Meet the Russians fighting for Ukraine.
Donetsk, eastern Ukraine – It is Wednesday, May 4, 2016, and five grade 11 boys run gleefully on to the football field next to the school. In their right hand, they each carry a gun, in their left, a hand grenade.
It is the last period and the older pupils have a class in defence, patriotism and discipline. The guns they are using today are made of wood, but later they will practise with the real thing. At School No 58, the war is no game of pretend.
“Maybe the classes will inspire them to join the army when they graduate,” says teacher Alexey Ivanov.
He nods towards the teenage boys. They have swapped their school uniforms for camouflage print T-shirts.
One of the boys butts his weapon against his classmate’s. Another has picked a dandelion and placed it in the muzzle of his rifle.
“Act your age, boys. Fall in line,” says Alexey.
Danil, Pavil, Konstantin, Andrey and Artyom fall in line. There used to be 24 pupils in this class, but that was before the war came to eastern Ukraine.
When war broke out between armed rebels and Ukrainian forces in April 2014, three quarters of the school’s pupils fled. Many of the school’s neighbours in the district of Kievsky did likewise. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many people have left Donbass, the region in which Donetsk is located, but it is thought to be somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million.
“Our neighbourhood is just a few kilometres from the airport where the fighting is ongoing,” says 16-year-old Artyom Gayvanyok. “We can hear the bombs every night. We hope that they don’t land here like they did at the start of the war.”
“Are you able to sleep?” we ask.
“We have gotten used to the bombs,” Artyom replies.
He smiles ambiguously as he glances at his friends. In the spring sun, the teenagers look like adults.
For a year, we have been following the teachers and pupils at School No 58 in Donetsk. This is their story.
The windows of the principal’s office have been blown out and replaced by sheets of plastic and tape.
One corner of the school has been turned to rubble. The treetops in the schoolyard are torn apart. The gymnasium has been out of commission for months, already.
According to the teachers, explosives have struck School No 58 five times in the past year. Considering this, they have been lucky. While the neighbouring school lost a teacher during an attack, no pupils or teachers at School No 58 have been killed or injured in the bombings.
But the school’s principal, Klaudya Vasilyovna Kharkovskaya, is angry.
“For the fifth time we have to clear glass shards from the schoolyard because these non-humans on the Ukrainian side bomb us. Non-humans, that is what they are,” she says, her lips trembling.
“Why should it be so difficult to understand: We don’t want to be European. We want our own country,” she adds.
She asks us to leave the area. “It doesn’t matter what you write,” she says. “The bombing won’t stop.”
Two and a half months earlier, on February 15, 2015, a ceasefire was signed in Minsk between the rebels and Ukraine. According to the agreement, heavy armaments were to be removed from the frontline, and a ceasefire was to come into effect.
But the debris at the school is just one indicator that the agreement is not being honoured.
It is just past 1pm and there are no pupils at School No 58. The principal is sitting in her office, which is dark but for the few beams of spring sunshine that pierce the plastic sheets covering the windows.
She is not happy to see us.
“Before the war, we had 870 pupils. Last week, there were over 200, and this morning 81 showed up,” she says. “I sent them home at noon. The bombings are more frequent in the afternoon.”
“Why haven’t you closed the school?” we ask.
“We have asked the parents if they want their children at a different school, but they do not. This is their nearest school. This is where they want to send their children,” she answers.
The rumbling of shelling suggests it’s getting closer.
“It is loud today,” Klaudya remarks dryly as she glances at the plastic covered window.
“We have to get out of here,” we say, indicating to the principal that she should come with us – but she remains seated.
No bombs hit the school that day, and it is open the following morning as usual.
Some days later, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) publishes a report about the events of the previous weekend. It says the neighbourhood was struck by artillery late in the evening of May 2, but they cannot tell with certainty where the attack originated.
Three months later, we write to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence to ask if Ukrainian forces were responsible.
Aleksey Makukhin, an adviser to the Ukrainian minister of defence, responds by email in August 2015.
“Ukrainian troops observe ceasefire. However, Ukrainian Armed Forces have orders to defend themselves in case of grave danger to the lives of personnel. When they do, they use less than 100mm calibre weapons, firing only at the militants’ positions,” he writes.
“Speaking of the School No 58 in Donetsk, Russia-backed militants have concentrated a great number of heavy weapons and personnel in Putolovksi forest, which is less than 1km away from the school. The militants launch their attacks against Ukrainian forces from there, therefore, in case of retaliation, fire from 82mm mortars, grenade launchers or small arms – all allowed under Minsk agreement – may fall in close vicinity of the school.”
He stresses that Ukraine continues to honour the ceasefire, and that they never open fire before they have reliable intelligence about military targets. Despite this, both sides continue to hit civilian targets.
