“It’s calm now, but be ready to leave at any time,” come the instructions over the car radio.
We’re driving east, through heavy snow, towards the mining settlement of Zolote 3, on the frontline of east Ukraine’s nearly 6-year old conflict.
The so-called ‘frozen conflict’ in Europe’s backyard is still active and for the people left along the more than 420km ‘contact line’ it’s a tragic way of life with a heavy physical and mental toll.
Reaching Ukraine’s most vulnerable children
The rows of apartment blocks that line the road leading to Zolote 3 – one of five settlements – are sparsely populated. Most people have fled, only 270 are left out of a pre-conflict population of around 5,000.
Thirteen-year-old Daryna is one of them. She also fled with her family when the fighting was most intense in 2015. They moved to the capital Kyiv, some 600kms west, but not long after arriving her father died of a heart attack and her mother’s alcoholism reached crisis level and Daryna was desperate to leave.
Today, Daryna lives with her uncle and aunt back in Zolote 3 and is once again exposed to the dangers of the conflict.
“It’s not safe at all here, sometimes you hear shelling and you get tense when you hear the sounds,” says Daryna. The day before we arrived numerous explosions were reported close to the Zolote area. This area of east Ukraine is also now one of the most mine-contaminated places on earth.
Daryna finds solace by continuing her education at the local school and through creative artwork, like making her clay sculptures.
“I live my dreams through the clay work,” says Daryna, as she shows off an eclectic range of figures on the mantelpiece in their one-room apartment. “There is too little creativity in life, I want to be a teacher when I grow up to teach singing and arts,” she says.
Protecting the right to education
A short walk down the road is Daryna’s school.
There are 15 children attending, nearly 70 were in classes before the conflict started. The school is a branch of a larger one in the town of Zolote 5 that is now separated by the contact line.
“The school is the only place for normal life, it’s a sanctuary,” explains Antonina, the acting Deputy Headmistress.
Six-year-old Anton is one of three children in Grade 1. He has boundless energy and in between classes he’s helping the teachers design a project to celebrate the upcoming holiday period.
“He feels good in school and can play there with a few kids, he gets bored at home and cries a lot,” says his 24-year old mother, Ania.
The week before arriving in Zolote 3, the Government of Ukraine endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration becoming the hundredth state to do so. This is a political commitment to better protect students, teachers, schools and universities during armed conflict, to support the continuation of education during war and to put in place concrete measures to deter the military use of schools.
Putting the Declaration into practice is the next step, and for schools across the Zolote settlements, it’s critical. This year, the school in Zolote 5, up the hill from here, sustained conflict-related damage 15 times.
Hope for children along the line
“The most important thing is for the war to be over,” says Daryna, a sentiment reflected by everyone we talk to. While implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration is a positive step to better protect children, what children need most is a political solution to end the conflict.
Recent peace talks in Paris might accelerate this process but while daily ceasefire violations are reported across the contact line, UNICEF Ukraine works to help protect children and provide the support and opportunities they need to cope and recover.
In 2020, UNICEF Ukraine and partners will target the most vulnerable children, like Daryna and Anton, working with local partners to improve access to and the quality of education, water and sanitation, child protection and health services.
“Everyone who can leave goes, and those who can’t stay here,” says Anton’s mum, Ania. “I don’t have money to go anywhere, I have to stay, to see it all, to live somehow,” she adds.
UNICEF Ukraine is asking for nearly US$10 million to respond to the urgent needs of 800,000 children and their families on both sides of the contact line.
Toby Fricker leads UNICEF’s ‘Children under Attack’ global humanitarian campaign, advocating for the protection of children affected by armed conflict. The campaign works to reduce the number and impact of attacks on children in conflict and to provide the support and opportunities that children need to better cope, recover and to thrive again.