Kids In The Crossfire — A Village School's Bittersweet Return After Russian Occupation
Almost one year after being occupied, a village near Kyiv is being rebuilt as locals try to piece their lives back together.
NOVYI BYKIV — In this village east of Kyiv, when the invasion began last Feb. 24, the local school became a prime flashpoint — it was at the school that the Russian occupiers would wind up setting up their main base of operations.
Natalia Vovk, the director of the school for Staryi and Novyi Bykiv, two halves of one village separated by a river, remembers that day well. She says after hearing the first explosions from her house at 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, and soon after ordered the students to stay at home and told any staff who had arrived to leave.
And soon enough, locals began to receive reports that a Russian column was heading toward them. “I didn’t think they would stay here for 33 days," says the school's deputy director Natalia Samson. "I thought we were not their concern.”
The occupation was more brutal and damaging than they could have imagined. Now, almost one year later, local residents are trying to piece their lives together. Rebuilding the local school destroyed under occupation has become a crucial project for the town.
When military equipment started entering the village 80 kilometers (50 miles) last February, residents were left without electricity, gas, and communications. The local Territorial Defense forces tried to do something, but there is little you can do against military machines. On the first day, six boys were killed.
“They were lying at the entrance to the village for about a week,” recalls Natalia.
The locals managed to get permission to take away the bodies and buried them in the cemetery.
Life in a cellar
The Ukrainians blew up the bridge so that the occupiers would not advance further, damaging communications with the explosion. The Russians forbade the locals even to go out into the gardens with the threat of being shot without warning. They set up their equipment and roadblocks.
The occupiers settled into the main buildings
As in many other occupied villages in Ukraine, the occupiers settled into the main buildings of Novyi Bykiv. They occupied a school, a kindergarten, and a cultural center. There were also shelters under these buildings in Bykiv.
Our school is built in the form of the letter “П”. "Inside was the equipment from which they were shooting," says the director.
Putting equipment near civilian objects is a typical tactic of the Russians. Natalia Samson's family lived in a cellar for 22 days. They arranged their shelter as best they could: with carpets, blankets… They only went out to the toilet, to cook food and get some sun.
Rescuers checking the remains of a school in Chernihiv in March 2022
Invaders leaving the village
Gradually, the shelling in Staryi and Novyi Bykiv intensified. It was only around March 22 that people in the village started saying that the Armed Forces of Ukraine would soon be there. The village nearby had already been liberated.
Natalia Samson also remembers this period as the most ferocious fighting. She says that shelling continued in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. Gas in the cylinder was already running out, so the family cooked food once a day.
“On March 27, new, very cruel guys drove in and took prisoner the teacher, her mother, and two neighbors, who were kept in the basement on the territory of the village. We saw them being led with their eyes closed and their hands tied,” recalls the school director.
But already on March 30, she saw how Russian equipment was retreating: “You could not see their armored personnel carriers and tanks behind carpets and multi-colored bags. They robbed and took everything.”
On the morning of March 31, the Russians began to warm up the equipment, and over time, the occupiers left both Staryi and Novyi Bykiv.
And the locals soon saw Ukrainian soldiers.
A destroyed school
On April 2, Natalia Vovk and her husband came to the damaged school. “I thought everything is leveled to the ground. But my husband says: we will rebuild it,” Vovk recalls.
The fence was broken because the Russians drove in vehicles. Trenches were dug everywhere. There were piles of packages of dry rations and clothes of the occupiers. Even desks and chairs were scattered around the area. The boiler room was destroyed because a shell had hit it.
“And there were also pits where animal skins were buried. They ate pigs, and cows here and threw skins, hooves, and so on into the pits,” says the director.
Children, don't fight, we don't want this war.
Inside the school was no better. For some reason, the Russians covered the toilets with construction foam and so relieved themselves throughout the school. They probably cut their hair in the toilet, because there was a lot of hair.
“They ate everywhere, their dry rations were everywhere. And they lived right in the shelters. They dragged carpets, mattresses and furniture there from the village. They even made mini-rooms for themselves; the floor was covered with carpets."
School equipment such as laptops and printers were stolen. What was not stolen was destroyed. There were messages in the classrooms like "We didn't want this war", and "You are being deceived". In the gym, a target was painted on the wall and there are bullet holes on it.
Students are part of the rebuilding
Sasha Gulich — Livy Bereg
What to tell children
In April, people attempted to clean up the school on their own. The entire teaching staff returned in the first days after the liberation of the villages.
“We told them clearly that we need to rebuild,” says the director. "The point was this: if we give up now, there will be nothing here. We put on gloves, carried water from neighboring buildings and cleaned classrooms.” They found many bullet casings.
The director recalls how students would come and ask to enter their classroom. They were allowed. Dasha was able to enter the school after the adults cleared it of Russian rubbish. But on the board there were messages by the Russians: “Sorry, let’s live in harmony. Children, don't fight, we don't want this war.”
“But in their turn, they did things that cannot be forgiven… They wrote it to purify their souls or something,” Dasha argues. The school team asked for help from those who care. Both parents and graduates responded. The money raised was used to purchase building materials.
“We entered the class and thought: what can we do to make this class less scary? We painted, plastered, and cleaned everything ourselves,” says Vovk, the school director. “Aesthetics in the school is still not enough. There are damaged classrooms, corridors with traces of shelling... It will still take a long time to fix.”
“I tell the children that someday peace will come and we will be here when it does," says the school's deputy director Natalia Samson. "In the meantime, we must do everything we can to help."
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