Parents Fear For Children’s Future In War-Hit Ukrainian City
An air raid siren blares and tears fill Vasiliy Kravchuk’s eyes as he surveys the wreckage of the school his six-year-old son was meant to start next year.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” sobs the 37-year-old who works at the tourism organisation for Zhytomyr, a garrison town west of Kyiv where no tourists now come.
The city with its broad, picturesque river spanned by a suspension bridge has suffered a series of devastating Russian strikes since the start of the war.
The regional maternity hospital was badly damaged by a blast on March 2, while School Number 25 was destroyed on March 4.
Zhytomyr has been spared the devastation of cities like Mariupol in the south, but it remains in Russia’s sights as its troops attempt to encircle Kyiv from the west.
“Every day it’s 20, 30 times we go to the basement (to shelter). It’s difficult because my wife is pregnant, I have a little son,” says Kravchuk, wearing a bright pink hoodie and rubbing his eyes.
His son had been looking forward to starting at the school, but now it is a pile of concrete, with a shelf full of schoolbooks hanging over a void where a wall used to be.
– ‘Genocide’ –
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the “special military operation” launched on February 24 is aimed at the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.
But Ukraine’s prosecutor general has said Russia is committing genocide in Mariupol, and many in Zhytomyr believe the violence Moscow has unleashed across the country amounts to the same thing.
“This is indeed genocide of the Ukrainian people,” Svitlana Kovalchuk, a 50-year-old chemistry teacher at the school, says during a visit arranged by the Ukrainian government.
“Because the civilians suffer, innocent children, suffer, newborn children, children from our school, children from the whole country suffer.”
At the Zhytomyr regional maternity centre on the other side of town, mothers cradle their newborn babies in tiny rooms in a sweltering basement where they hide from bombs.
The windows of the hospital were blown in by powerful strikes that hit a nearby residential area, leaving the maternity wards unuseable.
“They (Russia) want to rip us off of our future,” says Nadia Skutelnyk, 29, showing off her four-day-old daughter Stephania’s tiny fingers.
The hospital has moved most of its equipment underground and has even set up its own operating theatre.
Medical director Olena Ostryiko says she “cannot understand” why “the enemy” bombed so close to the hospital.
“Why the civilians, why the children, why the kindergartens, why hospitals, why? I cannot understand. But we know that the enemy’s aim is the genocide of Ukrainian people,” she says.
– ‘Not giving up’ –
One reason may be that they are collateral damage in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Children and parents stroll in the sun and skateboarders rattle down the pavements until the air raid sirens ring, but Zhytomyr is partly an army town.
The maternity hospital is near a military base, while residents said that a building near the school had been used by the army many years ago.
Mayor Sergiy Sukhomlyn said Zhtyomyr was being targeted despite being 70 or 80 kilometres from the frontline because of its military history.
“Russia very well remembers our famous 95th brigade, which is at war since 2014 in Donbas”, the eastern Ukrainian region held by pro-Russian separatists, Sukhomlyn told a press conference.
The city was also under attack because it was on the route for aid from Europe to the worst-hit cities such as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, he says.
“Zhytomyr is definitely is not giving up,” he said at the sand-bag surrounded city hall, by the entrance to a scenic shopping street with the words “Zhytomyr I love you” in fairy lights.
In the basement maternity room she shares with a refugee from a town near Kyiv, new mum Nadia Skutelnyk is not giving up either.
“Every day that you wake up it is a good day. And as for what comes next — who knows what the future holds for us,” she says.