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Kyiv Schools Adapt to Survive Under Russian Bombardment

Despite the missile strikes and power cuts that have become a regular occurrence in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv’s 190,000 remaining school children are still expected to attend classes, whether online or in person.

“If there is no light, it’s sometimes hard to see when you are writing,” said Yulia, 13, sitting in the front row of an English lesson with around a dozen classmates in a western suburb of the city.

Though her school, like most buildings in Ukraine’s embattled capital, experiences regular electricity cuts caused by Russian missiles that have been targeting the power grid since October, city officials insist pupils will at least be able to finish the current semester, which ends December 23.

“We really need to hold on for these three weeks,” Oleksiy Kurpas, an adviser to the deputy head of Kyiv’s city administration, told Reuters in one of the airy yet warm corridors of the Soviet-era school.

Kurpas expressed hope that the school year would run until the summer, but the wider situation is bleak: nearly half of Ukraine’s power grid has been wrecked and Kyiv has said it expects further attacks.

The official said that about 85% of Kyiv’s prewar school staff remained in the city, compared with 60% of pupils. The other students have moved to safer regions or abroad.

As a result, schools have been working in hybrid mode both in person and online since the start of the academic year.

Online classes are attended by many students still in Kyiv, as there is still a citywide shortfall of 35,000 places in school bomb shelters where students and staff must take refuge during air raid sirens.

Lessons lost with power loss

When power goes out across the city, life is difficult for teachers and pupils alike.

Sixteen-year-old Masha, studiously taking notes during her geometry lesson, described the kind of disruption she faced.

“If the internet doesn’t work, when they give us tests, sometimes they don’t load,” she said.

The school’s head teacher, Olena Roman, said staff were sometimes unable to set homework if the power suddenly went down, and pupils learning remotely often struggled during power cuts in their homes.

Kyiv’s mobile coverage drops significantly during outages, as base stations are forced to use backup batteries with limited power reserves.

Kurpas acknowledged this was a problem and said his own child had been affected by it, but added that “all possible measures,” such as passing material through several messaging apps at once, were being taken to minimize the impact on learning.

Despite the city’s precarious situation, Roman remained confident that the school would keep teaching.

“We will continue working, without question … we have a generator, it will allow us to work in any situation, and that is what we will do,” she said.

Private schools become refuges

Kyiv’s private schools, many of which opened in the years preceding the invasion, have been able to use their greater financial resources to prepare extensively for the disruptions.

A small private school in north Kyiv has even established a heated and powered hub for parents who want to find refuge from cold, dark homes.

“After November 23, the most recent blackouts, I was able to charge my devices and get in touch with my relatives, because there was no mobile connection at home,” said Daria, a parent of one of the children at the school. “I spent all morning here … There were quite a few parents, at least 15, who used the opportunity to work, hold meetings.” 

However, nothing can completely shield children from the most basic reality of war – fear.

“(During air raid sirens) I get scared because you don’t know what’s going on,” 9-year-old Daria Kosova told Reuters. “Some kids start screaming and running around, those who are more terrified, and I don’t know what to do.”

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Halifax: North America’s Next National Security Hub?

The quiet Canadian port city of Halifax is looking forward to a high-tech future after having been chosen as the North American host for NATO’s latest effort to spur the development of cutting-edge technologies seen as crucial to 21st century warfare.

The selection was announced at last month’s Halifax International Security Forum, an annual event in which top politicians, military leadership and experts from around the world meet to discuss the defense of democracies.

It had already been decided that one of the program’s two offices would be located in Canada. A European regional office was selected from a joint Estonian-United Kingdom bid, according to a NATO announcement earlier this year.

The initiative, known as the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), was unveiled during an April 6-7 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

The alliance said then that DIANA “will concentrate on deep technologies – those emerging and disruptive technologies that NATO has identified as priorities including: artificial intelligence, big-data processing, quantum-enabled technologies, autonomy, biotechnology, novel materials and space.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg added that NATO would work with the private sector and academia to “ensure that we can harness the best of new technology for transatlantic security.”

The ministers also agreed to establish a 1 billion euro ($1.05 billion) venture capital fund to invest in “early-stage start-ups and other deep tech funds aligned with [NATO’s] strategic objectives,” according to the April announcement.

