After A Tumultuous Summer, Ukrainian Kids Return To School : Parallels With Ukraine in an uneasy cease-fire, schoolkids returned to class this month and attempted to resume normal life. They tell what back-to-school feels like when their country's been at war all summer.
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After A Tumultuous Summer, Ukrainian Kids Return To School

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After A Tumultuous Summer, Ukrainian Kids Return To School

After A Tumultuous Summer, Ukrainian Kids Return To School

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In eastern Ukraine there's been sporadic fighting, but the cease-fire agreement between government forces and separatists seems to be holding. And last week school started in Ukraine. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a high school in Kiev to see what back-to-school feels like when your country has been at war all summer.

(MUSIC)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Music resounds through the hallways to signal the end of class at Kiev's Lyceum for the Humanities, one of the city's top public high schools. Lively students dressed in dark blue school uniforms pour into the stairwells as they make their way to the next class.

Once they're seated at their desks, their teacher explains that today a foreign journalist has come to meet them. The 16-year-olds eagerly gather around to tell their stories. For Mariya Spinko, the biggest tragedy of the conflict is what it's done to Ukrainian families. She says her dad's side of the family lives in the eastern city of Donetsk, now a separatist stronghold.

MARIYA SPINKO: The worst thing that - when I hear from my grandma - when she calls Russian soldiers our boys. And I'm like, what? How can you do that 'cause they think that Russia is our future.

BEARDSLEY: Spinko says she wants her future to be in Europe, and she's not speaking to her grandma right now. She says her summer was stressful even though she spent part of it in Spain.

Anastasiya Yelienieva says her summer was stressful, even though she spent part of it in Spain. She says her family wasn't sure which country they'd come home to.

ANASTASIYA YELIENIEVA: We were worried about if we could return to Ukraine or we would return to Russia.

BEARDSLEY: Like many people in Ukraine, Yelienieva also has family in Russia. She says that side is convinced Kiev is full of fascists who want to kill Russian speakers.

YELIENIEVA: They don't believe us. They think it's - that there are lots of terrorists here and it's not safe. They believe the media in Russia, and that's all the problem. They don't want to hear us.

LENA GRISHKOVA: My name is Lena. My last name is Grishkova, and I came from Donetsk.

BEARDSLEY: Grishkova is one of around 20 new students from the East. She says all of her classmates fled Donetsk, and she doesn't even know if their school is still standing. But even before the heavy fighting started, she says it became scary because her family didn't support the separatists.

GRISHKOVA: It was horrible. Every time I went outside I realized that some person could take my hand and ask, what is your opinion? You know, I felt petrified.

BEARDSLEY: Nikita Denischenkov also fled to Kiev from Donetsk. He says his family didn't support the Russian separatists or the new government in Kiev, which they considered illegitimate. He says they had to leave his grandparents behind, and he just wants the fighting to stop.

NIKITA DENISCHENKOV: The crazy situation - we don't know what will be in the future in Donetsk - the Russian, the Ukrainian or separate country. So we don't know nothing.

BEARDSLEY: Denischenkov and the others say the constant uncertainty and fear makes it hard to concentrate on school. But for many Ukrainians, the conflict with Russia has created a strong sense of identity which wasn't there at the breakup of the Soviet Union 23 years ago. These students, like Kerina Mizina, feel a new Ukrainian patriotism for the first time and see their future in the West.

KERINA MIZINA: Both our countries were in the USSR, and that's why we thought that we should be close to each other - because we can understand each other and because Europe is just like a different planet, you know? But now, fortunately, Ukrainians start to understand that we are different and that Ukraine is the independent country.

BEARDSLEY: The students here from Donetsk say they want to go home, reunite with their friends and rebuild their city. But no matter where they're from, the students in this class say they want to continue living in Ukraine. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kiev.

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