Berlin – Hostilities in eastern Ukraine have damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools, many of which were used by parties to the conflict for military purposes, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 65-page report, “Studying Under Fire: Attacks on Schools, Military Use of Schools During the Armed Conflict in Eastern Ukraine,” documents how both Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed militants have carried out indiscriminate or deliberate attacks on schools. Both sides have used schools for military purposes, deploying forces in and near schools, which has turned schools into legitimate military targets. The resulting destruction has forced many children out of school and many schools to stop operating or to operate under overcrowded and difficult conditions, Human Rights Watch found.
“Civilians, including children, on both sides of the line of contact have been bearing the brunt of this protracted war,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All parties to the conflict have a
responsibility to protect children and to make sure that their hostilities don’t cause further harm to their safety and education.”
The government of Ukraine should protect children’s safety and access to education and deter military use of schools by endorsing and carrying out the international Safe Schools Declaration. Russia-backed militants should also avoid using schools following the principles reflected in the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 62 students, teachers, principals, and witnesses for the report, and visited 41 schools and kindergartens, located both in government-controlled areas and territories controlled by Russia-backed militants.
Human Rights Watch documented attacks on schools on both sides of the line of contact that were not being occupied or used by the military and therefore did not appear to be military objectives. Targeted attacks on educational institutions that do not constitute military objectives and indiscriminate attacks that fail to distinguish civilian objects, such as schools, are prohibited under the laws of war, and can be prosecuted as war crimes.
In one case, in June 2015, an artillery attack from the direction of rebel-held territory severely damaged School Number 3 in Krasnohorivka, a government-controlled town in Donetsk region. The school building took 12 direct hits. A military checkpoint 700 meters from the school was not hit. The school principal, who believed that the school was the target of the attack, told Human Rights Watch: “We used to joke that the checkpoint was the safest place to hide because they never hit it.”
Throughout the conflict, Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed militants alike have deployed military forces in and near schools. When military forces occupied schools, they frequently broke or burned school furniture, including classroom doors, chairs, and desks. In many instances, schools that had been used by fighters remained unsafe because troops left behind heavy artillery or unused munitions. – Human Rights Watch