The selection appears to be a good fit for Halifax, which despite its relatively small population of 431,000 is Canada’s most important Atlantic seaport and home to the nation’s largest military base. More than 40 percent of Canada’s military assets are located in the surrounding province, according to the Nova Scotia government.

The city also features the regional headquarters of Canada’s civilian intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Nova Scotia headquarters of the national police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Halifax’s harbor is the site of a major shipbuilding industry for the Canadian Navy and its naval dockyard features a processing center for the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing countries — Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It also has one of Canada’s three regional Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOCs), designed to coordinate the nation’s response to any maritime threat.

“Halifax is a great fit for DIANA and its priorities of NATO working more closely with industry and academia,” said Emily Smits, CEO of Modest Tree, a Canadian defense contractor considered one of the rising stars in the industry.

“Halifax is growing rapidly as a tech hub and has many major universities in Halifax and throughout the province. Having DIANA come to Halifax would further position the city as a place of innovation in emerging technologies and demonstrate this on a global scale.”

Asked by VOA what the establishment of DIANA in Halifax would mean for her company, Smits said, “It will allow further collaboration in academia, global industry and potential contracts and partnership discussions. Innovation hubs and networking opportunities that include global players in your backyard are always great for continued discussions.”

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US Whistleblower Snowden Gets Russian Passport, TASS Reports

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of secret surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), has sworn an oath of allegiance to Russia and received a Russian passport, TASS reported Friday. 

“Yes, he got [a passport], he took the oath,” Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, told the state news agency TASS.  

Snowden, 39, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the report. 

President Vladimir Putin in September granted Russian citizenship to Snowden, who fled the United States after leaking secret files that revealed the extensive eavesdropping activities of the United States and its allies. 

Defenders of Snowden hail him as a modern-day dissident for exposing the extent of U.S. spying. Opponents say he is a traitor who endangered lives by exposing the secret methods that Western spies use to listen in on hostile states and militants. 


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Zelenskyy: ‘Ukrainian Rules Will Prevail’

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.”

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.”

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions (exacerbated bv these logistics challenges) is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.”

In his daily address Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled a referendum held 31 years ago on Dec. 1 ”that united the entire territory of our state … Everyone expressed their support.”

“People confirmed the Act of Proclamation of Independence of Ukraine — freely and legally. It was a real referendum … an honest referendum, and that is why it was recognized by the world … Ukrainian rules will prevail,” the president said in a swipe at the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The president also said in his speech that he wants to ensure Ukraine’s spiritual independence, in a likely reference to a recent raid on Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated Monastery of the Caves, a 1,000-year-old Eastern Orthodox monastery in Kyiv, where security forces were looking to flush out spies housed among the clerics.

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Ukrainian Engineers Scramble to Keep Mobile Phones Working

With Ukraine scrambling to keep communication lines open during the war, an army of engineers from the country’s phone companies has mobilized to help the public and policymakers stay in touch during repeated Russian missile and drone strikes.

The engineers, who typically go unseen and unsung in peacetime, often work around the clock to maintain or restore phone service, sometimes braving minefields to do so. After Russian strikes took out the electricity that cellphone towers usually run on, they revved up generators to keep the towers on.

“I know our guys – my colleagues – are very exhausted, but they’re motivated by the fact that we are doing an important thing,” Yuriy Dugnist, an engineer with Ukrainian telecommunications company Kyivstar, said after crunching through 15 centimeters of fresh snow to reach a fenced-in mobile phone tower on the western fringe of Kyiv, the capital.

Dugrist and his coworkers offered a glimpse of their new daily routines, which involve using an app on their own phones to monitor which of the scores of phone towers in the capital area were receiving electricity, either during breaks from the controlled blackouts being used to conserve energy or from the generators that kick in to provide backup power.

One entry ominously read, in English, “Low Fuel.”

Stopping off at a service station before their rounds, the team members filled up eight 20-liter jerrycans with diesel fuel for a vast tank under a generator that relays power up a 50-meter cell tower in a suburban village that has had no electricity for days.

It’s one of many Ukrainian towns that have had intermittent power, or none at all, in the wake of multiple rounds of devastating Russian strikes in recent weeks targeting the country’s infrastructure – power plants in particular.

Kyivstar is the largest of Ukraine’s three main mobile phone companies, with some 26 million customers – or the equivalent of about two-thirds of the country’s population before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion drove millions of people abroad, even if many have since returned.

