War in Ukraine: the schools that moved underground to protect children from bombings

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Photo caption,

Six-year-old Nika now attends the underground kindergarten

Article information
  • author, Sarah Rainsford
  • Roll, BBC Eastern Europe Correspondent
  • Reporting from Kharkov
  • 2 February 2024

Missiles are fired at Ukraine’s second largest city from across the Russian border, so close that there are just seconds to stop them.

If they are directed towards Kharkiv, the likelihood of them falling is high – and the chances of reaching shelter in time are slim.

School and kindergarten buildings have been closed for almost two years as a safety precaution, and playgrounds are empty.

At the bottom of the subway, classrooms were built parallel to the platforms at five stations.

Local officials began offering the underground classes several months ago. More recently, they added weekend hours for preschoolers.

Nika’s story

For 6-year-old Nika Bondarenko, it’s an opportunity to be with other children again.

After two years of studying online, she bounds to her subway station wearing pink galoshes.

The route passes through the bombed ruins of military offices, destroyed at the beginning of the invasion and located in front of his house. There is broken glass and shattered buildings everywhere.

Photo caption,

The family walks to school past broken glass and destroyed buildings

But when Nika is on the train heading to class, her mother can stop worrying.

“Parents can be sure that nothing will happen to their children and that a child can continue their more or less normal life,” explains Olha Bondarenko.

“The enemy can’t get us here.”

She says that Nika missed kindergarten very much.

“It’s so important. Otherwise, one child can’t see another child, because there aren’t any children on the streets and (there are) air raid sirens all the time.”

Kharkiv now offers around 700 basement kindergarten places for children up to 6 years old. The total number of students attending school classes in the same space is three times that.

Some lost parents in the fighting, or lived in areas under heavy fire, and need extra support from psychologists and teachers.

On the day we visit, there is music, movement and lots of laughter. A group of preschoolers are dressed as doctors and nurses; others are singing and playing with plastic bricks.

Trying to be normal

The team did everything they could to make things as normal as possible.

On the walls, alongside colorful images of flowers and giant caterpillars, there are posters about the danger of mines. But when the sirens go off warning of missiles, no one needs to move.

The Bondarenko family fled their city at the start of the war, when Russian troops were pushing to take Kharkiv and shelling was constant.

Thousands of families were living in the subway at that time. In March 2022, BBC staff reported elderly women sleeping in train carriages and babies on platforms with their parents.

When Russian forces were forced to retreat in September, the city began to breathe easier again and Olha and her children returned home.

Her husband is in the Army. For her, being in Kharkiv meant being close to him.

When I ask Nika’s sister if she’s afraid of the air raids, Viktoria shakes her head.

“The siren means a missile can hit, or it can’t. It’s 50-50. You just have to believe everything will be okay.”

The plans

Kharkiv’s biggest problem is its location: the Russian border is just 40 kilometers away.

“We need modern air defense systems. If missiles are hitting now, it means we don’t have enough,” argues Mayor Ihor Terekhov.

But even the most up-to-date Western systems would struggle with such proximity.

The intensity of airstrikes has increased since December and the school in the metro is filling up with children.

Photo caption,

As the war enters its third year, Kharkiv builds more permanent underground schools

So the city began preparing more permanent underground structures.

In the Industrialny district, badly damaged by missile attacks, an entire new school takes shape beneath a sports court.

The classrooms will be installed five meters below the surface, with capacity for 900 students in two shifts.

For now, it is a structure that is still undergoing renovation, with builders welding, plastering and hammering everywhere.

The head of construction told me that before the invasion, his company built a new zoo and redesigned a central park. “Now we’re doing it,” he says, shrugging.

The construction of the underground school reminds him of the nuclear bunkers built in Soviet factories during the Cold War.

“I really don’t want us to move underground. This is a forced security measure,” explains the mayor, during an inspection of the site.

The school should be ready by the end of March, although the deadline seems optimistic.

The mayor plans similar structures in all districts. It’s a big investment.

“The missiles most frequently used to ruin our city take 40 seconds to get here,” Terekhov points out. That’s not enough time to evacuate a normal school.

“This war will end when we win. But in the meantime, children have the right to study. So we are building these schools.”

Maryna’s story

Just before we traveled to Kharkiv, a barrage of missiles hit residential areas of the city. Eleven people were killed.

A missile hit Maryna Ovcharenko’s complex of buildings, destroying all the apartments in the final section.

The 18-year-old and her parents had left the house just two minutes earlier. Maryna says she saw the missile coming. She was thrown by the shockwave, but was not hurt.

Photo caption,

Maryna (right) and her mother were lucky to have left the house minutes before the building where they lived was hit

The teenager still can’t believe she’s alive when so many of her neighbors have died, including a child.

Searching the ruins of her own apartment, Maryna tries to recover personal belongings. She found his birth certificate. Her mother, Anastasia, found a suitcase containing party dresses.

Somehow, the family is still smiling.

“We have each other, we are alive – and we are not hurt!” says Anastasia, pulling her daughter close. “It’s a miracle.”

The day after the missile attack, Maryna’s father climbed into the ruins of the building and placed a Ukrainian flag on the roof.

“We are here and we continue, no matter what Russia does to us. They can kill and assassinate us, but we are standing,” says Maryna. “We move on.”

The teachers

Across the city, at school on the subway, Olha Bondarenko also talks a lot about challenge and resilience. They call Kharkiv the ‘unbreakable city’.

“In Kharkiv there’s an air raid, you get a little stressed, then you wipe your tears and carry on. That’s how everyone lives here,” says the mother of two.

But the difference between life and death can be a matter of seconds or meters.

Olha has nightmares about being trapped under the ruins of her house with her children. “I’m really scared of it. I have panic attacks from being under the rubble.”

The underground schools tell a story of adaptation – and survival.

“Of course it’s strange, but what else can we do? We want our children to grow up in our country. In Ukraine,” Natalia Bilohryshchenko tells me.

Photo caption,

Kharkiv mayor plans similar structures in all districts

She runs the pre-school education department at the city council and says teachers were “jumping for joy” to be back at work.

“Their eyes were shining. They missed the kids.”

Suddenly, Natalia starts crying.

“When there is peace, come visit and we will show you our normal kindergartens,” she tells me, tearfully.

“It’s all so sad… But it’s okay. Everything will be okay.”

With additional research and reporting by Hanna Chornous, Paul Pradier and Anastasia Levchenko.

The article is in Portuguese

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