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School children are targets in the war in Eastern Ukraine

In Eastern Ukraine, children still go to school and play, but the intrusion of violence into their everyday lives has made them the vulnerable victims of a war that's about to enter its fourth year. Special correspondent Sebastian Meyer went on assignment for UNICEF for a look at the lives of children living on the front lines of the conflict.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is entering its fifth year. Since it began, more than 3,000 civilians have been killed, and 1.7 million have been displaced.

    To see how the conflict affects children living along the front line, special correspondent and videographer Sebastian Meyer went on assignment for UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children, to Eastern Ukraine, and brought the NewsHour this story.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    Every morning sisters, Diana and Dasha get ready for school. Their day begins like so many other children, braiding hair, getting dressed, and walking to the school bus.

    But that's where the similarities end. Diana and Dasha live near the front lines on the outskirts of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Their school has been hit so many times with shrapnel that now all the classroom windows are piled high with sandbags. I counted at least 14 holes in the windows.

    Dasha, the older sister, remembers the school being hit while in chemistry class.

  • Dasha Semeniuk (through interpreter):

    We ran out just in time, because, as soon as we ran out, a piece of shrapnel hit our window. Of course it was scary. I didn't go to school after that for two days. I was scared that something like that would happen again. But then I started going again.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    Now a Ukrainian soldier is stationed at the school.

    This conflict began after the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia in 2014 after violent protests in the capital, Kiev. Within months, Moscow had invaded and annexed Crimea, and thrown its support behind pro-Russia separatists here in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine.

    Russia backed the separatist movement. It quickly turned violent and descended into all-out conflict with the Ukrainian military. The two sides have been locked in combat ever since.

    Today, an ad hoc border now runs hundreds of miles through Eastern Ukraine. To cross back and forth, civilians have to pass through military checkpoints. Their bags are checked and passports inspected.

    I was allowed to cross over into the non-government-controlled area, but wasn't allowed to film. Despite attempted cease-fires, this conflict is about to enter its fourth year. According to the U.N., over 10,000 people have been killed, including 138 children.

    These children of School Number Two in Krasnohorivka are targets. Last year, their school was hit in a direct strike on May 29.

  • Iryna Morhun (through interpreter):

    The shelling doesn't leave a child's psyche unscathed. Children are traumatized. They are terrified. There are children who become very emotional. They pour their feelings out.

    On the other side, there are children who keep this pain inside. It is very sad to see children, who should be having a happy childhood, suffer because of this war.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    Last year, 42 children were wounded and six were killed because of this conflict.

    Sasha was waiting outside a friend's house when he was shot by a stray bullet.

  • Sasha (through interpreter):

    The bullet hit my leg. I ran a little. Then my friend came out. I called to him. He put me on my bike and brought me home.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    The bullet hit him in the ankle, shattering his dreams of one day becoming a soccer star.

    The shelling is so intense where Sasha lives that his school is only open three half-days a week. Children are so accustomed to artillery, they now no longer react to the sounds of shelling. It's not just the live rounds that are a danger to children. Mines and other explosives are a serious threat.

    Experts say that Eastern Ukraine is now one of the most mine-contaminated places on Earth, putting 220,000 children at risk.

    Fourteen-year-old Alyosha lives in a village where Ukrainian troops are stationed.

  • Alyosha (through interpreter):

    We were on our way to the pond when the soldiers drove by. It was summer, and we were heading there to go swimming. A group of soldiers passed us, and something fell on the ground. I didn't know what it was, so I picked it up. I must have pressed something, because it just exploded.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    Alyosha lost three fingers on his right hand, which has made life very difficult for him.

  • Alyosha (through interpreter):

    There are some things I can't do anymore without my fingers. I can't chop wood very well anymore. To be honest, there are a lot of things I can't do anymore. Sometimes, I get upset, not all the time, but sometimes it makes me cry.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    Even returning home doesn't make Diana and Dasha safe. The family's house has been hit as well.

  • Diana Semeniuk (through interpreter):

    We were at home, and the shelling was very heavy. A large shell flew over, creating a shockwave. All the lights went out, and we all fell on the floor. Then we crawled to the basement. We stayed there so long, it was like we lived there.

  • Sebastian Meyer:

    As the conflict enters its fourth year, it shows no signs of coming to an end, which leaves all these children as vulnerable as ever.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Sebastian Meyer in Eastern Ukraine.

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