The diesel generators were installed at the foot of the cell phone towers since long before the invasion, but they were rarely needed. Many Western countries have offered up similar generators and transformers to help Ukraine keep electricity running as well as possible after Russia’s blitz.

After emergency blackouts prompted by a round of Russian strikes on Nov. 23, Kyivstar deployed 15 teams of engineers simultaneously and called in “all our reserves” to troubleshoot the 2,500 mobile stations in their service area, Dugrist said.

He recalled rushing to the site of a destroyed cell tower when Russian forces pulled out of Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, earlier this year and getting there before Ukrainian minesweepers had arrived to give the all-clear signal.

The strain the war is putting on Ukraine’s mobile phone networks has reportedly driven up prices for satellite phone alternatives like Elon Musk’s Starlink system, which Ukraine’s military has used during the conflict, now in its 10th month.

After widespread infrastructure strikes last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy convened top officials to discuss the restoration work and supplies needed to safeguard the country’s energy and communication systems.

“Special attention is paid to the communication system,” he said, adding that no matter what the Russia has in mind, “we must maintain communication.”

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Biden and Macron Say Russia Must Leave Ukraine for War to End 

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that they would never pressure Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia, saying the US and France stand as united as ever with their NATO allies against Moscow’s invasion. VOA’s senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Rights Group Alleges Russia Supplied Weapons Used in Airstrike on Myanmar School

Russian-made helicopters and weapons were used in an airstrike in September that left 12 people dead — half of them children — at a Myanmar school, according to a human rights group that monitors violations in the Southeast Asian country.

Russia, which has diplomatic ties with Myanmar, denies the accusation.

The group, Myanmar Witness, made its allegations in a recent report detailing what it says happened at the Let Yet Kone school located on the compound of a Buddhist monastery in Let Yet Kone village in Tabayin township. The report says Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters were used in the attack that lasted several hours, along with Russian-made S-5 rockets.

“The remnants allegedly found at the location in Tabayin were confirmed to be S-5 rockets by our arms team,” Myanmar Witness said in an email to VOA.

According to Zaw Min Tun, a spokesperson for the military junta, the troops were flown to the village after the government received word that fighters from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and a local anti-coup group known as the People’s Defense Forces were moving weapons into the village.

The junta accuses the KIA of supporting groups that oppose the military government. The KIA is seeking autonomy for the Kachin ethnic group.

There has been no response from the KIA or the People’s Defense Forces.

VOA spoke to villagers who say no weapons were in the area.

Children were victims

One of the children killed was 14-year-old Zin Ko Oo. In an interview with VOA, his father said the teenager did not want to go to school “because it was unsafe for students at school, and he feared soldiers would come to the school and shoot them.”

The father declined to be named for fear of retribution.

The school had an enrollment of around 300 elementary and middle school students. Locals told VOA that parents and volunteer teachers set up the school in secret after a February 2021 coup saw the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup triggered a civil disobedience movement, known as CDM, around the country.

On September 16, the day the two army helicopters attacked the school, Zin Ko Oo was attending class. When the helicopter gunships opened fire with machine guns and heavy weapons, he ran to a classroom where his niece and nephew sought shelter, his father told VOA.

“He helped to hide them under a wooden cot and covered them with his body and hands, but he was hit on the back of his head and legs by the bullets that came through the school’s roof.”

The grieving father said four small children were also struck in the hail of bullets and their bodies shredded. The father said he was told the four youngsters died on the spot, but Zin Ko Oo was brought to Ye-U hospital, 11 kilometers away from the village, where he later died.

The soldiers put the remains of the four children in garbage bags and took the bodies to their military post, Zin Ko Oo’s father said. From there, he said, the bodies were taken to a hospital for cremation.

“The military also did not allow the parents to see the bodies or have their children’s ashes back after the Ye-U hospital cremated them,” the father said. The father also said he was told the parents did not know the bodies would be cremated.

Zin Ko Oo’s father also told VOA he was the only parent who had a chance to view his son’s body at the hospital. The father said he was able to do so only because he begged a military officer on duty to let him see his son one last time. Zin Ko Oo had already died by the time his father saw him.

“I asked a doctor to allow me to take my son’s body, but they refused because they were afraid of the army,” Zin Ko Oo’s father said, adding, “They finally gave me his ashes.”

