School Number 42 in Vuhlehirsk was struck six times in January and February 2015.
School Number 42 in Vuhlehirsk was struck six times in January and February 2015.

NEW YORK - Human Rights Watch said Thursday that both sides in the conflict in Ukraine have indiscriminately attacked schools, which could amount to a war crime.

In a report entitled "Studying Under Fire," the rights group documented how both the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed rebels have carried out attacks on schools and used them for military purposes, including basing troops or weapons in or near schools.

"Normally, a school is a civilian object and it is protected under international law," Yulia Gorbunova, the HRW researcher who authored the report, told VOA by phone from Moscow. "Once it has military inside -- it is used for military purposes -- it becomes a legitimate military target and can be attacked."

She said this happened on a wide scale in eastern Ukraine.

The HRW team visited 41 schools in both the government controlled areas and in the rebel-held Donbas region of Donetsk and Luhansk.

According to data in the report provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, 119 schools and kindergartens in its areas were damaged in fighting between April 2014 and November 2015. De facto rebel authorities reported damage to nearly 900 schools in their areas during the same period.

Gorbunova said the attacks – some deliberate, some indiscriminate – have a "long-term negative effect" because many schools do not reopen and children's education is disrupted. Many students also have been traumatized by the attacks.

A school principal outside Ilovaisk's School Num
A school principal outside Ilovaisk’s School Number 14. Due to the significant damage the school sustained during the conflict, it did not reopen for the 2015-2016 school year.

In one rebel-held town where there is currently no fighting, Gorbunova said they heard about students' lingering fears. "The school principal told us that children feel so traumatized they still drop to the ground every time they hear a loud sound."

"The negative impact of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on the right to education of children is a tragic reminder of the need to find a solution to this conflict," said Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, in response to the HRW report.

"All parties to the conflict must ensure that students, including those living in areas controlled by armed groups, may continue their education in line with the country's international human rights obligations," he added.

HRW's Gorbunova said both the government and rebels are open to discussions about the right's group's findings.

HRW urged both sides to take concrete actions to deter the military use of schools.

They also have urged the government to sign the U.N. Safe Schools Declaration and to use its current term on the U.N. Security Council to support resolutions related to protecting children in armed conflict.