One morning in late July, the voices of summer camp are the voices of summer camp, as children rush from one activity to the next.
But the Midgard Forest camp is located in Kyiv, Ukraine, and when the air was pierced by sirens, the children knew what to do, and they gave up skipping rope and tennis matches to rush to safety.
It’s a routine as familiar as lunch.
The war has brought a new reality to Ukrainians, but some things remain, and as the weather warms, some parents face a long-standing question: How should we get along with our children this summer?
With children isolated and deprived of social contact — some driven from their homes by intense fighting — schools and camps have moved to provide programs.
Parents considering sending their children to Forest Camp, run by Midgard Schools, may have asked about the counselor-to-camper ratio or the arts program, but all that changed on February 24, when Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine.
“My first question to the school was whether they had a shelter,” recalled Natalia Ostapchuk on a recent morning as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Vyacheslav Ivatin. road.
Yes, it did, campers were there when the sirens went off the previous morning.
The kids spent about an hour in the basement shelter, and most of the time they took it in stride.
The shelter covers about 5,000 square feet, and considering how often kids have to go there — at least once a day — the school has fully furnished it. In addition to tables and chairs, there are toys, table games, TV screens. There is also a gas system, toilets, showers and Wi-Fi.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” said Polina Salii, 11, whose family fled the fighting in the eastern town of Pokrovsk.
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Back in Pokrovsk, her family would run to a basement that had been turned into a shelter with canned goods, porridge and a liter of bottled water.
“When there was shelling in the distance,” Polina recalled, “we spent the whole night there.”
Campers seem to forget about their basement environment quickly and are content to spend time using their electronic devices because their parents receive assurance text messages. But when the sirens blared, the children responded happily, climbing the stairs to continue their day.
At least, until the next siren sounds.
Midgard School opened in 2017, and as in previous years, when summer came, it was turned into a camp.
But this is different from other years.
This summer, the camp offered a 50 percent discount to the children of Ukrainian service members, many of whom were deployed on the far eastern front. About one-third of the campers are from internally displaced families, and they attend for free. Campers no longer take day trips off campus. They need to be close to the shelter in case the siren goes off.
The families of many internally displaced campers arrive with what they can. The school also provided housing for three families fleeing fighting in the east. They live in ordinary kindergarten buildings.
Five years ago, when her son was born, Maryna Serhienko decided that the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, had access to a family development center. So she started a family. She calls it Uniclub, and it provides community members with kindergartens, summer camps and gyms that mothers can take their kids to.
Like Forest Camp, Uniclub reinvented itself after Ukraine was invaded.
“When the war started, we organized a shelter,” said Ivan Zubkov, Marina’s husband, who helped her run the center. “Families with children – even pets – live in shelters.”
Public kindergartens in most of Ukraine were closed this summer, but Uniclub has 25 children in kindergarten and 12 in camp.
It also serves children displaced from the eastern city of Mariupol, which is brutally besieged by Russian troops. Uniclub provides clothing for those in need and offers discounts and tuition waivers.
Some families have landed at Uniclub to escape fighting elsewhere in Ukraine – if only as a staging point.
Many moved on, and with no prospect of a ceasefire in sight, some left Ukraine altogether. Their pets are another story.
“Now we have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle, and we’re taking care of them,” Mr Zubkov said.
This may once seem like an unfathomable summer event, but Ukraine itself has become unfathomable, so a program to teach children how to reduce mine risk suddenly seems unsurprising.
The course is run by Soloma Cats, a charitable foundation that works with experts from state emergency services and the National Police. Over the course of a week, in five districts in Kyiv, children and their parents received safety lessons on landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Although Russian troops retreated from Kyiv after earlier attempts to capture the capital failed, the area around it was occupied, and as the invaders retreated, they repositioned to attack the east, leaving reports of mines and booby traps.
“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukraine’s territory is contaminated with mines,” the charity said. “Both children and adults need to know how to react if they find something dangerous.”
The war hit Ukrainian children hard.
Many were uprooted from their communities and turned into killing fields. Many lost their families in the fighting. Many were killed themselves.
Last week, Ukrainian authorities announced that at least 358 children had been killed and 693 injured since the Russian invasion began.
Not many children remain on the front lines in Ukraine. Most have moved away from danger and been sent to internally displaced persons centres or abroad.
But some parents have been reluctant to leave, or let their children go. So summer camp or any summer program is just a distant dream. The goal is to simply survive.
“I know it’s not safe here,” said a mother, Viktoriia Kalashnikova, standing near her 13-year-old daughter Dariia in a yard in eastern Marinka when the town came under fire. “But where to go? Where to live? Who’s going to pick us up? Who’s going to pay for it?”
Even those who survived the battle found the torment of uncertainty every day.
In Kyiv, Ihor Lekhov and his wife Nonna tell the story of fleeing Mariupol with their parents and three children. With Mariupol now in Russian hands and their old house partially destroyed, the family has been living in the capital since March.
But they were welcomed in Kyiv – there were even summer courses for their children. Uniclub took in two big boys for free.
“There are sports and team games in the camp,” says Maxim Lehoff, 12. “I like walking and playing outdoors the most, but I also enjoy taking group lessons.”
Still, there was something he wanted more.
“I want the war to end,” Maxim said. “I want us to go home.”
Jeffrey Gettleman and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting,