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HRW: Hundreds Of Schools Destroyed In Ukraine War, Military Use Must Stop

A Ukrainian serviceman walks through a destroyed school in the village of Pisky near Donetsk late last year.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks through a destroyed school in the village of Pisky near Donetsk late last year.

Hundreds of schools have been destroyed during the war in eastern Ukraine, including many that were used for military purposes by both sides in the conflict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.

Schools that have survived the war operate in dangerous and often overcrowded conditions, while many children have been forced to stop attending school altogether, says the report titled Studying Under Fire: Attacks On Schools, Military Use Of Schools During the Armed Conflict In Eastern Ukraine.

It urges the sides in the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists to take steps to protect children's safety and access to education and to prevent the use of schools for military purposes.

"All parties to the conflict have a responsibility to protect children and to make sure that their hostilities don't cause further harm to their safety and education," New York-based HRW says in the report released on February 11.

During visits to 41 schools and kindergartens and interviews with 62 students, teachers, principals, and witnesses, HRW documented attacks on schools located in both government-controlled and separatist-held areas.

Yulia Gorbunova, Ukraine researcher at HRW, told RFE/RL that both sides have used schools for military activities, deploying forces and armaments in and near schools.

"Using those schools for military purposes led to them basically turning into legitimate military targets and increasing the possibility of them being attacked and destroyed," Gorbunova said.

Other schools damaged during the conflict were not occupied or used by the fighting forces, and therefore did not appear to be "legitimate" military targets.

"We've found cases which we documented in the report also very clearly showing indiscriminate attacks, which is a very common [occurrence] in this conflict where the combatants did not distinguish between military and civilian targets," Gorbunova said.

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More than 9,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since the war erupted in April 2014. Fighting has diminished markedly under a cease-fire that took effect in September 2015, but violations are frequent and a deal aimed at resolving the conflict has gone largely unimplemented.

The report describes an artillery attack from the direction of rebel-controlled areas which caused extended damage to a school in Krasnohorivka, a government-controlled town in the Donetsk region, in June 2015. School No. 3 was located some 700 meters from a Ukrainian military checkpoint.

"Well, there was a very heavy artillery attack in which that school was hit many times -- repeatedly, and the military checkpoint was not hit at all, not even once. So that either shows very, very bad aiming [skills], or it shows that the school was targeted deliberately," Gorbunova told RFE/RL.

Safe Schools Declaration

The report warns that targeting such institutions is prohibited under the laws of war, and can be prosecuted as a war crime.

It also documents cases when the Ukrainian military occupied schools, and "frequently broke or burned school furniture, including classroom doors, chairs, and desks."

It says that, on several occasions, troops left behind heavy artillery or unused ammunition.

The report says Ukraine's Ministry of Education and Science has acknowledged in meetings with HRW that government troops have used schools for military purposes.

In urging both sides to protect children's safety and access to education and deter military use of schools, HRW says Ukrainian authorities should do that by endorsing and adhering to the international Safe Schools Declaration -- a statement that was opened for endorsement by countries at a conference in Norway in May 2015. So far, 51 states have signed it.

Gorbunova told RFE/RL that Kyiv had shown openness and a willingness to endorse the declaration. "We do not have a clear time frame [for the signing] yet, but we will continue working with the government toward it and hope that it will happen in the very near future."

The report also urges the separatists to follow the principles of the Safe Schools Declaration's Guidelines For Protecting Schools And Universities From Military Use During Armed Conflict.

Gorbunova said that, in the separatists' case, adherence to the guidelines should be proven by concrete action.

"While we cannot call on the militants to actually officially endorse the declaration because they are nonstate actors, we can definitely call on them to follow best practices laid out in the guidelines, and issue very clear orders to all the forces under their command to stop using schools for military purposes," she said.