It was a late July morning, and the sounds of summer camp were everywhere as kids ran from activity to activity.
But Midgard Forest Camp is in Kyiv, in wartime Ukraine, and when the air was pierced by a warning siren, the kids knew what to do, leaving their jump ropes and tennis games behind and dashing to safety. .
This is a routine known as lunch break.
The war has brought a new reality to Ukrainians, but some things still hold true, and as the weather warms, some parents were faced with the perennial question: What should we do with the kids this summer? should?
With children isolated and deprived of social contact – some driven by fierce warfare to flee their homes – schools and camps swung into action to offer programs.
Parents considering sending their children to a forest camp run by Midgard School may have once asked about the mentor-camper ratio or arts programs, but on February 24, when Russian forces advanced across the border into Ukraine So all that changed.
“My first question from school was whether they had a shelter,” recalled Natalia Ostapchuk as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Vyacheslav Ivatin, one recent morning.
Yes, it happens, and when the siren goes off the next morning, the campers go there.
The kids spent about an hour in the basement shelter, and for the most part, they took to it fast.
The shelter is spread over around 5,000 square feet, and the frequency with which children must go there – at least once a day – has made the school well-equipped. In addition to tables and chairs, there are toys, table games, television screens. There is also an air supply system, toilet, shower and Wi-Fi.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” said 11-year-old Polina Sali, whose family had fled fighting in Pokrovsk, a town in the east.
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Back in Pokrovsk, her family will run into a basement renovated as a shelter with canned food, liter bottles of oatmeal and water.
“While there was shelling in the distance,” recalled Polina, “we spent the whole night there.”
Campers soon forgot their basement surroundings, content to spend time with their electronic devices, as text messages of reassurance were sent to their parents. But when the siren sounded, the children responded happily, climbing the stairs to resume their day.
At least, until the next siren sounds.
Midgard School opened in 2017, and as in previous years, when summer came, it turned into a camp.
But it is not like any other year.
This summer, the camp offers a 50 percent discount for the children of Ukrainian military members, many of whom are stationed on the front lines in the East. About a third of campers are from internally displaced families, who participate at no cost. And campers no longer go on day trips off campus. They need to be close to the shelter in case the sirens sound.
Many families of internally displaced campers arrived with little more than they could carry. The school has also provided accommodation for three families who had fled fighting in the past. They are usually living in kindergarten building.
Five years ago, when their son was born, Marya Seryienko decided that Ukraine’s capital Kyiv could use a family development center. So he established one. She called it the Uniclub, and it offered community members a kindergarten, a summer camp, and a gym where mothers could bring their children.
Like Forest Camp, Uniclub reorganized itself after the invasion of Ukraine.
“When the war started, we organized a shelter,” said Ivan Zubkov, Maryna’s husband, who helps her manage the center. “Families with their children – and even pets – were living in the shelter room.”
Public kindergartens in most of Ukraine are not open this summer, but UniClub has 25 children in kindergarten and 12 in its camp.
It has also offered services for displaced children from the eastern city of Mariupol, which was brutally besieged by Russian forces. UniClub offers clothing for those who need them, as well as discounts and tuition waivers.
Some families have descended on Uniclub to avoid fighting elsewhere in Ukraine – if only as a they station.
Many have moved on and, seeing no prospect of a ceasefire, some have left Ukraine altogether. His pets were another story.
“We now have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle that we are taking care of,” said Mr. Zubkov.
It may once seem like a bottomless summer activity, but Ukraine itself is bottomless, and so the program to teach kids how to reduce exposure to mines doesn’t seem so strange.
The class is put on by Soloma Cats, a charitable foundation that works with experts from the State Emergency Service and the National Police. Over the course of a week, in five districts of Kyiv, children and their parents are given safety lessons about mines and non-exploded ordnance.
However, the Russian army withdrew from Kyiv after initial attempts to take the capital failed, its surrounding areas were occupied, and when the invaders withdrew, repositioned themselves to attack in the east. There were reports of kia, mines and booby-traps being left behind.
“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of mine area in Ukraine is contaminated,” says the charity. “Children and adults need to know how to react when they find a dangerous object.”
The war has taken a toll on the children of Ukraine.
Many people have been uprooted from communities and turned into killing fields. Many people have lost family members in the fighting. And many have been killed themselves.
Last week, Ukrainian officials announced that since the start of the Russian offensive, at least 358 children had been killed and 693 children were injured.
Not many children are on the front lines of Ukraine. Most have been removed from harm’s way, moved to centers for internally displaced people or out of the country.
But some parents have been reluctant to leave or allow their children to do so. And so camping or any summer program all remains a distant dream. The goal is simple existence.
“I know it’s not safe here,” said one mother, Victoria Kalashnikova, who stood beside her 13-year-old daughter Daria in a courtyard in Marinka to the east as the city caught fire. “But where to go? Where to stay? Who will take us? Who will pay?”
Even those who make it out of the fight can be tempted by uncertainty every day.
In Kyiv, Ihor Lekhov and his wife, Nonna, reported fleeing Mariupol with their parents and their three children. Mariupol is now in Russian hands and with their old home partially destroyed, the family has been living in the capital since March.
But they are welcome in Kyiv – and even have a summer program for their kids. Uniclub took the two big boys at no charge.
“In the camp, there are sports and team games,” said 12-year-old Maxim Lekhov. “I love hanging out and playing the most, but I also love joining group classes.”
Still, there’s something he craves even more.
“I want the war to end,” said Maxim. “And I want us back home.”
Jeffrey Gettleman and Oleksandra Mycolisin contributed reporting,