Alexander Stemp in the school before the war

Teachers, children reel from full horrors of war

Even three years ago when I was last at the Key-School in outer Kyiv there was still a continual fear of an enemy at the gate. Life was relatively safe but the threat remained of further Russian aggression against Ukraine. Now all-out war has broken out and missile attacks have devastated the school. The Budapest Times spoke to headmistress Natalija Opimakh and English teacher Olga Puga, who were left in a state of shock.

The Key-School is a reputable gymnasium school whose specialised subjects are languages and general academia. While in Kyiv, as a friend of Natalija and Olga they invited me to make a presentation at the school, which I accepted, and I made my way to the lesser known locale of Sviatoshyn, a suburb in the west of the capital.

A warm welcome greeted me and I made my presentation to a cheerful teenage audience. The main topics we focused on were English life and culture, and media such as The Budapest Times. There were illuminating questions and answers, as well as meeting the staff and a school lunch

Russia, after its initial aggression against Ukraine in 2014, attacked fully on February 24 this year. Disaster struck the school and its immediate area on March 20, fortunately a Sunday, when shelling blew out the windows and obliterated the classrooms. The building still stands and is not entirely abandoned, but even so it can no longer function as before.

Some preservation work is being carried out. What’s left of the windows and doors have been sealed with wooden panels to keep out damp and protect remaining educational materials, furniture and general equipment until normal life can return. Security guards are living on site. Staff are dispersed but in contact and they continue to work behind the scenes. Online lessons are held.

Natalija and Olga, and many like them, still remain traumatised but it is good to know they are at least relatively safe. Olga made her way 500 kilometres to Lviv and Natalija 800 kilometres to the border town of Uzhgorod, 4 kilometres from the European Union, and both are having to seek a new life, hopefully temporarily. I spoke to them.

Welcome Natalija and Olga. Please tell me more about this terrible incident that involved your school, your livelihoods, the students and the local community.

Olga: Neither Natalija nor I were in Kyiv when the dread March 20 strike occurred on our neighbourhood, near to 2pm. As I had by then, after February 24, relocated to Lviv, but some other colleagues were still there. The incident was followed by various news broadcasts as well as personal photographs from friends, and these were sent around to us all. It’s clear, the loud rumblings, the bombings and general scale of destruction which followed were so indescribably uncalled for and totally scary.

English teacher Olga Puga

Prior to then, some people relating to our school were in refuge in the basement during the first two weeks of war before eventual evacuation allowed many to leave this immediate enclosure and go elsewhere. Thank God, none of them were injured. However, fortunately some missiles which flew overhead were shot down before landing by our excelling defence forces … We were lucky because if it wasn’t for them our school would have collapsed for sure. But other nearby buildings suffered much more than ours. This was the first time I broke down during this time of sheer pain and disbelief.

Natalija: That day I was out of town and visiting a colleague in the west of the country. At 1.55pm I received an urgent phone call from our school security guard, who with much verve yelled at me in obvious panic, but otherwise in respect, as he expressed the sudden situation with total horror – “They have hit this immediate area!”

Although very shaken, no one from that immediate incident from our end was hurt. During that precise time there were only six people at the school: two security guards, three members of their families and a secretary continuing work there. I had moved out altogether as I live 50 kilometres from the capital and was relatively safe with family, at least then.

As a person of authority, it quickly came to mind to round up and store all school-related documents and files, for the sake of the students and teachers who had perhaps lost or misplaced them along the way during this reign of chaos and adverse terror.

Then I sent a circular message to all employees and parents alike telling them precisely what happened on that particular day.

Headmistress Natalija Opimakh

The missiles landed in a cluster very close by. Although the ground shook, fortunately we were relatively lucky despite having most of our windows and doors blown out. There is a large crater close by. Nearby houses and cars were severely damaged and in most cases caught on fire.

Despite the horror and uncertainties, as an authority figure I had to maintain professionalism, calm and to avoid being hysterical by repeating myself when everyone could see what was now common knowledge. Finally, volunteers came to clear up the general mess and basic restoration work also began.

Obviously this locale, as well as the capital, was no longer able to carry on as before. Tell me something about the atmosphere prior to the exodus of people.

Natalija: Not only could our school not function the way as before but the entire education system has stopped completely throughout Ukraine.

Local people could no longer go to work either. It was clear those relating to the school from February 24 should not take chances, and they should look after themselves before all else and leave the dangers of the capital as soon as possible.

When the war began, we quickly made preparations to provide a shelter for those in need. For two weeks before the eventual evacuations, I arranged for employees and their families to move in to the school. There were 50 people in total, including children. They had to work as a team to get through this together. Rotas were made for makeshift cooking, cleaning and so forth. Electricity was disconnected to avoid fire hazards in case of a direct hit, all doors and windows were sealed up. Our beloved school became a fortress, as much had been well prepared with further camaraderie and togetherness well in advance.

