A late July morning and the sounds of summer camp were everywhere the sounds of summer camps as kids ran from activity to activity.
But the Midgard Forest Camp is in Kiev, wartime Ukraine, and when a warning siren pierced the sky, the kids knew what to do.
It’s a routine as familiar as lunch.
War has 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 battles to flee their homes — schools and camps mobilized to offer programs.
Parents considering sending their children to the Forest Camp, run by the Midgard School, may have once asked about counselor-camper relationships or arts programs, but on February 24, when Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine, that all changed.
“My first question to the school was whether they have a shelter,” recalls Nataliia Ostapchuk when she recently dropped off her 6-year-old son Viacheslav Ivatin.
Yes, it does, and when the siren went off the other morning, the campers headed there.
The kids spent about an hour in the basement bomb shelter, and for the most part they took it easy.
The shelter covers about 5,000 square meters and given the frequency with which the children have to go there – at least once a day – the school has it well equipped. In addition to the tables and chairs, there are toys, table games and television screens. There is also an air supply system, toilets, showers and wifi.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” said Polina Salii (11), whose family fled the fighting in Pokrovsk, a city in the east.
Our coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine
Back in Pokrovsk, her family ran to a cellar set up as a shelter, containing canned food, porridge and liter bottles.
“When there was shelling in the distance,” recalls Polina, “we spent all night there.”
The campers soon seemed to forget their basement environment, content to spend time with their electronic devices while their parents received reassuring text messages. But when the siren went off, the kids reacted happily and climbed the stairs to resume their day.
At least, until the next siren goes off.
The Midgard School opened in 2017 and as in previous years, when summer arrived, it turned into a camp.
But this is not like any other year.
This summer, the camp is offering a 50 percent discount to the children of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are deployed on the front lines far to the east. About a third of campers come from internally displaced families, who attend for free. And the campers no longer go on day trips off campus. They should stay close to the shelter in case the siren sounds.
Many of the families of internally displaced campers arrived with little more than they could carry. The school has also housed three families fleeing the fighting in the east. They live in what is normally the kindergarten building.
Five years ago, when her son was born, Maryna Serhienko decided that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, could use a center for family development. So she set up one. She called it Uniclub, and it provided community members with a kindergarten, summer camp, and gym where moms could bring their kids.
Like the Forest Camp, Uniclub rearranged itself after Ukraine was invaded.
“When the war started, we organized a shelter,” says Ivan Zubkov, Maryna’s husband, who helps her manage the center. “Families with their children — and even pets — lived in the shelter.”
Public kindergartens will not be open in much of Ukraine this summer, but Uniclub has 25 children in the kindergarten and 12 in the camp.
It has also offered services to children displaced from Mariupol, the eastern city that was brutally besieged by Russian forces. Uniclub provides clothing for those who need them, along with discounts and tuition waivers.
Some families have landed at Uniclub to escape fighting elsewhere in Ukraine – if only as a way station.
Many have moved on and, with no prospect of a ceasefire, some have left Ukraine altogether. Their pets were a different story.
“Now we have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle that we take care of,” said Mr Zubkov.
It may once have seemed like an inscrutable summer activity, but Ukraine itself has become inscrutable, so a program to teach children how to reduce the risk of mines suddenly doesn’t look so strange.
The lesson is taught by Soloma Cats, a charitable foundation that works together with specialists from the National Emergency Service and the National Police. For a week, children and their parents in five districts of Kiev are offered safety lessons about mines and unexploded ordnance.
Although Russian forces withdrew from Kiev after previous attempts to take the capital failed, the areas around it were occupied, and when the invaders withdrew and repositioned for an attack to the east, reports of mines and traps had been left behind.
“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory in Ukraine is infested with mines,” the charity says. “Children and adults all 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 relatives in the fighting. And many have been killed themselves.
Last week, Ukrainian authorities announced that at least 358 children have been killed and 693 injured since the Russian invasion began.
Not many children remain on Ukraine’s frontline. Most have been moved out of harm’s way, to IDP centers or out of the country.
But some parents are reluctant to leave, or let their children do so. 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 was standing next to her 13-year-old daughter Dariia in a courtyard of Marinka, in the east, when the city came under fire. “But where to? Where to stay? Who will take us? Who is going to pay?”
Even those who survive the battles can experience an ordeal of uncertainty every day.
In Kiev, Ihor Lekhov and his wife, Nonna, said they had fled 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 are welcome in Kiev – and even a summer program for their children. Uniclub took the two older boys in for free.
“There are sports and team games in the camp,” says Maksym Lekhov, 12. “I like to walk and play outside, but I also like to participate in group lessons.”
Yet there is something he would like even more.
“I want the war to end,” Maksym said. “And I want us to be home again.”
Jeffrey Gettleman and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn reported,