Due to hostilities in the Mykolaiv region, distance learning is being conducted – Copyright IPPA/AFP/File Handout
Antonina Sidorenko put on her favorite outfit, chose the most beautiful ribbon to decorate her hair and can recite a poem given by a school teacher.
But given that lessons are held at home to the sound of gunshots and shelling, this is no ordinary first day at school for a nine-year-old Ukrainian.
Sitting at a desk in the middle of her living room, “Tonya” adjusts her mobile phone screen, which shows her teacher Natalya Vasilievna, best friend Igor, and other classmates she hasn’t seen since the Russian invasion in February.
“I’m happy to be back at school, but I’d be even happier if there wasn’t a war because I miss my teacher and my friends,” she told AFP, saying her best friend had fled to Poland.
Antonina, five-year-old sister Sonya, and parents Natalya and Andrey live in the village of Pokrovskoe, population of 24, in the southern region of Nikolaev near the front line.
Distance learning is taking place across the region due to the fighting.
For Natalia and Andrey, this created serious technical problems, and they managed to set up the Zoom app on their mobile phone only a few days before September 1, when schools returned across the country.
They also made sure the internet router was working. After a power outage in the summer, the family receives electricity from a solar panel provided by a non-governmental organization.
But against cannons, they can do little. At regular intervals, the rumble of Ukrainian artillery is heard, followed by a Russian response. Two days earlier, shrapnel had shattered the windows of their kitchen.
– ‘I’m not afraid’ –
Antonina, a young girl with bright blond braids, has already stopped flinching when the sounds of war echo in the distance.
“In the beginning, when shelling was going on near the house, I hid and lay on the floor. But now that it’s far away, I’m used to it and I’m not afraid,” she said.
As her teacher tries to deal with Zoom, Antonia shows off the room she shares with Sonya.
“Now we sleep on the floor so the shrapnel won’t kill us,” she said.
In the yard she feeds rabbits, her favorite animals. Rabbits, a pig and two cows are the reason why the family stays in place despite the danger.
The pig owes its survival to power outages, which makes it impossible to save any selected cutlets, Natalya explained.
“What are we to do in the city? Where would we stay, how would we live? Andrey asked, showing the damage left by the last blow, when another explosive sound was heard from behind.
“Did you hear that? It never ends!”
– “Like a soldier” –
Andriy said that selling all his possessions would bring him 15,000 hryvnias ($406), while a house costs at least 100,000 hryvnias even in the nearby village of Novoaleksandrovka.
When the shelling gets too intense, the family escapes in a car for a while before calm is restored to their area.
“You need to be a soldier: stick together, be ready, pack everything, be fast, don’t hesitate, listen to your parents, pack your bags and go,” Natalya said.
The 33-year-old cherishes her daughter and is proud of her good results and artistic talent, which she says Tonya inherited from her father.
But behind a calm appearance, Natalya admits that she is very worried about her children, despite her best efforts not to panic.
She refuses to leave, saying she has worked hard to build a house and save money for her daughters’ future.
The mother thinks that she won’t be able to go back to school soon. Teacher Tonya hadn’t had time to set up Zoom yet, but her young student took advantage of the delay to chat with longtime friend Igor.
Tonya insists on reading the poem she has memorized.
“Peace will come to Ukraine. Good people want peace. Adults, just like children, strive for peace on Earth.”