How were people evacuated? How did you manage to get away from Kyiv?

Natalija: The war began at dawn before working hours, and that was the only good news that day as the students and staff weren’t at school yet. The day beforehand we planned for various ways to evacuate. Finally, there was only one simple goal for our efforts, we had to send the children home. Therefore, when the shelling began, the children were at least out of the way and looked after before being led out from the city. Some families left the capital immediately, others stayed on. All streets of Kyiv leading westwards to the Zhytomyr and Lviv highway were full of traffic and moving at very slow speeds, at roughly 10 kilometres per hour! That day, I left my school duties at 7pm and returned to my home and stayed there for some significant time until I was ready for my next move, which was finally to Uzhgorod.

Those who managed to stay on gradually left the city during that critical time, before it was too late. One of our student’s families left for the outskirts, Vorzel, on March 12 and only just about managed to get out before it was hit and destroyed. Another family I know is still near Kyiv on the moderately less affected southern side and are staying put, in order to guard their territory. Most of our children were from the destroyed Irpen, Bucha, Vorzel and other heavily shelled areas within the northern Kyiv areas. Despite the obvious destruction and deaths which followed, many still got away.

Olga: Some families decided to move westwards on the very first day, some stayed until it was impossible to live under continual attacks, sheltering in cellar basements. We lost communications with some of our friends for several days. It was very concerning and continually frightening. Thank God most were eventually evacuated to safer places.

On February 24 itself I was in Lviv with my husband when our friend called early that morning and said Kyiv is now a main target. I called my mother and sister. From then onwards we realised we wouldn’t be able to return home for some considerable time yet.

The Key-School’s facade in Kyiv

Where did you and the majority of your friends/ students go afterwards?

Olga: The majority are still in Ukraine and desperately want to go back home. We had reports some went abroad to Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, England, the USA, Canada, Latvia and Cyprus.

You are still in touch with one another, which must provide some reassurance, but even so many of you may never see each other again. How are general communications between you and one another? How are online lessons with the children? How does one still get the truthful message across?

Olga: Despite all difficulties we eventually resumed online education. Not everything went smoothly. Some teachers and students had poor internet connection. Some didn’t have proper devices, some teachers dropped out altogether and went to the army. Some became volunteer reservists, some were still caught out in sheltered areas, or ran for cover throughout these passing days. But we all understood one another, as this was the best we could do. We all still have to support our students and one another and to provide assurance for one another, albeit while we are briefly away, from these terrible times. And to show to our community, our big school family lives on and we really care about everyone. It’s important for us teachers to carry on as we feel responsibility for the future of Ukraine. So we help our children to deliver the best qualities to be better kinds of people.

Natalija: Although many of us went to the western regions of the country and onto Europe, after the first shock came and went the decision to resume school by whatever means returned to us. Many of us are still there and don’t sit idly by. We will recover as well as return to normal. This is what we are expected to do, which we do very well – communicate with children. They need us, we need them. Although the first shockwave has passed, and we are still in a state of rage towards our common enemy, we still have to raise children, as well as expose the many war crimes. We need to talk to our younger generation, no matter how horrific the ordeals were, as they must know the truth whatever the toll. Another important thing, they should eventually work on documenting their history. And we, the adults with plenty of experiences with dealing with this conflict, can show them the way.

As for conversations with children, “Help them to understand the value of everyone in his own place, or in the way which this person can be useful”. Children in particular need to be nurtured. They want to be useful – show the children around you how to contribute to life.

Children now know the horrors of war – the destruction of our school, the fear and injuries will be lifelong traumas. Our task is to help get them get through constructively. My task as the headmistress is to demonstrate this to my colleagues. After all, we are still committed teachers and are very much needed.

What will you do now? Will you continue with teaching? Or will you help out with the army? 

Natalija and Olga: Currently we are still teaching and we don’t plan to stop. This is our calling, moreover this is our life. We are both volunteering as well, making camouflage nets, cooking for the army and refugees and fund-raising.

How do you see the future?

Natalija and Olga: We want Ukraine’s victory, a peaceful life, prosperous country and our school to remain within the top ranks of the Ukrainian schools list, as it has always been.

A classroom after the shelling of Kyiv

Finally, while working on this story some promising news came in. Although the capital is still theoretically dangerous, there are news reports of local Kyivians returning home, as life there is calmer than before. Will you both seize this opportunity to also return when circumstances finally allow?


Natalija and Olga: Yes, for sure! Hopefully we shall return home by the end of the month.

Slava Ukraini! СМЕРТЬ ВОРОГАМ!

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