In January 2015, forces connected to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the self-proclaimed state in Donetsk Oblast, bombed apartment buildings and a market in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Twenty-nine civilians were killed that day and about 100 people injured. Nineteen months later there are fewer casualities, but civilians are still being killed by shelling.
In December 2015, after following School No 58 for six months, we spoke to Alexander Hug of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine about the continued shelling of civilian targets. He drew us a rough map of Donetsk in an effort to explain what was going on. DPR forces were located on the western outskirts of the city, he said. When they opened fire on the Ukrainian-held city of Pisky, they attract counterfire from Ukrainian forces, he continued. But where the explosives land depends on the wind, Hug said, and that is highly unpredictable.
A tumultuous month has passed in Donetsk, with many skirmishes and more violations of the ceasefire than usual. But School No 58 has not been struck since the first time we visited.
“Of course, we are afraid. Most of all for our children,” says Svetlana Borisovna Derabivya, a middle-aged woman with wavy, dark hair.
She has a degree in psychology, but took a job as a counsellor at School No 58 a decade ago when she couldn’t find work as a psychologist in her neighbourhood. She now applies her knowledge of crisis psychology to the school’s war-affected pupils.
“I always have my phone on, and both parents, grandparents and pupils can call me at any time. When there is shelling on the frontline, the phone is never silent. I have to comfort whole families,” she says.
In class a few days ago, she asked her 10-year-old pupils to draw a tree and colour it in. One of them painted the whole tree and the sky black. The only thing that wasn’t coloured black were two yellow eggs perched on the tip of a branch. A lone, black swallow approached the eggs with a twig in its beak.
“He lost his father in a mining accident earlier this year, in which 50 miners died,” Svetlana explains. “The boy has had it rough, but he is doing better now. We try to follow up with him to our best ability.”
She keeps a pile of teddy bears in a corner of her sparsely decorated classroom, in case of a bombing.
“The youngest children are calmed by the teddy bears,” she says.
All of a sudden, something explodes outside. The walls tremble. Again. And again. Svetlana shows no sign of worry.
Someone opens the door. It is the school’s deputy principal, Irina Ponomarenko.
“What are you doing? Do you not hear the bombs?” she says sternly. “It is dangerous to be here on the fourth floor. All of the pupils are being evacuated. ” Then she turns and rushes off along the hallway.
But Svetlana simply walks into her first-floor office, opens some notebooks, writes down today’s absentees, fumbles with some stencils and starts preparing for the day to come.
“Aren’t you going to evacuate?” we ask.
She just shrugs her shoulders. “We remain here until the Department of Education in the People’s Republic of Donetsk says otherwise,” she says matter-of-factly.
Class 7A. Half a year ago there were only eight pupils in this class of 12-year-olds. Now there are 22.
Budding hormones mix with newly learned fractions. There are stolen glances from one mobile phone to another. In one of the recess periods, we’re able to sneak in a question.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” we ask. The loudest answer comes from 12-year-old Diana Zakalova.
“I want to be a soldier,” she replies.
She carried a weapon for the first time last year. The war had already been raging for a year and her family hadn’t been able to take a holiday. So her father asked her if she wanted to participate in a youth camp in the woods. It was only supposed to be for the sons of soldiers, but Diana was allowed to participate because she had shown a special interest.
“We were in the woods for 10 days,” she says excitedly. “We learned how to use weapons, we made camp fires, sang army songs and we were dancing in the evenings.”
When she returned from the camp, she told her parents that she wanted a military uniform for her birthday.
The sound of the school bell tells us that our interview is over, and that the soldier-to-be is going back to class to learn more about fractions.
Some hours later, Diana sits in her mother’s office in an NGO in downtown Donetsk. The school day is over and her mother, Yana Kravchuk, a smartly dressed woman in her mid-thirties, is serving tea and biscuits. From this office, Yana organises the delivery of medicines to the people of Donetsk. Now, after hours, the room smells of sweets and dry biscuits.
“I want to start my military training,” Diana defiantly tells her mother.
In Donetsk, boys from the ages of 11 to 17 can attend military training in the evenings.
“I don’t know what to tell you. You don’t have time for it because of your homework. Furthermore, it’s not for girls,” Yana responds.
The 12-year-old looks angrily back at her mother.
“I’m still interested, even though I’m a girl,” she says.
Her mother laughs.
“Well this is certainly something new. You, who faints at the sight of blood.”
“I don’t. Liar!” Diana shouts at her mother.
It has been a year since Diana’s father was injured in combat, fighting against Ukrainian soldiers. He was hit by shrapnel in his arm and head. His arm is now in a sling and he stammers when he speaks.
