"I was running from home to school and praying all the way... It was so loud that it was impossible to tell": the story of a school principal from Zolote, the Luhansk region

Tetiana Petrova and Maria Biliakova
"I was running from home to school and praying all the way... It was so loud that it was impossible to tell": the story of a school principal from Zolote, the Luhansk region

Oksana Dutka (name changed for security reasons) is a two-time internally displaced person. It is the name given to those who left their homes for the first time because of the war in eastern Ukraine and for the second time because of Russia's full-scale offensive. Oksana left Pervomaisk in 2014 and got a job in Zolote, which she had to leave in the spring of 2022.

Zolote and Pervomaisk are cities located 5-7 kilometres in a straight line from each other. Still, since 2014, a line of demarcation has been drawn between them, dividing the cities into two different worlds.

"All these years, we lived next to our Pervomaisk," Oksana says, "I could see my house in the occupied territory from my balcony in Zolote. 

About once a year, Oksana would go to Pervomaisk to check on the condition of her apartment. "It was a nightmare to move to the other side. If 10,000 people passed through this checkpoint a day, imagine what was happening there! And when I came to Pervomaisk, I couldn't wait to leave. When I came to the government-controlled territory, I sighed with relief. Nothing worked in Pervomaisk. It was scary to stay there, like a desert," says Oksana. 

And life was booming in Zolote: since 2014, the teaching staff has been implementing projects to make the school the best it could be.

"In 2016 or 2017, the Minister of Education, Lilia Hrynevych, visited the Luhansk region," Oksana recalls. "She visited our school and said that she had never seen a school like this, even in Kyiv: more than 40 computers, three computer labs, 25 tablets, six multimedia boards, TVs, beautiful furniture, a renovated dining room, and a sports complex. In addition, all teachers had computers."

And such a school operated in a town with outskirts shelled from the temporarily occupied territory since 2014. Residents of Zolote were used to living near the front line. Everything changed on February 24, 2022 - from that day on, the explosions became loud, and it became dangerous to stay in the town. 

The school was no longer open — the children were released for additional vacations, and the teachers took turns keeping order in the school.

"I remember running from home to school on February 26 and praying all the way," Oksana describes the situation in the first weeks of the war, "I was [running - ed. note] from fence to fence. It was so loud that it was impossible to describe. Then, finally, I reached the school, and a plane was flying - a huge twin-engine plane - [it seemed to be flying] only at me, wanting to kill me."

There was no bomb shelter in the school building, so the teachers set up a shelter in the former boiler room, bringing in drinking water and things. However, they usually did not go down; they waited out the most dangerous moments on the first floor, in a corner between two walls.

In early April, staying in Zolote became even more frightening. The Russian military started shooting in the town, and a shell hit Oksana's friends' apartment. At that time, Ukrainian soldiers were standing near the demarcation line, and the military equipment of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not pass through the town.

"We never thought we would be gone for so long," Oksana says, "We decided to leave spontaneously on April 3, and on April 4, we left... We were six in a car, each with one bag, and we couldn't take more. So I only packed photos of my children and grandchildren and didn't even take my favourite embroidered shirt. Everything else — especially the things dear to my heart — remained back in Pervomaisk."

Oksana and her family settled in the Dnipropetrovsk region, and most importantly, she managed to keep her school and almost the entire staff. The school operates online, and most students attend remotely. However, some students come from temporarily occupied territories.

The situation with the school building is much worse: a shell hit the principal's office and destroyed the rooms from the bottom and top. The Russian military took away the school property in early June. 

"At first, we thought that everything had been taken to Pervomaisk... But our friends living there said that the schools were in such disrepair... There was no trace of our wealth," Oksana says.

Oksana does not have any long-term plans for the future. Like other IDPs, she lives one day at a time and does not know what will happen next and whether she will ever be able to return home. But returning and reviving her school is her most cherished dream.