It was late July morning and the sounds of summer camp were the sounds of summer camps everywhere as the kids raced from one activity to the next.
But the Midgard Forest camp is in Kyiv, in wartime Ukraine, and when the siren pierced the air, the children knew what to do, dropping ropes and tennis courts and rushing to safety.
It’s a familiar routine, like lunch.
The war has brought a new reality to the Ukrainians, but something remains in place, and with the onset of warm weather, some parents are faced with the age-old question: what to do with children this summer?
As the children were isolated and deprived of social contact – some of them forced to leave their homes due to heavy fighting – schools and camps began to act, offering programs.
Parents considering sending their children to the forest camp run by the Midgard School may have once asked about the ratio of counselors to campers or arts programs, but on February 24, when Russian troops poured across the border into Ukraine, all that changed.
“My first question to the school was about whether they had a shelter,” recalls Natalya Ostapchuk, driving her 6-year-old son Vyacheslav Ivatin one recent morning.
Yes, it is, and when the siren went off the other morning, the tourists headed there.
The children spent about an hour in the basement shelter, and for the most part they took it calmly.
The orphanage covers about 5,000 square feet, and given the frequency with which children must go there – at least once a day – the school has well equipped it. In addition to tables and chairs, there are toys, board games, TV screens. There is also a supply system, toilets, showers and Wi-Fi.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” says 11-year-old Polina Saliy, whose family fled the fighting in Pokrovsk, a city in the country’s east.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
Returning to Pokrovsk, her family fled to the basement, converted into a shelter, with canned food, porridge and liter bottles of water.
“When shelling was heard in the distance,” Polina recalled, “we spent the whole night there.”
Soon the campers seemed to forget about their basement, content to spend time with their electronic devices while their parents received reassurance text messages. But when the siren died down, the children responded gleefully, climbing the stairs to resume their day.
At least until the next siren.
The Midgard School opened in 2017 and, like in previous years, turned into a camp with the onset of summer.
But this year is unlike any other.
This summer, the camp is offering a 50 percent discount for children of Ukrainian military personnel, many of whom are on the front line in the far east. About a third of vacationers come from families of internally displaced persons who visit them free of charge. And campers are no longer taking day trips off campus. They need to stay close to cover in case the siren sounds.
Many families of internally displaced persons arrived with little more than they could carry. The school also provided housing 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, Marina Sergienko decided that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, needed a family development center. So she founded one. She named it the Uniclub, and it offered community members a daycare, a summer camp, and a gym where mothers could bring their children.
Like Forest Camp, Uniclub has changed since the invasion of Ukraine.
“When the war started, we organized a shelter,” says Ivan Zubkov, Marina’s husband, who helps her run the center. “Families with their children and even pets lived in the shelter.”
State kindergartens are closed this summer in most of Ukraine, but there are 25 children in the Uniclub kindergarten and 12 in the camp.
He also offered services to displaced children from Mariupol, an eastern city under heavy siege by Russian troops. Uniclub provides clothing to those who need it, as well as discounts and exemptions from tuition fees.
Some families landed at Uniklab to avoid fighting elsewhere in Ukraine, if only as a staging post.
Many left, and some even left Ukraine, not seeing the prospect of a ceasefire. Their pets are a different story.
“Now we have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle that we take care of,” Mr. Zubkov said.
It might once have seemed like an incomprehensible summer activity, but Ukraine itself has become incomprehensible, and so a program to teach children how to reduce mine risk suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.
Classes are conducted by the Soloma Cats charitable foundation, which cooperates with specialists from the State Emergency Service and the National Police. During the week in five districts of Kyiv, children and their parents are given safety lessons on mines and unexploded ordnance.
Although Russian forces retreated from Kyiv after initial attempts to take the capital failed, the areas around it were occupied, and as the invaders retreated, regrouping to push east, there were reports of mines and booby traps left behind.
“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of Ukraine are mined,” the charity said in a statement. “Children and adults need to know how to react if they find a dangerous item.”
The war took a heavy toll on the children of Ukraine.
Many were expelled from communities turned into killing fields. Many have lost family members in the fighting. And many were killed themselves.
Ukrainian authorities said last week that at least 358 children have died and 693 have been injured since the start of the Russian invasion.
Not many children remain on the front lines in Ukraine. Most of them were taken out of harm’s way, to centers for internally displaced persons or outside the country.
But some parents don’t want to leave or let their kids do it. So camp or any summer program is still a distant dream at best. The goal is simple survival.
“I know it’s not safe here,” said one mother, Viktoria Kalashnikova, who was standing next to her 13-year-old daughter Daria in the courtyard of Marinka to the east when the city came under shelling. “But where to go? Where to stay? Who will take us? Who will pay?”
Even those who make it out of combat can face the test of uncertainty every day.
In Kyiv, Igor Lekhov and his wife Nonna spoke about their escape from Mariupol with their parents and three children. Now that Mariupol is in Russian hands and their old house is partially destroyed, the family has been living in the capital since March.
But in Kyiv they found hospitality – and even a summer program for their children. Uniclub took two older boys for free.
“The camp has sports and team games,” said 12-year-old Maxim Lekhov. “Most of all, I like to walk and play outdoors, but I also like to attend group classes.”
However, there is something he would like even more.
“I want the war to end,” Maxim said. And I want us to go home.
Jeffrey Gettleman and Alexandra Mikolishin provided reporting,