Attacks on Schools Military Use of Schools during the Armed Conflict in Eastern Ukraine
Sustainable Development Goals: 4, 16
- SDG 4 - Quality Education
- SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
In the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed militants, both parties have carried out indiscriminate or deliberate attacks on schools and used schools for military purposes which has damaged education infrastructure. In addition to examining the damage caused, this report looks at the negative impacts of the armed conflict on the right to quality education for Ukrainian children, as guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution and international law and documents obstacles children face in accessing schools due to hostilities, government-imposed travel restrictions, and lack of transportation.
The fighting was right in the city center. Our school changed hands: some forces came in, then left and were replaced by others. The fighters were inside the school firing out of the windows. The missing piece of the wall on the third floor happened when a … [rebel] tank fired at the school and hit the Ukrainian sniper who was positioned near that window.
- Principal, School Number 42, Vuhlehirsk, September 2015
We had to close the kindergarten…because it was no longer safe. There was fighting outside the kindergarten, in our yard. Kids were in shock. When the [Ukrainian] soldiers came, we opened the doors and showed them that there were no enemies inside the kindergarten and that we were not hiding anyone. But still they walked in and stayed. They broke all the doors, sinks, practically all the dishes. Furniture, kids’ beds–everything was either stolen or broken.
- Principal, kindergarten, rebel-controlled Ilovaisk, September 2015
They were being shot at [by the rebels] for twelve hours, from 5:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.… A rebel told my father after: ‘Sorry, old man, our coordinates were a bit off.’
- From a media interview with an emergency room nurse from Novosvitlivka
It seemed that they struck everywhere – schools, hospitals, people’s homes, everywhere but the military targets. It is a miracle that anyone here survived at all.
- Resident, Luhansk, September 2015
The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed militants has taken a heavy toll on civilians. Over 9,000 people have been killed, including many civilians, and at least 20,000 injured, according to data gathered by the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, estimates that of the more than 1.5 million people displaced by the conflict at least one third are children.
The fighting has also led to widespread damage and destruction of hundreds of kindergartens and schools on both sides of the line of contact which separates areas held by Ukrainian government forces from those held by the militants of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. As a result of the destruction of vital educational infrastructure, children have faced interruptions in their education and the quality of education for many students has declined.
Both Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed militants have carried out indiscriminate or deliberate attacks on schools using heavy artillery, mortar, and in some cases unguided rockets. They have also used schools for military purposes, deploying military forces in and near schools. They frequently broke or burned school furniture, including classroom doors, chairs and desks. In most instances, schools that were used by fighters remain unsafe because troops left behind heavy artillery or unused munitions. For example, in the last week of November 2014, at a school in Pervomaisk that rebels were using as a base, Human Rights Watch saw signs on trees next to the school that said, “Entry Prohibited. Shoot to kill” and “Mines.”
Occupying a school can turn it into a legitimate military target and can put students at risk, in violation of the laws of war. Deploying military in and near schools exposes important education infrastructure to damage and destruction.
This report documents attacks on schools on both sides of the line of contact and the use of schools by both sides for military purposes, which has turned schools into legitimate military targets. The report also describes the consequent destruction which has forced children from their schools.
The report also examines some of the negative impacts of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine on the right to quality education for Ukrainian children, as guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution and international law. For example, during the conflict some schools were forced to close leading to months of lost classroom time. In the post conflict period too classroom time has been lost due to overcrowding as damaged schools still awaiting repairs send their students to other schools and due to schools’ inability to repair or convert damaged heating systems. The report also describes obstacles children face in accessing schools due to hostilities, government-imposed travel restrictions, and lack of transportation.
The report is based on 62 interviews with students, teachers, school directors, and eyewitnesses to attacks. During field research for the report, between September and November 2015, Human Rights Watch visited 41 schools and kindergartens, located both in the rebel-held territories and in government-controlled areas. The report also includes research findings from Human Rights Watch’s visit to Pervomaisk (in rebel-held territory) in November 2014.
One of the lasting, negative impacts of the armed conflict on the right to education has been that children are falling behind in their studies. The closure of many schools for weeks or months during the conflict left children with few or no alternative means of continuing their education. Most schools provided distance learning, through Skype, email, and other modes of communication, but despite teachers’ best efforts distance learning has been inferior to classroom education. Children who have to take national exams to graduate in May 2016 urgently need to regain lost ground.
Progress has been made in repairing and reopening damaged schools, particularly in government-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, thanks in large part to active leadership by parents and teachers. This allowed many schools to open for classes on time or nearly on time in the fall of 2015. However, many schools, especially in rebel-controlled areas, remain too damaged to reopen. There is a shortage of qualified teachers in some areas.
At the same time, increasing numbers of families have been returning to the conflict-affected areas. Local authorities in some cases have merged schools, leading to overcrowding, split school sessions, and fewer classroom hours.
Ukraine has cold winters with the average temperature dropping below freezing during the day. Many schools lack heating because of conflict-related damage to pipelines and infrastructure. Many school officials had to extend autumn school holidays in 2015 in order to find alternative heating systems ahead of cold winter months. Some schools shortened classroom hours to cope with the cold.
In rebel-held areas, renovation efforts have stalled, impeded by lack of funding and coordination among the de facto authorities. As of September 2015, schools that sustained the most damage or were completely destroyed by protracted fighting in the rebel-controlled towns of Ilovaisk, Nikishine, Novosvitlivka, and Luhansk, among others, were not undergoing renovation.
In many towns on both sides of the line of contact, the authorities are willing to fund repairs only upon children’s return to schools, while families are unwilling to return until they are confident that their children have schools to return to. This impasse is delaying the renovation of schools and prolonging the negative impacts on education. Local authorities and school administrators in many locations told Human Rights Watch that the risk of renewed fighting made them reluctant to fund or carry out school renovations. As a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature in Marinka put it: “There was an attack on September 3rd  which shattered all of the school windows. We had only just finished replacing them after the previous attack. You see, how is it possible for us to do repairs, spend money, knowing it might all be destroyed again?”
Some parents who live in rebel-held areas and in close proximity to the line of contact send their children to schools in areas under government control. They do so for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that Ukrainian authorities do not recognize school certificates or any other documents issued by the de facto authorities in rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. For children who have to regularly cross the line of contact to attend school, the journey is lengthy, due to travel restrictions imposed by the Ukrainian government. It can also be perilous, due to sporadic shelling and the presence of mines.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science has acknowledged that Ukrainian government forces have used schools for military purposes. The Ukrainian government should deter the military use of schools by, among other things, endorsing the UN Safe Schools Declaration.