Updated: Tuesday, 02 September 2014 04:30 | By Agence France-Presse

With rebels at the door, Ukrainian children start school

"What are the first words of the Ukrainian anthem?" teacher Yulia Likhoshva asks her students. 


With rebels at the door, Ukrainian children start school

Parents look through the door of a classroom where children attend their first class at a school in Volnovakha on September 1, 2014 - by Francisco Leong

It is Monday, the first day back at school for children across the country, and Likhoshva is kicking things off with a patriotic lesson on "United Ukraine."

But as the crowded classrooms in this school in eastern Ukraine go to show, there is little unity to be found outside the school walls.   

Authorities say 20,000 children began this school year far away from home, having been displaced from conflict-torn eastern towns or moved from the Crimean peninsula which Moscow annexed in March.

Here in Volnovakha, more than 1,000 such children enrolled ahead of the first day back, according to the town's head of education, Valentina Baltsa.

Thirty-eight pupils came to School No. 7, a Soviet-era building in the outskirts of the town, after their schools closed in the cities of Lugansk, Donetsk and Shakhtarsk due to the fighting.

Asked what the teachers will do if the pro-Russian rebels take over Volnovakha, which lies between the rebel hub Donetsk and the government-controlled city of Mariupol, principal Tetyana Semenyutina gasps: "That will not happen."

The surrounding reality, however, suggests the opposite. Although Ukrainian flags still fly on Volnovakha's public buildings, Kiev's army has left the area.

An anti-Putin poster on the road out of Volnovakha was removed on Monday by the local authorities, and Ukrainian soldiers seen in the morning at the checkpoint near the village disappeared by midday.

For Semenyutina and the school, however, life goes on as usual. Girls wear ribbons in their hair while boys sport shiny suits and teachers - paid on average 2,500 hryvnias ($190) per month - hold on to flower bouquets.

"Vacation is over!" a teacher yells. As silence descends, the crowd begin the Ukrainian anthem: "Glory and liberty are not yet dead in Ukraine."

"This school year begins like no other," Semenyutina sighs.

- 'I am European' -

Of the 22 subjects taught in school No. 7, 19 are taught in Ukrainian, but the region's two languages coexist without any problem, says Russian-speaking Semenyutina.

"At recess, everyone speaks what they want," she says. "Usually it's Russian. But we want to live in a united Ukraine."

"Ukraine is one country," teacher Yulia Likhoshva writes on the blackboard, before asking the class to observe a minute of silence for those who died in the conflict.

"Ukraine is going through a difficult period, as you know," she says before quizzing her young pupils: "How does one stand during the national anthem? How many colours are in the national flag? What is the capital of Ukraine?"

Rather than allow AFP to interview the children, principal Semenyutina brings over a model student, 14-year-old Victoria, who talks about her hopes for the future.

Before returning to class, Victoria tells a story of spending one week in Lithuania this summer after winning a contest.

She won the trip after writing an essay titled "I am European."

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