CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — Shortly after noon on January 24, thousands of teachers and students at the schools of this city of some 285,000 people were hastily evacuated in the wake of an anonymous bomb threat.
The children at one downtown preschool were napping when the alarm was sounded.
“We got the report and rushed all the children and employees out of the building,” Viktoria Oleksiyenko, director of preschool No. 26, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “It took about six minutes to get all the children out. They had been sleeping, and we quickly got them dressed and outside. Then we called all the parents, and they came to pick up their children.”
Similar scenes played out across the city, which is located less than 100 kilometers from Ukraine’s border with Russia.
“I was really afraid,” a local retiree who asked to be identified only as Paraskeva said. “I heard later on television that it was a false alarm, but when I went out on the street and saw hundreds of children out there…. What were they doing? I didn’t know. I asked my neighbor, who was also standing there all afraid. She didn’t know anything.”
‘Imagining The Worst’
“I ran out for my child and almost fell down,” said another Chernihiv resident, who asked to be identified only as Tetyana. “It was terrifying. The teacher called and said I had to come immediately to get my child. She didn’t explain anything, and my mind started imagining the worst.”
As tensions mount between Ukraine and Russia amid an alarming buildup of Russian forces near the border, Ukraine’s schoolchildren, their families, and their communities have already found themselves on the front line of what Kyiv’s intelligence service, the SBU, describes as a “hybrid war.”
In 2021, according to the SBU, there were just over 1,100 false bomb threats leveled against schools nationwide. In the first three weeks of 2022, the country has already seen more than 300, targeting schools in almost every city in the country of 44 million.
The spate of false alarms is an operation by Russia’s intelligence services, the SBU asserted in a report issued on January 21, saying that most of the threats have been traced to sources inside Russia or in the parts of eastern Ukraine that are held by Moscow-backed separatists. A small number of the threats have apparently been made by copycat pranksters inside Ukraine, the service added.
“The goal of the special services of the aggressor country is clear,” the SBU report stated. “To place additional pressure on Ukraine and to sow alarm and panic among the public. Unfortunately, such informational-psychological special operations are the reality of modern hybrid wars, and we have to face that.”
In addition to schools, government agencies, courts, railway stations, airports, and other key infrastructure elements have been targeted, using sophisticated software aimed at masking the source of the threats.
On January 25, all 20 schools in Slovyansk, a city of some 100,000 people in the Donetsk region that in 2014 was briefly held by Russia-backed separatists at the start of their war against Kyiv but is now under government control, were also evacuated because of a bomb threat that turned out to be fake.
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“There was absolutely no panic among the teachers,” Svitlana Deleske, director of school No. 8 where 300 students were evacuated, told RFE/RL. “Everyone acted harmoniously, efficiently. Such things happen to us from time to time. For the children, however, it was unusual. Two little girls were in tears, and the homeroom teacher and I had to take them by the hand.”
Four hours after the false report came in, about one-third of the city’s 20 schools had been searched and cleared for reentry, the head of the city’s Education Department, Marina Khokhlova said.
Such false alarms have become a significant disruption for schools, administrators say. In addition, they place a considerable burden on police, the Emergency Situations Ministry, and other state agencies.
Many of the central schools in Chernihiv are located on major streets, and some of them have more than 1,000 students. When the false alarm came on January 24, schools were forced to set up perimeters, in many cases blocking streets and tying up transportation while security forces swept the buildings.
The United States, Ukraine, and other governments say Russia has amassed 100,000 or more troops near Ukraine’s borders and is preparing for a possible new invasion. The Kremlin denies any intentions to invade its neighbor but has suggested that de-escalation is conditional on binding guarantees that NATO will never expand further eastward, especially to Ukraine, among other things.
Despite compelling evidence, Moscow denies providing military support to separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the eastern region known as the Donbas. The ongoing war between the Russia-backed forces and Ukraine’s government has killed more than 13,200 people since 2014.
RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.