Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ukrainian students feel impact of conflict

Protests continue in Kiev, everyday life in the Maidan, about
a million people came to the popular assembly, independence
Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 29, 2013.
(via maksymenko oleksandr)
By: Austin Greene
Edited by: Danielle Keeton-Olsen

In February of 2014, a series of violent protests in Ukraine led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

The events that followed rapidly changed the political climate of the country. Yanukovych had signed a deal that created closer ties with Russia, after turning down a similar offer from the European Union. By April, pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts declared their independence, and the War in Donbass had officially begun.

Ever since a ceasefire came into effect in February of 2015, global attention has shifted elsewhere. However, many Ukrainians, especially students, are still dealing with the lasting effects of the conflict.

Cutting costs of education
Vladimir Belous is a student at Odessa University. He and his peers had to go to Crimea for a geology study, but were not able to enter after Russia annexed the peninsula.

“The referendum happened and instead we went to some village near our city and just do nothing productive since there was nothing interesting geological going on there,” he said.

Belous said that due to currency devaluation, Odessa University had to cut time from the school year.

“In order to save more money we don't study in the winter at all. The dean says that it saves the university millions of hryvnias. Not only we do it, most universities in Odessa also do that.”

Valentin Sidorenko is a medical student at the National Medical University of Ukraine in Kiev. Like all medical students in Ukraine, he does not study any specific medical field. Ukrainian med school students study general medicine for 6 years, subsequently pursuing a specialization during an internship. He said that while primary schools’ budgets remained unaffected, he hasn’t been as fortunate.

“Devaluation took a huge toll on the healthcare system in general, because most drugs and medical equipment are imported from the EU/US and are now two-to-three times more expensive,” Sidorenko said. “For example, the hospital I'm studying in right now had its angiograph break down a couple months ago, and they haven't been able to afford a new one yet, so they have to send all the patients in need of the procedure to another hospital.”

Valentine Osnovyanenko was in his final year of high school, eleventh year for Ukrainian students, when the conflict initially broke out. He remembers seeing the protests in Independence Square in Kiev on the news.

“I remember that morning very well, when TV showed how students were violently dealt with,” he recalled. “The Berkut, the special police forces, beat everyone there, regardless of their age and behavior.”

Osnovyanenko currently studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA). His sisters have kept him informed of the changed climate around his high school after he left. A tradition at the school was to hold a festival with students from schools in Russia and Belarus. They called it the Eastern Slavs Festival. Visiting students used the opportunity to make friends and learn about the local history and culture. The last festival was held in the spring before the war broke out.

“That spring everyone came to Belarus and friends of mine who went there told me how tense the atmosphere was there, including physical fights and trash talking. Soon after, the festival had to be closed,” Osnovyanenko said.

Studying within the separatist divide
For students who were actually inside the separatist regions, the situation was substantially worse. Anton Toloknov worked as a software engineer in the city of Donetsk while his brother studied management at Donetsk State University.

“After the conflict started his university split up into two parts. One moved to Mariupol, a city under Ukraine's control, and another stayed in Donetsk,” he said. “All of his documents stayed in Donetsk, and they demanded money to get them back so we gave up on that. Also because we didn't want to go to Donetsk at that time, because it was too risky.”

Toloknov later moved north to the city of Kharkiv to escape the fighting. His brother went with him and enrolled in online classes with his university’s new campus in Mariupol.

One of the most badly damaged cities in the war was Horlivka, also in the Donetsk oblast. Dmitriy Kot was still attending school when separatist forces took control of the city. One of their first actions was to terminate every professor teaching Ukrainian courses.

Protests in Donetsk, April 26, 2014. (via DrupalCamp Donetsk)
“Those soldiers of DPR, as they call themselves, fired every single teacher who taught or even spoke Ukrainian,” he said.

In July of 2014, the fighting had reached Horlivka and Kot was forced to evacuate.

“On the night of July 20 or 21, I was watching a movie with my girlfriend when we heard very, very loud explosions,” he said. “That moment I realized my life was in danger. I was petrified.”

Kot and his girlfriend packed as much as they could over the course of three days, and fled the city on a train.

“As we stood there loading our stuff into our railroad car a bunch of armed men were watching us,” he said. “All those bags, the pressure. It was probably the worst day of my life.”

Like Anton Toloknov’s brother, Kot’s transcripts were held at the school. His mother had to travel to the city and bribe a clerk to retrieve them.

“With enough money you can obtain anyone’s personal data,” said Kot. “Anything you can think of. You can bribe almost anyone here.”

Kot later transferred to another school under Ukrainian control. As of October 2015, the conflict remains in stalemate.

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