuild cities. To rebuild schools and infrastructure and to rebuild society. And to heal. And to heal is the most difficult.”
In Ukraine, some schools still standing have become makeshift shelters for people whose homes were destroyed by shelling and mortar fire. More than half of Ukraine’s children have been displaced.
In Kharkiv, which has undergone relentless shelling, children’s drawings are taped to the walls of an underground subway station that has become not only a family shelter but also a makeshift school. Primary school-age children gather around a table for history and art lessons.
“It helps to support them mentally,” teacher Valeriy Leiko said.
Thanks in part to the lessons, he said, “They feel that someone loves them.”
Millions continue their schooling online. The international aid group Save the Children said it is working with the government to establish remote learning programs for students at 50 schools. UNICEF is also trying to help.
On April 2, Grusha’s community outside Kyiv began a slow reemergence. The people there are still raking and sweeping debris from schools and kindergartens that were damaged but not destroyed, she said, and taking stock of what’s left. With the war still raging, they have started distance learning classes and planned to move children whose schools were destroyed to others close by.
But Levchenko, who was in Kyiv in early May to undergo surgery for her injuries, said the emotional damage done to so many children who have experienced such immense suffering might never be fully repaired.
“It will take so much time for people and kids to recover from what they have lived,” she said. The kids, she said, are “staying underground without sun, shivering from siren sounds and anxiety.
“Kids will remember this all their life.”