Zin Ko Oo’s father said no one from the People’s Defense Forces had been in their village or the school as the regime’s spokesperson, Zaw Min Tun, alleged at a press briefing in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw, on September 20. The military spokesperson also accused the government’s opponents of using the villagers as human shields.

Running scared

“We have never ever seen this kind of brutal attack targeting a school and us. We were civilians and did not have any weapons. We were so terrified and running as much as we could,” Zin Ko Oo’s father said, in describing the attack.

After the helicopters fired rockets and machine guns, the junta soldiers who were inside the helicopters raided the village.

Zin Ko Oo’s father told VOA his house and truck were burned by the soldiers. He said he lived five houses away from the west side of the monastery, where classes were in session. He said soldiers set fire to some of the motorcycles in a repair shop he owns.

Myanmar Witness stated, “The attack on Let Yet Kone school is part of an emerging trend that shows the Myanmar military’s pattern of increasing recklessness towards the safety of children, especially around schools.”

The Let Yet Kone school is in Sagaing, one of seven regions in the country.

There are thought to be 27 community schools, 4,000 students and 380 CDM teachers in Sagaing region, according to Myanmar Witness. The junta has outlawed such schools, arresting teachers as well as support staff.

“Another spot report was done on a school where a teacher was beheaded and fingers [were] mutilated so that one was definitely a killing with a message against CDM/NUG supported schools,” Myanmar Witness wrote in its email to VOA. The NUG refers to members of Myanmar’s exiled National Unity Government. It was established in opposition to the junta.

Separately, a group established in 2018 by the U.N. Human Rights Council said the school attack in Let Yet Kone village might be considered a war crime, with commanders criminally liable.

According to a September 27 statement by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), “Armed attacks that target civilians are prohibited by international laws of war and can be punished as war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

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EU Calls for Special Russia Aggression Tribunal May Be Tough to Realize

A new European Union proposal for an international tribunal to try Russian aggression in Ukraine has received mixed reviews — prompting a thumbs up from Kyiv and rights advocates but doubts from experts about its feasibility and whether it will receive broad-based acceptance.

“Russia must pay for its horrific crimes, including for its crime of aggression against a sovereign state,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Wednesday, laying out arguments for establishing a new, United Nations-backed court. “We are ready to start working with the international community to get the broadest international support possible for this specialized court.”

The United Nations-backed International Criminal Court — also known as the ICC — in the Netherlands is already looking into alleged Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, as well as possible Ukrainian atrocities. Russia has denied committing war crimes and accused the international community of ignoring abuses by Ukrainian forces.

Special U.N.-backed tribunals aren’t new. The body proposed by von der Leyen, if ever realized, would focus on Russian aggression in Ukraine.  

First lady points to thousands of crimes

The Ukrainian government has been quick to support the idea. Visiting a London exhibition this week on alleged Russian war crimes, Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska called for justice.

She said more than 40,000 Russian crimes had been registered in Ukraine. Look at the photos at the exhibition, she told her audience, and abstract ideas of war in Ukraine will become real.

Moscow has dismissed the idea of a new war crimes tribunal as having no legitimacy. Experts suggest it would be challenging to establish one.

“My reading of what Ursula von der Leyen said is that the EU doesn’t take for granted that there would be overwhelming international support — and that it recognizes there has to be a sort of campaign to win support for the idea,” said Anthony Dworkin, a policy fellow specializing in human rights and justice at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Proposal needs support from developing nations

Brussels will especially need backing from developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, said Dworkin.

“I think it’s very important that that should be done, rather than European countries kind of short-circuiting the attempt to win international legitimacy for the idea by just setting it up themselves,” he said.

Even if it’s up and running, such a tribunal could face obstacles if, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin or other Russian officials face war crimes charges yet are still welcome to visit some nations. That was the case with Sudan’s former leader, Omar al-Bashir, who traveled to multiple countries despite ICC arrest warrants.

Charges against high-level Russian officials may also complicate any future Western efforts to end the war in Ukraine.

“A court is supposed to be politically independent,” said Dworkin. “And therefore, you wouldn’t for instance expect — if there is a kind of negotiation at the end of the conflict — that the charges would be somehow dropped as part of the negotiation. The charges will persist.”

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