How a Ukrainian teacher helped students escape the Russian invasion and graduate: NPR
BORODYANKA, Ukraine — Viktoria Timoshenko’s biology class is a surreal sight. She didn’t recognize him at first, she said.
In March, when his small town of Borodyanka, an hour’s drive northwest of kyiv, was under attack, a Russian shell tore through the wall and tore off the ceiling. Half sags on a pile of bricks and dust. You can hear the traffic outside now, through the big hole where the windows used to be.
Ukrainian forces liberated this area in April. It took a few weeks, but residents are now coming back, assessing the damage, filling in the trenches dug by the Russians with a backhoe, tending their neglected gardens and telling the stories of what they endured and how.
Timoshenko, 25, with dark, curly hair, is in her first year as a teacher. She crossed the country from Melitopol, a region now under Russian occupation, and started here last fall. He’s a new recruit to Teach for Ukraine, a non-profit organization that trains and places new teachers in underserved schools.
“To tell you the truth, we didn’t take her seriously,” said one of her students, Volodymyr Hrabovenko, 17, who calls himself Vova. “We were the senior class, the oldest, and she was too young.”
Vova is the youngest of six. He has served as the school’s student body president since eighth grade, hosting end-of-year parties and events with community leaders. “It’s my job to get to know all the kids,” he says.
Soon they all warmed up with Timoshenko. She was honest and didn’t talk to them. In biology class, she taught them about condoms and consent. “I remember what I wanted to know when I was their age,” she says. “I tried to give them the material that will be useful to them in the future.”
Invasion tears families apart
But then the future changed. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. Four days later, Vova remembers going to his doorstep and seeing helicopters flying overhead, recognizing them as Russian equipment.
“I was really scared,” he says. “At that moment, you understand that there is a war. After this understanding, you have nothing. You have no dreams, you have no thoughts.”
From then on, things accelerated. First, Timoshenko, who lived in an apartment building, went to live with another of her students, 16-year-old Iryna Emshanova, and her family. They had a basement, providing better shelter.
Meanwhile, Vova and her family were in a particularly dangerous part of town. Their electrical connection and cell phone were cut for two days.
Timoshenko called local authorities, begging them to get Vova out. They sent a car to pick him and his grandmother up, while his two adult brothers stayed with their mother.
A week passed. Iryna’s grandmother offered to house them all even further from danger, a few hours to the southeast, in a town called Vinnytsia.
But Vova’s grandmother refused. Like so many people, especially elderly people, across the country during this war, she could not imagine leaving her home area, even in mortal danger.
“We didn’t have enough time to say goodbye,” Vova recalled. “The village chief came by car and said, ‘Take your things immediately.’ So we picked up our stuff and I came up to my grandma and I said, ‘I’m leaving. And she said, ‘Fine. Be safe.'”
On March 16, a week after their separation, a Russian airstrike killed her grandmother. She had just turned 82.
She was like a “second mother,” says Vova. She used to take him with her to see her friends in the village and play cards. He even has happy memories of her in the bomb shelter, which they shared with neighbors.
“There was a little boy in our shelter, 4 years old, and he kept asking questions: ‘Why are we here? What are we going to do?’ He tried to play our grandmother with him — she didn’t understand how to use these modern technologies, but he insisted on playing these games with her,” says Vova.
The soldiers come to Vova’s house
From mid-March to early May, Timoshenko and Vova lived with Iryna and her family in Vinnytsia. The teens signed up for online classes at the local school – distance learning continued where possible, across the country.
Timoshenko helped them with their lessons. They all got very close and made each other laugh. “Before, we were friends,” she says in English. “But now, after the war, we’re like best friends.”
Vova had a few of what he called “nervous breakdowns”, crying and not wanting to talk to anyone. The most important was when he found out his grandmother had been killed.
“I felt like the world around me was disappearing. It was going gray. I couldn’t breathe,” he says.
Timoshenko tried to contain his emotions, to remain optimistic. “I had to be strong because my students were close to me and I am responsible for them,” she says. “And now, when it’s a little safer, I realize that in a way I’m postponing my feelings, my thoughts, just because it’s not the right time for it. I think if I start sharing my emotions, it will be very hard for me to stop.”
For her, the circle was complete. Eight years ago when Russian forces invaded Ukraine Crimea, she was in high school. The war derailed her college plans and plunged her into a depression. She ended up taking a year off and came up with a new plan for her future, which eventually led her to Borodyanka.
Timoshenko’s parents are back in his hometown of Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine. They tell him they are facing food and water shortages.
For five weeks the Russians first attacked and then occupied Borodyanka. The soldiers slept in the school, covering the brightly decorated walls with crude graffiti, looting items such as microscopes and video projectors. They used the city cemetery as a parking lot, Timoshenko said, driving tanks over the headstones.
Russian forces are accused of targeting civilians and schools
One day, after Vova was evacuated, the soldiers came to his house. They saw pictures of him, a young man almost of fighting age, and asked where he was.
His mother and brother told the truth — they didn’t know. So the soldiers beat them, says Vova. And they shot his brother, skinning his ear.
Governor Borodyanka said that as of May 17, at least 150 civilians had been identified as having been killed during the occupation, and not just by shelling. There are also reports of soldiers shooting at people.
Only a few remains of Vova’s grandmother’s body were found in the bombed house. They are buried in the city’s new cemetery, covered with a mound of raw earth. The cemetery has rows of freshly dug graves, marked so far only by numbers. And open graves, waiting for the bodies that are still found.
In May, Vova, Timoshenko and Iryna and her family all returned to a village near Borodyanka. Vova now lives with one of her sisters. Timoshenko lives in a house that belongs to a family that has gone to Poland.
The school has resumed online classes. It is unclear what will happen this fall – the building is badly damaged. The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, which lists the allegations war crimes, says Russian weapons have damaged more than 1,700 educational institutions since February. Deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure is a violation of international law.
But Timoshenko says that out of 20 members of Vova’s senior class, 18, including himself, will graduate from high school on time.
She helps him prepare for his university entrance exam, which the Ukrainian government postponed until the summer to give students more time to prepare.
He wants to be a journalist, he says. The one who tells the truth, not the fake news.
And, he says, he will never live in Borodyanka again.
Polina Lytvynova contributed reporting.