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Ukrainian children bear the burden of war: photos

One morning in late July, and the sounds of summer camp were everywhere the sounds of summer camps as the kids ran from one activity to the next.

But Midgard Forest Camp is in wartime Kyiv, Ukraine, and when the air was pierced by a warning siren, the children knew what to do, ditching their jump ropes and tennis games. and rushing for safety.

It’s a routine as familiar as lunch.

The war brought a new reality to Ukrainians, but some things are still true, and as the weather warmed, some parents were faced with the eternal question: what should we do with the kids this summer?

With children isolated and deprived of social contact – some driven by fierce fighting to flee their homes – schools and camps have begun to step up to deliver programs.

Parents considering sending their children to Forest Camp, which is run by Midgard School, may have already asked about counselor-camper ratios or art programs, but on February 24, when forces Russians crossed the Ukrainian border, all that changed.

“My first question at school was whether they had a shelter,” Nataliia Ostapchuk recalled as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Viacheslav Ivatin, one recent morning.

Yes, that’s right, and when the siren went off the other morning, that’s where the campers headed.

The kids spent about an hour in the basement shelter, and for the most part took it in stride.

The shelter covers about 5,000 square feet and considering how often the children have to go there — at least once a day — the school has it well equipped. Beyond tables and chairs, there are toys, board games, TV screens. There is also an air supply system, toilets, showers and Wi-Fi.

“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” said 11-year-old Polina Salii, whose family fled fighting in the eastern city of Pokrovsk.

Back in Pokrovsk, her family rushed into a basement converted into a shelter, with canned food, porridge and liter bottles of water.

“When there were shelling in the distance,” Polina recalls, “we spent the whole night there.”

Campers quickly seemed to forget their basements, content to spend time with their electronic devices as their parents received comforting text messages. But when the siren died down, the children responded happily, climbing the stairs to resume their day.

At least until the next siren goes off.

Midgard School opened in 2017 and, like previous years, when summer arrived, it turned into a camp.

But this year is not like the others.

This summer, the camp is offering a 50% discount to the children of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are deployed to the front lines far to the east. About a third of the campers are from internally displaced families, who participate for free. And campers no longer take day trips off campus. They should stay close to the shelter, in case the siren sounds.

Many families of internally displaced campers arrived with little more than they could carry. The school also provided accommodation for three families who fled the fighting in the east. They live in what is usually the kindergarten building.

Five years ago, when her son was born, Maryna Serhienko decided that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, could use a family development center. So she founded one. She called it Uniclub and offered members of the community a kindergarten, summer camp, and gymnasium where mothers could bring their children.

Like Forest Camp, Uniclub reorganized after the invasion of Ukraine.

“When the war broke out, we organized a shelter,” says Ivan Zubkov, Maryna’s husband, who helps her run the centre. “Families with their children – and even pets – lived in the shelter room.”

Public kindergartens are not open this summer in much of Ukraine, but Uniclub has 25 children in its kindergarten and 12 in its camp.

It also offered services to displaced children from Mariupol, the eastern city that was brutally besieged by Russian forces. Uniclub provides clothing for those who need it, as well as tuition discounts and waivers.

Some families have landed at Uniclub to escape fighting elsewhere in Ukraine – if only as a staging post.

Many have moved on and, with no prospect of a ceasefire in sight, some have left Ukraine altogether. Their pets were another story.

“Now we have lots of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle to take care of,” Zubkov said.

It might have once seemed like an unfathomable summer activity, but Ukraine itself has become unfathomable, and so a program to teach children how to reduce the risk of mines doesn’t seem so strange anymore.

The course is organized by Soloma Cats, a charitable foundation that works with specialists from the State Emergency Service and National Police. For a week, in five districts of Kyiv, children and their parents receive safety lessons on mines and unexploded ordnance.

Although Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv after initial efforts to take the capital failed, the surrounding areas were occupied and when the invaders withdrew, repositioning themselves for an assault to the east, mines and pitfalls have been left behind.

“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory are contaminated by mines,” the association says. “Children and adults both need to know how to react if they find a dangerous object.”

The war has taken a heavy toll on the children of Ukraine.

Many have been uprooted from communities turned into killing fields. Many have lost family members in the fighting. And many were killed themselves.

Last week, Ukrainian authorities announced that since the start of the Russian invasion, at least 358 children had died and 693 children had been injured.

Few children remain on Ukraine’s front lines. Most were taken out of harm’s way, to centers for internally displaced people or out of the country.

But some parents have been reluctant to leave or allow their children to. And so camp or any summer program remains at most a distant dream. The goal is simple survival.

“I know it’s not safe here,” said a mother, Viktoriia Kalashnikova, who stood next to her 13-year-old daughter, Dariia, in a courtyard in Marinka, east, as the city was under fire. “But where to go? Where to stay? Who will take us? Who will pay?

Even those who survive the fighting can experience uncertainty every day.

In Kyiv, Ihor Lekhov and his wife, Nonna, said they fled Mariupol with their parents and three children. With Mariupol now in Russian hands and their former home partly destroyed, the family have lived in the capital since March.

But they found a home in Kyiv – and even a summer program for their children. Uniclub took in the two older boys for free.

“In the camp there is sport and team games,” said 12-year-old Maksym Lekhov. “I especially like walking and playing outside, but I also like to participate in group lessons.”

Yet there is something he would love even more.

“I want the war to end,” Maksym said. “And I want us to come home.”

Jeffrey Gettleman and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting,

nytimes Eur

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