Education

Ukrainian students mark their graduation against the backdrop of war

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A graduation celebration amid the rubble was not how many Ukrainian students had hoped to spend their final days in high school. Schools across the country have been devastated by shelling and fierce battles, but some students decided to still mark their graduation – for example, by holding a photoshoot among the debris. As the war rages on, students are still honouring the milestones at the end of the school year as they look forward to an uncertain future.

On June 5 and 6, students from schools around Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, held a graduation photoshoot among the debris of war. Wearing graduation sashes, they stood inside damaged buildings and climbed onto armoured vehicles, the mood a stark contrast to the usual festivity of graduation celebrations.





Chernihiv was the site of fierce attacks by Russian forces after the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. When Russian troops finally withdrew from the region on March 31, the city was left in rubble. Some attacks in Chernihiv were “in clear violation of the laws of war”, killing numerous civilians and damaging civilian infrastructure, according to Human Rights Watch

Many schools were among the targets. One of these was School 21 in Chernihiv, flattened on March 3 by a bomb while it was being used as a shelter. Chernihiv city officials say that only seven of the city’s 35 schools were spared from damage in the war.

The graduation photoshoot marked Chernihiv students’ graduation using the destruction of the city, with stores, some schools and defunct military equipment as backdrop.

A Chernihiv student poses among the debris left behind by the war in the city.
A Chernihiv student poses among the debris left behind by the war in the city. © Stanislav Senyk

‘Our photos show the life of graduates who were deprived of the happy end of their childhood’

Olha Babynets is a 17-year-old graduating student from Chernihiv who took part in the photoshoot. Her school was luckily spared from major damage from Russian attacks, but she is currently finishing up her classes online. 

With these photos we wanted to show our lives, the lives of children who became adults on February 24, who need to fight for their lives and the lives of their families. We are the future of Ukraine and we will build a strong and beautiful European country. We also wanted to show the strength of Ukrainians. Our photos help us to show the life of children, the life of graduates who were deprived of the happy end of their childhood. 

Chernihiv student Olha Babynets poses in a graduation sash in front of a broken window.
Chernihiv student Olha Babynets poses in a graduation sash in front of a broken window. © Stanislav Senyk

‘Some of my classmates say they will never come back to Ukraine’

Me, my mom and my brother left town as soon as the war started. But my father and grandmother stayed here. I was so worried about them – we tried to call every day. A lot of my classmates also went to safer towns, some of them left the country. Some of them say they will never come back to Ukraine. Some of them will come back only after the war is over. And some of us have already come back here to continue our studies and prepare for exams. 

I am graduating from school in two weeks. Personally, I am very sad not to be finishing school at my desk at school. But I know that each of us has a great and happy future ahead of us! I will be writing my exams and going to university in Ukraine. Some of my friends and classmates will also continue to study in Ukraine and other countries in Europe. 

‘These children will one day have their own children and like this they can show them what is happening right now’

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to photographer Stanislav Senyk who created the series. A wedding and portrait photographer, Senyk has been capturing images of sadness and destruction amid the war in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on February 24. 

I had shot a graduation album of students in a village near Chernihiv before the war, so I wanted to go back. I took photos of one of the classes near their school. The school wasn’t destroyed completely, but there had been a bomb about three metres from the school, so it was so so damaged. Another school that we went to in Chernihiv was totally destroyed. 

Students stand outside of Chernihiv School 34 in their graduation sashes.
Students stand outside of Chernihiv School 34 in their graduation sashes. © Stanislav Senyk

A student in a graduation sash stands outside of Chernihiv School 34, damaged during the war in Ukraine.
A student in a graduation sash stands outside of Chernihiv School 34, damaged during the war in Ukraine. © Stanislav Senyk

The main goal of this photo project is to save memories. Currently, history is being written. It’s very important, not only for these students but for all of our nation. If, for example, if we had photos of the way Russia has acted in Ukraine in the past – if all parents and grandparents had an album of photos – I think we wouldn’t have today’s war. It’s important because these children will one day have their own children and like this they can show them what is happening right now. I also want to help these people [that I photographed]. I am a photographer, I can help by taking photos. Photos can express emotions. So I want to help them by sharing.

Chernihiv students pose among the debris left behind by the war in their city.
Chernihiv students pose among the debris left behind by the war in their city. © Stanislav Senyk

Senyk said that many of the students he photographed will go on to university. Around 40 students took part in the photoshoot, but many of their classmates had already fled the war. 

The photographer is currently looking for a way to exhibit and auction off these photographs in order to raise money for the Ukrainian armed forces. 

Dancing a graduation waltz at the ruins of their school

Other students around Ukraine have found ways to celebrate their graduation despite the violence and destruction of the war. 

A graduating class from Specialised School 134 in Kharkiv returned to the destroyed remains of their high school to carry out a traditional graduation dance on June 5. Students waltzed and took photos in their formal graduation dresses in front of the bombed remains of their school as Ukrainian soldiers looked on.  

A photo of one student wearing a graduation dress in front of the school’s ruins has gone viral on Twitter. Valaray, the 16-year-old pictured, told BBC World News, “Half of my class has moved abroad, some civilians were living underground but now a sort of normal life is starting to return. […] As for my photograph of me I wanted to show the contrast between my school and me. It describes the situation in the country.”

School 134 was the scene of fierce battles and was damaged extensively in the early days of the war on February 27, as shown in videos on social media. Many students have since been following their classes online. Most of the school’s students fled the war. One student told Ukrainian media Suspilne that only a third of their classmates were still in Kharkiv and able to attend the graduation celebration.

The Ukrainian government has said that Russian shelling has impacted at least 1,778 schools across the country, completely destroying 194 of them. Experts say that the war has disrupted the education of all 7.5 million Ukrainians of school age. 




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