PARIS – Arsenal defender Oleksandr Zinchenko says he only had to look into the eyes of Ukrainian children who lived under Russian occupation in a village to find the motivation to raise money to rebuild their school.
“You realize the mental injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives,” he told AFP.
The 26-year-old Ukraine international went home in May for his first trip since Russia invaded in February 2022 — “even the air smelt different,” he said — and visited the village and the school, the Mykhailo-Kotsiubynsky Lyceum in Chernihiv oblast, northern Ukraine.
It was heavily damaged in a rocket attack on March 4 last year killing a 62-year-old female cleaner — the death toll could have been a lot worse as there were around 100 civilians, the youngest aged 2 months, living in the basement.
“I was really upset, it was very hard for me morally to understand it,” the school’s headmaster Mykola Shpak told AFP.
“When I saw the level of destruction, I understood how much work will be needed to renovate it and restart education.”
The estimated cost of the rebuilding work is $1.7 million (1.54 million euros).
Zinchenko and Ukrainian football great Andriy Shevchenko, who accompanied him on the visit, played with some of the 412 pupils and chatted to them about their experiences when the Russians occupied the village from Feb. 28-March 31 last year.
As a result of the visit, the star pair decided with the charity United24 to organize an all-star match, Game4Ukraine, at the Stamford Bridge home of one of Shevchenko’s former clubs, Chelsea, on Aug. 5 to raise funds for the school.
The charity was launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to collect donations to cover Ukraine’s most pressing needs, among them rebuilding the country which has been devastated since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.
“Around 800 schools have been damaged by the Russians, more than 200 of them we are not able to rebuild,” Zinchenko told AFP earlier this month.
“This school was important because 10 villages are using it.”
It was, though, not just that which left such a mark on Zinchenko but listening to the children and their accounts of life under Russian occupation.
“A few were telling us about the Russian army in their houses, you look in their eyes and you realize the mental injuries they will suffer from for the rest of their lives.
“That is a scary thing.”
Neither Zinchenko nor Shevchenko have a personal connection with the school — “I changed schools three times” explains Zinchenko with a wry smile — which makes it even more touching for Shpak, the headmaster.
“I feel what a person can feel when he receives hope,” he said.
“And of course this hope is great when it is initiated by such people as those two.
“I was filled with even more hope when they played football with our boys and girls on the field which was destroyed by missiles.”
Shpak speaks with the emotion of someone with deep ties to the school — his parents were both teachers there and after studying he returned as a geography teacher in 1993 and became head in 2015.
Although he would go home at night, he ensured the 100 or so people housed in the basement were fed — visits from the Russians were for him mercifully few.
“They only entered the school after the shelling of our district, I cannot say why they came to the school. I think they wanted to see the results of what they did,” he said.
“We had prepared food for our children, about 30 pieces of bread. But after their visit we could not find it as they had taken it.”
Shpak — who has two grown-up sons — feels enormous loss at the former pupils who have died in the war.
“There are a lot of children who graduated from this school who I will never see again and that is terrible,” he said.
Zinchenko has not lost any close friends but says he “will never understand” the invasion.
“When one has been born and raised on land where you know every single stone and tree and then one day someone comes from another place and they can do what they want, they can kill women, men and children and destroy everything around, in the 2020s, it is absolutely incredible.”
Zinchenko — whose wife, Vlada, is expecting their second child — is pleased he did not take up arms but is doing his bit for his country in a field he knows better.
“I hope if my children ask me ‘Daddy what did you do in that time, how did you help?’ I will be able to look them in their eyes and reply I was doing my best.”