War Crimes Watch: By targeting schools, Russia is bombing the future

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Screams were all she could hear as Inna Levchenko lay under the rubble, her legs broken and her eyes blinded by blood and thick clouds of dust. It was 12:15 a.m. on March 3, and a few minutes earlier, an explosion had destroyed the school where he had been teaching for 30 years.

Amid the brutal bombings, he opened School 21 in Chernihiv as a shelter for frightened families. They drew the word “children” in large, bold letters on the windows, hoping that the Russian forces would see them and forgive them. Somehow the bombs fell.

Although he did not know yet, the 70 children he had ordered to shelter in the basement would have survived the explosion. But at least nine people, including one of his students—a 13-year-old boy—wouldn’t do it.

“Why schools? “I don’t understand their motivation,” he said. “It’s painful to realize how many of my friends have died and how many traumatized children have been left alone without parents. They will remember it for the rest of their lives and pass on their stories to future generations.”

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This story is part of an ongoing investigation by the Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline.” Watch War Crimes Ukraine interactive experience and an upcoming documentary.

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The Ukrainian government says Russia bombed more than 1,000 schools, destroying 95. On May 8, a bomb in Zaporizhzhia flattened a school used as a shelter, such as School No. 21 in Chernihiv. It is feared that 60 people died.

Deliberately attacking schools and other civilian infrastructure is a war crime. Experts say the extensive debris could be used as proof of Russia’s intent and to refute claims that schools were merely collateral damage.

But the destruction of hundreds of schools, according to experts, is more than destroying buildings and their corpses hurting teachers and others who survived conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Syria and beyond. It hinders a nation’s ability to recover after war has stopped, injures entire generations, and robs a nation of hope for the future.

In about three months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Associated Press and PBS series “Frontline” independently confirmed 57 schools were destroyed or damaged, indicating a possible war crime. The accounting probably represents only a fraction of the potential war crimes committed during the conflict, and the list is updated daily.

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In Chernihiv alone, the city council said only seven of the city’s 35 schools were unharmed. Three of them were turned into rubble.

The International Criminal Court, prosecutors from around the world and Ukraine’s attorney general are investigating more than 8,000 reports of potential war crimes in Ukraine involving 500 suspects. Many are accused of deliberately targeting civilian structures such as hospitals, shelters and residential areas.

Targeting schools designed as havens for children to grow, learn and make friends is particularly harmful and transforms childhood architecture into something violent and dangerous, a place of fear.

Geography teacher Elena Kudrik lay dead on the floor of the 50th School in the town of Gorlovka in eastern Ukraine. Amidst the debris that surrounded him were bloodstained books and papers. In the corner, another lifeless corpse – deputy director Elena Ivanova – slumped in an office chair, a huge wound opened on her side.

“This is a tragedy for us… a tragedy for the children,” said school principal Sergey But, who was standing outside the brick building shortly after the attack. Pieces of broken glass and rubble were sprayed onto the concrete, where smiling children once flew kites and posed for pictures with their friends.

A few kilometers away, at the Sonechko kindergarten in the town of Okhtyrka, a cluster bomb destroyed a kindergarten and killed a child. Outside the entrance two more bodies lay covered in blood.

Valentina Grusha teaches in Kiev, where she worked for 35 years, as the last district manager and teacher of foreign literature. Russian troops occupied his village, Ivankiv, as the school staff began their preparations for war. She said that on February 24, Russian forces, advancing towards Kiev, shot and killed a child and his father there.

“There was no school anymore,” he said. “We called all the leaders and stopped the training because the war started. Then it was occupied for 36 days.”

They also bombed and destroyed schools in many surrounding villages,” he said. Kindergarten buildings were shattered by shrapnel and machine-gun fire.

Despite widespread damage and destruction to educational infrastructure, war crimes experts say it is difficult to prove an attacking army’s intent to target individual schools. Russian authorities deny targeting civilian structures, and local media reports in the Russian-controlled Gorlovka allegedly tried to retake the area from the explosion that killed two teachers there.

However, the effects of the destruction are indisputable.

“When I start talking to the managers of the destroyed and robbed institutions, they get very worried, they cry, they talk about it with pain and regret,” Grusha said. “It’s part of their life. And now the school is a ruin standing in the center of the village, a reminder of those terrible airstrikes and bombings.”

Toby Fricker, UNICEF communications director, now based in Ukraine, agreed. “School is the heart of society, in many places, and it is central to everyday life.”

Teachers and students in other conflicts say the destruction of their country’s schools has hurt an entire generation.

