In poetry and art, Ukrainian children muster courage and make sense of war

Posted on : 2022-11-29 16:58 KST Modified on : 2022-12-09 16:26 KST

Part 1 of the Hankyoreh’s series of literary reportage on children’s literature
Ukrainian children draw pictures together in the basement of their school, where around 50 children stayed hidden between late February and April 1. (courtesy of Alina)
Ukrainian children draw pictures together in the basement of their school, where around 50 children stayed hidden between late February and April 1. (courtesy of Alina)

Mother did you see?

The land of Ukraine, the sun of Ukraine, the clouds of Ukraine,

and the birds of Ukraine are singing Ukrainian songs in Ukrainian.

This is what Ustym Lysenko, a second-grade boy living in the Ukrainian capital, told his mother last March while showing her a picture he drew.

This all took place in the cramped, dark, cold basement of a school. When Russian forces occupied the area from late February through April 1, about 500 local residents and children who couldn’t escape hid in Nemishaieve Lyceum No.2 school to survive. The school was located in a neighboring village only 10 kilometers from Bucha, where the Russian military massacred Ukrainian civilians.

Ustym’s mother shared the story with his schoolteachers along with a prayer saying, “Dear Lord, please grant us victory.”

The Hankyoreh met Nemishaieve Lyceum’s principal, Alina, at the school on Oct. 11. With teary eyes, she showed our reporter the text on her phone that read like poetry.

“Can you believe it was a 7-year-old child who wrote this?” she asked.

A drawing done by Ustym Lysenko, a 7-year-old, during Russia’s occupation. The text reads: “Everything here belongs to Ukraine. You are protecting us!” (courtesy of Alina)
A drawing done by Ustym Lysenko, a 7-year-old, during Russia’s occupation. The text reads: “Everything here belongs to Ukraine. You are protecting us!” (courtesy of Alina)

Throughout the time when the civilians were hiding inside the school, five missiles exploded on the school grounds and thousands of bullets rained down on the sides of the two-story building. Armored vehicles circled the school, and the village was shelled without warning.

“We heard rumors of civilians being killed in Bucha [during the evacuation], but none of us believed it could be true,” said a teacher named Olena, who had been teaching English for 10 years.

The basement of the school had originally been used for storage. Then, more than 50 of those taking refuge there were students and children. As temperatures outside dropped to 20 degrees below zero, the temperature inside never reached above 10 degrees.

“Because there were two heaters and the space was cramped, we couldn’t even lie down,” Olena explained.

According to Alina, people huddled together to stay warm, using body heat to ward off the threat of freezing to death. Food, which was difficult to acquire from the outside, was cooked in the school itself. The children “didn’t even complain about being hungry,” the principal said. They just wanted to be told stories or to borrow books from teachers.

A woman from another village wrapped her five-day-old baby in a burlap bag to sneak into the school. Even the Russian military sent three injured civilians to this school to “receive treatment.”

“I was so frightened when I heard that. That the Russian army knew perfectly well that we were hiding here,” Olena said. “After committing countless atrocities, they go and do this totally unpredictable thing.”

A young boy taking refuge in the basement of the Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 school clings to a book. (courtesy of Alina)
A young boy taking refuge in the basement of the Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 school clings to a book. (courtesy of Alina)

Even during the withdrawal, Russian ground forces did not storm the school. No one was sure of the exact reason why.

Seven-year-old Ustym simply drew and wrote what he saw happening in his country and the people in it. If one were to put it into words, it might sound something like, “Oh Lord, please let us live, please let us sing.”

Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2’s Principal Alina(right), and English teacher Olena (left). (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2’s Principal Alina(right), and English teacher Olena (left). (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
The basement of Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 is no longer occupied as of October 2022, following the retreat of Russian forces, and is being repaired in preparation for the event of another disaster. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
The basement of Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 is no longer occupied as of October 2022, following the retreat of Russian forces, and is being repaired in preparation for the event of another disaster. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
Traces of the bullets that hit the school have been painted by teachers and students of Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 to look like stars. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
Traces of the bullets that hit the school have been painted by teachers and students of Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 to look like stars. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
A school where 500 lived, a village where 1,000 died

One of the first regions occupied by Russia as it advanced on Kyiv after launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 was the Bucha area, 37 kilometers northwest of the capital.

There were children’s homes, schools, libraries and even dreams here at this meatgrinder of a defensive line.

During the 35-day evacuation, one of the school’s volunteers died nearby, while six students lost their parents.

Fourteen-year-old Igor Zavalkin, a ninth grader who took refuge at the school with his mother, had to wait until May to learn that his father had been killed by the Russian military in Irpin at the end of February.

He couldn’t say anything for two months, but then the embargo on the tragedy was lifted. The world learned that over 1,300 civilians were massacred in the next village Bucha alone.

