Teachers from the Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, have told the BBC how they were intimidated, threatened, and tortured for refusing to teach a Russian-imposed curriculum to their pupils during the eastern city’s occupation.

In the recently liberated cities of Balakliya and Vovchansk, BBC journalists interviewed teachers and school staff who detailed how the Russian invaders destroyed school textbooks, Ukrainian flags, and even children’s schoolwork, before attempting to force teachers to implement what would have essentially been the brainwashing of Ukrainian children with pro-Russian propaganda.

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Headteacher Liliya Sirous told the BBC that she was given a list of over 2,000 books and was ordered to destroy them – but bravely chose to hide them in a “secret library” instead. Sirous said that a new curriculum was also forced upon her school, comprising Russian history, Russian language, and Russian literature.

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Head teacher Liliya Sirous was told to destroy thousands of Ukrainian textbooks

Meanwhile, Inna Mandryka, Deputy Director of the nearby Balakliya Five School, said: “At the beginning of the school term, we were told we would have to teach our students that Ukraine was a territory of Russia, namely Malorossiya [Little Russia].”

Inna refused to cooperate and was subsequently sacked from her post. However, she then began secretly working by candlelight from her basement, devising a series of online lessons and supporting at least 100 students.

In the village of Ivanivka, just north of Balakliya, headteacher Lidiya Tina recalled how she was arrested and detained for 19 days for refusing to set up a Russian school.

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“As I was trying to flee to Kharkiv, I was detained,” she said. “A car pulled up and three masked men with assault rifles got out. They put a gun to my throat and ripped up my teaching diploma in front of my face.”

Tina said that Russian invaders placed a bag over her head before throwing her into solitary confinement for five days.

“My soul ached,” she said. “I thought: ‘No-one knows where I am.'”

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Tina was then severely beaten and forced to kneel, believing that she was about to be executed – but was eventually released.

“They tried to force me to learn the lyrics of the Russian anthem, but I refused,” she recalled.

Even the parents of pupils were targeted, Svitlana Shvif, head of education in the Balakliya region claims. “Parents were threatened that if they didn’t send their children back to school, their kids would be taken to an orphanage,” she told the BBC.

In the past month, many towns in the Kharkiv Oblast and beyond have been liberated by Ukrainian troops during Kyiv’s ongoing and largely successful counteroffensive. Russian war crimes committed during the occupation are currently being documented.

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