School Number 3 in Krasnohorivka, eastern Ukraine.

© Bede Sheppard, Human Rights Watch

Nina Nikolayevna prefers to focus on the good times.
 
When the school principal reminisces about the celebrations they used to hold at School Number 3, she is animated and passionate.
 
There was the Saint Nicholas Day, when the teachers asked the students what they wanted most and then tried to deliver a small present to each.
 
And there was the celebration when everyone would gather and ring a small bell to mark the end of the school year.
 
The students here at the only Ukrainian language school in Krasnohorivka, a city of 15,000 people west of Donetsk in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, had hoped the ringing of the bell would instead signify hope for the end of the war.
 
But as Nikolayevna told us what happened to her school on June 3, she became somber, and she hunched down into the embrace of her coat’s faux-fur collar.
 
Early that morning, heavy artillery fire began from the direction of rebel-held territory. The shelling continued for 13 hours. There were 12 direct hits on the school, while more craters marked the school grounds.
 
Nikolayevna ran to the school, but three times soldiers turned her away because it was too dangerous.
 
There was a military checkpoint around 700 meters from the school that may have been a target, but the pattern of the shelling suggests that even if that was a target, the rebels were also targeting the school.
 
During the conflict in eastern Ukraine, both sides have used schools as bases.
 
But local residents told Human Rights Watch there were no soldiers in the school that day, the morning after the last day of school.
 
As the school’s administrator, Tatiana Petrovna, put it: “If there are 12 shells falling one after another, it’s clearly not connected to the checkpoint, or it’s very bad aiming.”
 
Targeted attacks on a school that is not being used for military purposes are war crimes.
 
But the attacks are also making it much harder for School Number 3’s students to get a good education.
 
The school is no longer open despite the best efforts of the community to repair the damage.
 
Students from this school—and three others in Krasnohorivka damaged during the conflict—have been moved to the town’s only remaining operational school.
 
But merging the students has led to overcrowding, requiring the school to operate on double shifts and reducing the number of teaching hours for each shift.
 
According to the World Health Organization, at least 70 children have been killed and at least 194 injured in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since the conflict started in spring 2014.
 
Although a cease-fire is officially in force, fighting broke out near Krasnohorivka the morning after we met Nikolayevna in early November, so students, teachers, and schools remain at risk.
 
That’s why Ukraine should urgently join the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment endorsed by 51 states so far—including many currently or recently experiencing armed conflict—that lays out concrete measures countries can take to better protect students ,teachers and schools during times of war.
 
The day after the attack on Krasnohorivka’s School Number 3, students and parents turned up at the school, shovels and buckets in hand, ready to begin the clean-up.
 
When Nikolayevna saw a group of childrenin the schoolyard ready to work, she cried.
 
The students told her: “Don’t worry. Our kids will go to this school one day.”
 
The Ukrainian government faces many pressing demands on its financial resources as a result of the conflict, but ensuring that schools get adequate support to rebuild and reopen should be a priority toguarantee children’s right to education.
 
In the meantime Nikolayevna makes clear she’d be open to any offers of assistance from anyone anywhere. She remembers how, as a younger woman during Soviet times, she used to donate a few kopeks at the post office to buy a tiny ticket that promised she was helping to feed a hungry child in Africa.
 
Now she finds herself, in her words, “like a beggar, begging for help” for everything, from shoes and food for the kids to wood and roof tiles to rebuild her school.
 
One senses that Nikolayevna would be too proud to ever beg for herself, but there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her students.
 
She fought to keep her school running throughout the 2014-2015 school year, even as the other schools in Krasnohorivka closed their doors.
 
Her students pleaded for classes to continue so they would retain some normalcy in their lives. Parents brought children there from other schools that closed during the worst fighting and waited for them while they attended classes.
 
“They told me that I was crazy and everyone told us it was too dangerous,” she said, “But I just knew we had to do it.”