“Do you remember the first time you heard an explosion?” we ask Diana.
She shakes her head, and her mother answers for her.
“It was the summer of 2014, and you had just returned from a summer vacation by the coast. We heard a terrible blast and fled into the hallway. You cried and cried. In the hallway we were protected from the shrapnel, but not if a rocket were to hit the building itself. We would have been done for,” Yana says quietly, but with tension creeping into her voice as she recalls it.
“We discussed fleeing the city, but my husband refused. And we couldn’t leave without him.”
“How long do you think the war will last?” we ask.
“I think it is going to last a long while – four to five years,” Yana says.
“Long enough for Diana to become a soldier?” we ask. To that, Yana lets out a mirthless chuckle and changes the subject.
It is the fist day of school after the Russian Orthodox Christmas, but School No 58 is empty of pupils.
“Late last night, we received a message telling us that the government is afraid a viral epidemic is about to break out, so the Christmas vacation is extended by a week,” deputy principal Irina Ponomarenko explains. She has short hair, which she has coloured darker since the last time we saw her. Her responsibilities have increased throughout the year. Last autumn, the principal was ill, so Irina had to run the school – and water the plants in the principal’s office.
The lights of a Christmas tree illuminate the hallway. A man in a dirty brown coat stumbles in.
“I want to wish the principal a merry Christmas,” he slurs. “I attended this school myself. It was the best, the very best.”
The deputy looks wearily at him.
“The school is still a good one, we just have fewer pupils,” she explains. “Now, in January, there are 220 pupils attending the school. Around 600 pupils have fled.”
“Do you think they’ll return?” we ask.
“Yes, they’ll return when there’s peace … or … rather, that’s what we hope.”
Principal Klaudya Kharkovskaya walks down the hallway and reluctantly invites us into her office.
“This April there’s an election in Donetsk, and the new authorities might renovate the classrooms. It is difficult to say whether the elections will even be held, however,” she says.
“What do you think of the military presence in the area, from both sides?” we ask.
“I hope our soldiers gain control of a larger portion of the county of Donetsk,” she answers. “That way, the military positions will be further removed from us.
“We try to keep spirits high, but of course we are afraid,” she adds.
Then she reclines in her chair and suddenly smiles.
“We have added some themes to the curriculum,” she says. “The youngest pupils are taught ideology. The oldest boys are trained in military tactics, so that they one day can join the ranks of the army of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
In stark contrast to most government buildings in Donetsk, School No 58 is newly renovated. Every wall is painted. Every light fixture has been replaced, every window repaired. The gymnasium is back in use. Only the industrial arts classroom still shows the signs of last year’s bombings.
“Thank you, Russia. They are the ones to thank for the renovations,” the principal tells us almost ceremonially when we happen upon her in the hallway. “We have 250 students at the moment, and new arrivals join every day.”
“How are you doing?” we ask in return.
“I’m feeling a bit unwell,” she replies, glancing at the cane she is leaning on.
Some days earlier, the election in Donetsk was cancelled. The OSCE has been registering more heavy arms use and skirmishes than it has in months. The morgue in Donetsk reports more deaths every day. As does the Facebook account of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence.
Civilians have also been killed. On April 27, a 122-millimetre round of artillery hit a vehicle crossing the border, killing four civilians.
“How do you envision the future?” we ask her.
The principal is leaning heavily on her cane and in obvious pain.
“We have to create a Novorossiya. It must happen. As soon as possible,” she says, looking weary and excited at the same time.
Novorossiya – or New Russia – is a historical concept adopted by the pro-Russian rebels when they took over the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. In January 2015, the rebels abolished the idea, continuing to fight, instead, for their separate republics.
But in the principal’s office of School No 58, the dream of Novorossiya lives on.
Out on the football field, teacher Alexey Ivanov is impressed. The grade 11 boys have managed to throw their hand grenades all the way across the field.
“Look, they’re thriving,” he says. “This is a class they enjoy.”
After just 40 minutes, the whole thing is over. The teenagers put on their fashionable jackets and civilian T-shirts.
“This isn’t exactly our favourite subject,” says 16-year-old Danil Zavarza, who is built like a brick, with a blond buzz cut. “But we do learn about patriotism.”
“Are you joining the army after you graduate?” we ask the class.
“No, we want to become students,” the boys say.
The teacher interjects.
“But you may not get into a university. Then you can join the army,” he tells them.
“No, I will not,” Danil answers for them all. He wants to study medicine.
“Is the goal that as many as possible join the army?” we ask the teacher.
“Not for me personally, but it is for the People’s Republic,” he answers.
The pupils run from the school’s premises. There is a smell of dandelions.