The children at the kindergarten Kazka, located near the front line in eastern Ukraine, were having breakfast when a grenade shell went straight through a wall of the school this morning.
“There’s been shelling before, but this, it’s just terrible, terrible,” says kindergarten worker Natalia Sleserevna.
As Russia claims to be pulling its troops back, shelling along the front line has increased dramatically.
Natalia stands in front of the white two-story kindergarten building on the outskirts of Stanytsia Luhanska, a small settlement 12 miles north of Luhansk. The shell hit the kindergarten’s gym, and by chance none of the 20 children was hurt in the incident.
“It was during breakfast. According to the schedule, the children were not allowed to be in the sports room,” says Natalia.
Natalia was standing by a window ironing when the grenade struck sometime before 9 a.m. Although physically unharmed, the children were shocked.
“The children cried; some screamed,” Natalia says.
At first they took cover inside the building: “We have a place on the first floor where there are no doors or windows … where we always hide. There has been shelling here before, so this is not the first time we hide there,” she says.
In the yard in front of the building a second shell landed by the playground, leaving a crater in the ground. The shockwave and shrapnel broke nearby windows.
Inside the kindergarten, bricks cover the floor, and footballs lie on the ground covered in dust.
“The most important thing is that we are alive and well,” Natalia says.
Nina Petriivna, 69, lives in an apartment just 50 yards away from the kindergarten. She says they were all running for the shelter in the basement.
“What are they shooting at, who needs that? I don’t know?” she says, getting more emotional with every word she speaks. “When they are shooting like this, my hands start shaking. Why are they doing this? Why have we, ordinary people, earned this in our life?” she says. “We used to live a good life — it was a quiet, peaceful village and then suddenly this war.”
The past month or so has been calm along the front line, with only occasional shelling and bursts of small arms fire. But 1st Lt. Bogdan, a press officer with the Ukrainian forces in Stanytsia Luhanska, tells us that in the middle of the morning brief today, Ukrainian troops noticed shelling — all along the front line at the same time.
“For a long period of time, the enemy didn’t use artillery here in such a big operational area. Yes, they were shelling us, but at one village a day. But today it’s all along our front line,” Bogdan explains.
When we ask whether this is the beginning of something bigger, Bogdan says he is not sure. “No, I just think they provoke us,” he says.
The media in the separatist-controlled areas, where conventional Russian military personnel and hardware have long been based, published photos from the kindergarten, alleging that it was Ukraine that fired the shells.
“They say that it was our forces that fired, but that is not true. We can see the direction, and it is our territory and we know that we cannot fire here,” Bogdan says.
The Twitter account for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv (the staff has relocated to Lviv in western Ukraine) did not mince words in laying blame for the attack. “Russia’s shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in Donbas hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village. The aggressor in Donbas is clear — Russia.”
As we leave Stanytsia Luhanska in the evening, we can hear the distant sound of artillery.
In recent days, online outlets in the occupied territories have been spreading information that Ukraine is planning an attack on the territories. These claims have been backed up by Moscow, which has been talking about preventing a “genocide” in Donbas.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that civilian buildings were damaged in the attack. “We call on all parties to condemn this serious breach of the Reduction Agreement,” he wrote.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss commented on the shelling of the preschool on Twitter: “Very concerned about reports today of increased Russian aggression: over 7,000 extra troops near the border with Ukraine and an attack by pro-Russian troops on a kindergarten in Ukraine. Britain is urging Russia to withdraw its troops — there is still time for diplomacy and downsizing.”
This dispatch is a collaboration between New Lines and Swedish newspaper Expressen.