Sofia, who until recently had been living in downtown Kyiv, wrote the following.

“We wake up, move around, and sleep to the sound of sirens and explosions. Mom and dad say it’s very dangerous now. I don’t know what’s happening.” (Feb. 25)

“Mom told me not to use the word ‘war’ with your little sister. I don’t know how to explain to her that we’re really at war now. I wish my sister didn’t shake and cry when we’re bombed in the middle of the night.” (Feb. 27)

“Today is my grandma’s birthday… There are Russian soldiers and tanks in the city where she lives…” (March 1)

We met Sofia at Khreshchatyk Station, near the presidential palace in Kyiv, during an emergency air raid evacuation on the morning of Oct. 10.

The missile barrage — practically Russia’s first ever on downtown Kyiv — began at 8:20 am.

Holding on to her mother’s waist at the shelter on the subway platform deep underground, Sofia told reporters, “Today was the scariest. I was going to school with mom, and we saw the missiles flying overhead, and the explosions were really loud.”

Ten-year-old Sofia (right) and her mother, Darya, spoke to the Hankyoreh while taking shelter in a subway station in central Kyiv during an air raid on Oct. 10, 2022. (Im In-tack)
Ten-year-old Sofia (right) and her mother, Darya, spoke to the Hankyoreh while taking shelter in a subway station in central Kyiv during an air raid on Oct. 10, 2022. (Im In-tack)
A poem Sofia wrote in her journal that reads “You are beautiful and strong and tender when you sing to us. You are never defeated and are free and wise, when you teach us.” (courtesy of the family)
A poem Sofia wrote in her journal that reads “You are beautiful and strong and tender when you sing to us. You are never defeated and are free and wise, when you teach us.” (courtesy of the family)
Young children were among the crowd that took shelter in Khreshchatyk Station as Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 10. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)
Young children were among the crowd that took shelter in Khreshchatyk Station as Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 10. (Im In-tack/The Hankyoreh)

Her four-year-old sister had to stay home with her father. Her kindergarten had been closed for a while.

One week later, after a kamikaze drone strike on downtown Kyiv on the morning of Oct. 17, a Monday, her 35-year-old mother Darya contacted reporters through Telegram.

“This time I was really frightened because there were explosions right near my home,” she said.

The government said at least four people were killed in the blast, including a pregnant woman and her husband. The figure didn’t include the child in her womb.

The thing that’s really terrifying about war is that it makes you imagine how much worse things could get the next day.

The true cruelty is that the fear becomes otherized through casualty statistics and effuse use of adult and political language.

Nine-year-old Zlata, a fourth grader who took shelter as she was going to school with her father on Oct. 10, said that she now understands a bit the meaning of war.

“People kill each other and destroy each other’s homes,” she said.

Roxy, a Vinnytsia resident we met on Oct. 6 in the Polish city of Lublin, where she’d fled as a refugee, said even her 6-year-old daughter “now knows who Putin is, and that she must hide when she hears the sirens.”

When asked if she knew what war means, Zlata, a 9-year-old from Ukraine, said she did “a little.” “People kill each other and destroy each other’s homes,” she said.
When asked if she knew what war means, Zlata, a 9-year-old from Ukraine, said she did “a little.” “People kill each other and destroy each other’s homes,” she said.

Roxy, a Ukrainian refugee who now resides in Poland, said her 6-year-old daughter, pictured here with her father, now knows who Putin is. (courtesy of the family)
Roxy, a Ukrainian refugee who now resides in Poland, said her 6-year-old daughter, pictured here with her father, now knows who Putin is. (courtesy of the family)

Editor’s note: Last month, the Hankyoreh stayed in Ukraine to cover the war as long-experienced “in silence” by children, rather than the war papered over with barren front lines on maps, casualty figures and adult and political language.

We had to cancel coverage appointments and expose ourselves to danger due to Russian airstrikes on downtown Kyiv. This is something the children of the country have been enduring since February.The world was already full of dangers like neglect, abuse, discrimination, hunger and global warming, and now war. Some 1,000 Ukrainian children have been injured or died through mid-November alone, but this figure hides the truth.It’s hard to recreate the lives of at-risk children and adolescents through reportage using the five senses alone.This is because to properly examine their young lives, you must also look at the future their lives already contain.The Hankyoreh calls this duty “literary reportage.”In a world where children face danger, stigma and discrimination, and reckless optimism, does children’s literature provide comfort? Sustenance? Dreams? Or even a basic means to testify?A century after the birth of Korean children’s literature during the colonial era, the Hankyoreh traveled to the United States, Sweden, Malaysia and elsewhere throughout the world to inquire about the utility of children’s literature.

Article and photos by Im In-tack, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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