Defending Russian prisoners: in Ukraine, lawyers at the edge of the rule of law

for Mediapart

Two years after the total invasion of the country by the Russian army, the border has never been so tight between the two states. Some Ukrainians, however, found themselves in contact with the enemy. These are the interactions of war. Mediapart tells them in a two-part investigation.

by Peirre Alonso - published on March 3, 2034

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How Ukraine is trying to help its ‘lost generation’

With lessons in the subway and secret online teaching, adults seek to create some normality for children shaped by war

for the Financial Times
By Isobel Koshiw - published on February 23, 2024
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Children in an underground primary school in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Down a marble-clad former metro passage in eastern Ukraine, more than 10 metres beneath the ground, are newly installed classrooms so deep they could withstand a nuclear blast.The underground school in Kharkiv — adorned with colourful decorations, toys and pictures — is the safest place for pupils to be, boasts Iryna Tarasenko, the city’s head of education.The classrooms are just one of the desperate measures Ukraine is taking to shield its children from war and mitigate the devastating impact of the conflict with Russia on a young generation scarred by personal loss and disrupted education.“This generation of children really lost a lot — and lost not only in terms of knowledge, but also in terms of their development,” said Iryna Potapenko, an education researcher at STEM Osvita, a non-profit group.Young Ukrainians have suffered through at least two years of conflict; for those in areas affected by Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the subsequent conflict in the eastern Donbas region, the trauma stretches back far longer. With little sign of any conclusion to the war, the impact on the nation’s children and teenagers is already severe enough to have long-lasting effects.Ukrainian children had undergone their biggest slump in reading and literacy on record, said the deputy minister for schools, Andriy Stashkiv. Stress and isolation had increased, he said, as young people led a life of “air raids, shelters, distance learning, lack of communication with peers and little socialisation because of the war”.For most children, school closures during the war have denied them a normal school life, the chance to make friends and interact with teachers. Those who fled abroad feel disconnected from friends and family; those still in Ukraine are often stuck with parents who keep them at home for fear of missile strikes. Children living in occupied territories, after enduring the violence of the invasion, live with the ongoing fear of Russian repression.Now, about half of Ukraine’s 4.1mn school-age children attend classes in person, according to the education ministry. Almost 1mn are enrolled remotely from abroad or safer parts of the country; another 1mn have some in-person schooling combined with virtual classes.

Thousands of children stuck on the other side of the 1,000km frontline also tune in secretly to Ukraine’s online classes, according to teachers who spoke to the Financial Times. The education ministry in Kyiv says just over 67,000 children in Russian-occupied territories are enrolled virtually at Ukrainian schools.Some of the worst affected are 10 and 11 year olds from frontline areas who only attended in-person schools for a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic. Just as the lockdowns ended, Russian tanks started rolling in on February 24 2022.The north-eastern city of Kharkiv has been battered by constant shelling since Russia launched its full-scale invasion; the barrages have intensified in recent months. From February to May 2022, Russian forces laid siege to the city but failed to capture it. A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive later that year pushed the enemy back, but with the Russian border just 30km away, missiles, rockets and drones can strike within minutes of being launched, bypassing Kharkiv’s air defence systems and hitting civilian targets. Deep underground, at the metro school in the city, morning lessons are entirely devoted to pupils in their first year of education, which in Ukraine starts at age six.Under artificial light, the children start each school day by observing the nationwide 9am minute of silence for Ukraine’s war dead, followed by the national anthem and some light stretching exercises, said teacher Anastasia Provotorova.“We don’t put an emphasis on what’s happening, and we try not to talk to the children about it. When they start talking about the war among themselves, we try to tone it down,” said Provotorova.Six-year-old Olivia, who has lived in Kharkiv throughout the war, said she loved grammar. “I want to be a writer,” she volunteered in English before running back to play with her friends during the break.

Ukrainian Language class in an underground primary school in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Anastasia Provotorova in her underground classroom
Anastasia Provotorova in her underground classroom

At the back of a classroom sat child psychologist Inna Homych, who said children were often anxious and struggled to focus.“They absorb the anxiety of all the adults around them. The fact that their parents are waking them up and taking them into the corridor [to shelter when sirens go off], even coming to this metro school, it all affects their emotional state,” said Homych. “Wetting the bed and bad dreams have become frequent.”

The city’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, initiated the project to set up its five “metro schools”. In one of the city’s most populated suburbs, Terekhov is now overseeing the construction of a much larger underground school that can seat 1,600 pupils over two daily shifts.The project was estimated to cost just under $1.5mn, the mayor said — initially from the town’s own budget, but the regional administration planned to subsidise more. Other cities near the frontline had been in touch about replicating the idea, he said.Still, even when built, the underground school will only cover a fraction of the 57,000 children currently living in Kharkiv and registered at its schools. Thousands more children have come to Kharkiv from other parts of the country and join online lessons set up by their old schools.

Olha Kozachenko, the headteacher of a village school in occupied Ivaniivskyi, near Bakhmut, which was lost to Russian forces last year, said that out of 120 pupils who attended her school before the war, 116 were still attending remotely from across Ukraine and abroad. She has fled to Ukraine’s central eastern Poltava region but is proud that all of her teachers are still providing lessons online.“It’s because we’re comfortable together. We start every teacher meeting with [saying] how we love one another, and the same thing with the children,” said Kozachenko.Since the invasion, she said, children had almost never missed lessons and were still taking part in national competitions.
Another headteacher, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions, fled Ukraine’s occupied south after being detained four times. On one occasion, he said he was put in the trunk of a car and beaten up after he refused to head the new Russian-run school. He said virtual learning was a lifeline for a quarter of the pupils left in his occupied town.After the Russian-run school finished, he said, some students in the occupied areas — mostly teenagers — secretly watched Ukrainian school recordings online and submitted their homework. The hope was that when their town was liberated, they would not have missed schooling and would be able to proceed to university, said the headteacher.

But as Ukraine heads into its third year of full-scale conflict, its public finances are suffering. The headteacher said he feared the virtual schools might be disbanded and their teachers laid off for lack of funds. Currently, Kyiv still pays teachers who refused to join Russian-ran schools.Stopping that lifeline would be “like abandoning them. They did the right thing and now we turn our backs on them?” he said.Authorities in Kyiv said education, online learning and budgets for teachers’ salaries, including those from the occupied areas, remained their second priority after defence. But there was a preference for replacing virtual with real-life schools.“All the indicators show that distance learning has a negative effect . . . with reading literacy being the worst affected,” said Stashkiv, the deputy schools minister. “That’s why we are trying to get children who live in areas where schools are open to attend school.”

Construction workers at the site of the new underground school construction in Kharkiv

How Kharkiv’s start-ups became the ultimate test of business resilience 

for the Financial TImes

Ukraine’s enterpreneurs and ingeneers show how to keep going during extreme disruption

by Alec Russel - published on February 19, 2024

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Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukrainian military intelligence: “In a long war, he who has the logistics wins”

for Liberation

by Stéphane Siohan and Kristina Berdynskykh - published on February 16, 2024
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“You are in Ukraine, everything will be fine”: story of an exchange of prisoners of war

for Liberation

by Stéphane Siohan and Kristina Berdynskykh - published on February 11, 2024
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