Syrian teacher Abdulkafi Alhambdo still contemplates drawings of bloodstained children spilling over the floor of a school in Aleppo. There it was attacked during the Civil War in 2014. Teachers and children were getting ready for an art exhibition featuring student work depicting the wartime.

The AP reported at the time that 19 people, including at least 10 children, were killed in the explosion. But what remains in Alhambdo’s memory are the survivors.

I understood from their eyes that they would not go to school anymore,” he said. “It doesn’t just affect children who run away with shock and trauma. It affects all children who hear about the massacre. How can they go back to school? You are targeting a generation, not just one school.”

Jasminko Halilovic was only 6 years old when Sarajevo in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina was besieged. Now, 30 years after the end of the Bosnian war, he and his peers are still picking up the pieces.

Halilovich went to school in a cellar, as many Ukrainian children do. Desperately chasing security, teachers and students moved from basement to basement, leaning boards against chairs instead of hanging walls.

Halilovic, now 34, founded the War Childhood Museum, which catalogs the stories and objects of children in conflict around the world. She was working in Ukraine with children displaced by Russia’s invasion of the Donbas region in 2014 when the current war began. He had to evacuate his staff and leave the country.

“When the fight is over, the new fight will begin. To rebuild cities. Rebuilding schools and infrastructure and rebuilding society. And to heal. And it’s the hardest to recover,” he said.

Alhambdo said he saw firsthand how the trauma of war affected the development of children growing up in Aleppo. Instilling a sense of fear, anger, and despair is part of the enemy’s strategy, he said. Some withdrew, he said, and others became violent.

“Do you know how many dreams were shattered when they saw their school destroyed? Do you think anyone will believe in peace, love and beauty when the place that taught them these things is destroyed?” said.

Alhambdo remained in Aleppo and for nearly 10 years taught children in basements, apartments, wherever possible. He said continuing to teach despite the war was a challenge.

“I’m not fighting on the front lines,” he said. “I fight with my kids.”

After the attack on School 50 in Gorlovka, shattered glass from burst windows spilled into classrooms, hallways and the street outside. The floors were covered with dust and rubble: cracked ceiling beams, sheets of drywall, a TV falling off the wall. Next to the desk where one of the teachers was killed was a cell phone.

Some still-standing schools in Ukraine have become makeshift shelters for people whose homes have been destroyed by shellfire and mortar shells.

What often complicates war crimes prosecutions for attacks on civilian buildings is the fact that large facilities such as schools are sometimes reused for military use during the war. David Bosco, a professor of international relations at Indiana University whose research focuses on war crimes and the International Criminal Court, said that if a civilian building is used as a military, it is a legitimate wartime target.

The key point for prosecutors, then, will be to demonstrate the Russian model of targeting schools and other civilian buildings across the country as a common military strategy, Bosco said.

“The more we show a pattern, the stronger it becomes that this is really a policy of not distinguishing between military and civilian installations,” Bosco said. “(Schools) are a place where children need to feel safe, a second home. Frankly, to smash it and essentially attack the next generation. It’s very real. It has a huge impact.”

As the war continued, more than half of Ukrainian children were displaced.

Children’s drawings are taped to the walls of an underground metro station that has become not only a family shelter but also a temporary school in Kharkiv, which has suffered brutal bombardment. Elementary school children gather around a table for history and art lessons.

“It helps to support them mentally,” said teacher Valeriy Leiko. “They feel like someone loves them,” she said, partly thanks to the lectures.

Millions of children continue to go to school online. International aid group Save the Children said it is working with the government to create distance learning programs for students in 50 schools. UNICEF is also trying to help with online education.

“Educating every child is crucial to prevent serious violations of their rights,” the group told the AP. Said.

On April 2, Grusha’s community outside of Kyiv slowly began to re-emerge. They’re still raking and sweeping debris from damaged but not destroyed schools and kindergartens, he said, and he’s assessing what’s left. They started distance education classes and planned to place the children whose schools were destroyed in the immediate surroundings.

He said that even while the war was going on, there was a return to normal life, including education.

But Levchenko, who was in Kiev in early May to undergo surgery for his injuries, said the emotional damage done to so many children who had suffered and witnessed such great pain could never be fully repaired.

“It will take a long time for people and children to recover from what they have been through,” he said. The children “stay underground without the sun, shaking from sirens and anxiety,” he said.

“It has an extremely negative impact. Children will remember this for the rest of their lives.”

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Stashevskyi reported from Kiev, Dearen from New York, and Linderman from Washington. Associated Press correspondents Erika Kinetz of Chernihiv and Michael Biesecker of Washington contributed to this report.

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Contact the AP’s investigation team at [email protected]