Portrait Ukraine 2023

This is the latest blog from our Portrait Ukraine 2023 series, following the journey of photojournalists Allan Mestel and David Graham through Ukraine and providing a firsthand view of current events on the ground. Through the art of powerful portraiture and personal storytelling, they convey the profound impact of the war in Ukraine—revealing its devastating and harsh reality on individuals. Yet, amidst this, they also uncover inspirational stories of resilience, courage, hope, and the unwavering resolve and spirit of the Ukrainian people. Click here to get the backstory on the Portrait Ukraine 2023 project and to read more from this series.

Witnessing the Impact of War on Kharkiv’s Schools

By David Graham
Day 5 Reporting from Izyum, Ukraine

Today, we visited the city’s schools to witness firsthand the impact of the war. I was truly shocked to see the extent of destruction and damage caused by Russian shelling. Many schools lay in ruins, leaving countless students with no option but to forgo attending classes or resort to remote learning. In these dire circumstances, parents have valiantly attempted to ensure their children continue learning in the affected areas.

Portrait Ukraine - School Destruction


According to the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, a staggering 713 educational institutions in the region have suffered damage, with 335 of them being schools. This means that more than 35% of the region’s schools have borne the brunt of this war.

The War of Rememberance
Signs along the way to Izyum warning of mines left behind by the Russians.

The devastation wreaked upon these schools has had a catastrophic impact on the education of Kharkiv’s children. Many students have been displaced from their homes, now residing in temporary shelters, and are coping with the psychological trauma inflicted by the horrors of war, which severely impedes their ability to concentrate on their studies.


During our visit, we had the opportunity to explore a new school that is currently under construction in a secure location. Although not yet operational, it already serves as a safe haven for students to learn. It is a beautiful and compact facility that will enable students to return to a semblance of normalcy. It’s not only a pivotal step for their developmental progress but also a crucial anchor for their mental well-being, providing a much-needed daily routine. 


On the same day we visited, the Mayor of Kharkiv held a press conference to furnish facts and answer questions about the school and future plans.

In stark contrast, we also visited a school that had been completely ravaged by a tank battle. It lay in ruins, devoid of any signs of life—a haunting reminder of the human toll exacted by this war. We spoke to Slava (shown below), a student who had attended this school until its destruction, and he shared how deeply scared he had been during the shelling.

The war in Kharkiv has left an indelible mark on the education of children in Kharkiv. The destruction of schools, coupled with the trauma of conflict, has created formidable barriers to learning. However, the new school I visited is a symbol of hope. It is a reminder that even during war, children can still get an education.

Exposing the Reality: Russian Attacks on Schools as Evident War Crimes

In our blog article, ‘Echoes of War and Resilience: A Journey to Izyum, Ukraine, we featured a sign adjacent to a mass grave site in Izyum, boldly declaring, ‘The World Must Know The Truth.’ This powerful sentiment also resonates deeply with the current situation involving Russia’s attacks of schools:

  • The Russian government maintains that schools are not their targets, yet mounting evidence contradicts this claim. Reports continue to surface of Russian shelling directed at educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities.
  • It is imperative to recognize that destroying schools constitutes a war crime, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions that unequivocally prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure.
  • The repercussions of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war extend far beyond its borders, affecting countless children worldwide. Millions have been uprooted from their homes, with their access to education severed.
  • The international community must do more to help children affected by the war in Ukraine. This includes providing financial assistance to rebuild schools, as well as providing psychological support to children who have been traumatized by the war.

An alarming estimate reveals that over 2,600 schools across Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed.

This means that over 10% of the schools in the country have been significantly affected by the war. The destruction of schools is a major setback for the education system in Ukraine, and it will take many years to rebuild. 

Photos courtesy of Allan Mestel. Use of these images without prior written consent from Allan Mestel s strictly prohibited.