Ukraine schools return to sound of war

·3-min read

Antonina Sidorenko has put on her favourite clothes, selected the prettiest ribbon to adorn her hair and can recite by heart the poem given by her schoolteacher.

But with lessons taking place at home to the background sound of gunfire and shelling, this is no ordinary first day back at school for the nine-year-old Ukrainian.

Sitting behind a desk in the middle of her sitting room, "Tonia" adjusts the mobile phone screen showing her teacher Natalia Vasylivna, best friend Igor and other classmates she has not seen since Russia's February invasion.

"I'm happy to be back at school but I would be even happier if there was no war because I miss my teacher and my friends," she told AFP, saying her best friend had fled to Poland.

Antonina, five-year-old sister Sonia and parents Natalia and Andriy live in Pokrovske, a hamlet of 24 people in the southern region of Mykolaiv near the frontline.

Remote learning is in place across the region due to the fighting.

For Natalia and Andriy, that posed significant technical challenges, and they only managed to configure the Zoom app on their mobile phone a few days before September 1, when schools returned nationwide.

They also made sure the internet router was working. After their electricity was cut off in the summer, the family gets its power from a solar panel supplied by an NGO.

But there's little they can do against cannons. The boom of Ukrainian artillery fire reverberates at regular intervals, followed by the Russian reply. Two days previously, their kitchen windows were smashed by shrapnel.

- 'I'm not scared' -

Antonina, a young girl with bright blond plaits, has already stopped flinching when the sounds of war echo in the distance.

"At the start, when there was shelling near the house, I used to hide and lie on the floor. But now, when it's far away, I'm used to it and I'm not scared," she said.

While her teacher attempts to get to grips with Zoom, Antonia shows off the room she shares with Sonia.

"Now we sleep on the floor, that way we won't be killed by the shrapnel," she said.

In the courtyard, she feeds the rabbits, her favourite animals. The rabbits, a pig and two cows are the reason why the family is staying put despite the danger.

The pig owes its survival to the irregular electricity supply, which makes the preservation of any choice cutlets impossible, Natalia explained.

"What would we do in town? Where would we stay, how would we live?" asked Andriy, showing the damage left by the last strike as another explosive sound is heard behind him.

"Did you hear that? It never ends!"

- 'Like a soldier' -

Andriy said selling all his possessions would earn him 15,000 hryvnias ($406), whereas a house costs at least 100,000 hryvnias even in the nearest village, Novooleksandrivka.

When the bombardment is too intense, the family escapes by car for a while before calm returns to their neighbourhood.

"You need to be like a soldier: stay together, be ready, have everything packed, be quick, don't hesitate, listen to your parents, pack your bags and go," said Natalia.

The 33-year-old treasures her daughter and is proud of her good results and artistic talent, which she says Tonia inherited from her father.

But behind the calm exterior, Natalia admits she worries a lot for her children despite her best efforts not to panic.

She refuses to leave, saying she worked hard to build the house and save money for her daughters' future.

The mother thinks the return to school will soon fail. Tonia's teacher has still not managed to configure Zoom, but her young pupil makes use of the delay to chat with long-term friend Igor.

Tonia insists on reciting the poem she has learned by heart.

"Peace will come to Ukraine. Good people want peace. Adults as well as children aspire to peace on Earth."

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