Collage of photos from Strokatienoty, a summer camp in Ukraine

Scenes From Ukrainian Summer Camp

Can childhood be preserved in a war zone?

Summer camp, at its purest, is like Never-Never-Land—a place that exists only in childhood or in memories of it: lake swimming, tree climbing, secret telling, frog catching, and youth everlasting. When I found myself recently on a train platform in Lviv, Ukraine, surrounded by teenagers heading to summer camp in the Carpathian Mountains, such wholesome pleasures seemed almost ridiculously out of reach.

The train was running late, for one thing. And shortly after we’d learned of the delay, an air-raid siren began to howl, starting an uncomfortable countdown that the locals knew too well. After a siren begins, rockets can take up to 20 minutes or so to strike.

One girl, a 16-year-old with braces named Daria, showed me a video of a missile catching fire mid-air. It had happened that morning, minutes earlier, in her hometown of Dnipro. (I’m identifying all the kids in this story by their first name only, to protect their safety and privacy.) She told me that she couldn’t wait to get to Strokatienoty, a camp whose name roughly translates to “Colorful Raccoons.” It would be safer there. At the same time, she was also worried about the family she was leaving behind. But then the train pulled into the station, nearly an hour late; Daria ran ahead to join a group of teenagers. She never looked back—or up. Her gaze was focused forward, on her friends, just as things should be.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Colorful Raccoons staff decided: There would still be camp this summer. There had to be. Anatolii Steliha, the camp’s longtime director, told me that he felt it was important to help “save childhood” for his youngest compatriots. As of the start of June, nearly two-thirds of Ukrainian children had been displaced: forced from their homes and schools and sometimes even separated from their families, according to an estimate from UNICEF. Hundreds of children have been killed and injured.

It may sound silly, foolish even, that such a gathering in the middle of war could do anything to “save childhood.” War spares no one, certainly not the innocent. Yet in some ways, it seemed as if the camp had been preparing for this moment since it was founded in 2016. Its mission is to provide children a place to find healing and inspiration in nature, form meaningful friendships, become more responsible, and foster pride in their country.

For Steliha, keeping camp open this year was about creating for his campers some physical and mental distance from the war—to the degree that such a thing is possible. In the past, he told me, parents had asked things like if they’d be able to call their kids every day. This year they asked him: Is there a bomb shelter on-site?

There is not. And there aren’t air-raid sirens either. “In Ukraine, there are no safe places right now, because rockets can get you everywhere,” Steliha told me. But the camp is in a safer area, hidden by mountains along Ukraine’s western border, near Romania, far from the most active combat areas.

Some kids had questioned whether they should go—whether it was moral to escape the war for a while when others could not. Sofiia, a 16-year-old from outside Kyiv, felt guilty about doing something fun, “because people are fighting, people are suffering,” she told me. “But then I talked to my teacher from my school … She told me, ‘They are fighting for you to enjoy your life. They are fighting for your independence. They are fighting for your happy moments … You can enjoy your life. We are fighting for this.’” She could honor those fighting by taking advantage of the opportunity, Sofiia had decided.

The property is sweet and charming, a string of wood cabins in a mountain valley, surrounded by pine trees and dramatic views. An area with plenty of places to roam. There is a stream, with clear, cold water that gave me goose pimples, perfect for dipping your toes into. There are hills to hike, a steep ledge for setting up a zip line, and green fields for dance classes and tie-dye sessions. A basketball hoop and volleyball court sit at the front of the property; a shed, perfect for blacksmithing sessions, at the back. There, campers would smelt iron to make stakes, which volunteers would deliver to Ukrainian troops to use for building trenches. I attended the first of five 10-day sessions this summer, for campers from the ages of 12 to 18, which began in early July.

A group of campers on the night of Ivana-Kupala. (Courtesy of Strokatienoty)
A group of campers on the night of Ivana-Kupala (Courtesy of Strokatienoty Camp)

When I bumped into Steliha on the first day of camp, his hat backward and an orange whistle around his neck, he told me that he was grateful that all the kids had made it there safely. In addition to the group of children with whom I’d traveled from Lviv, a larger group of kids had arrived on a train from Kyiv, including a handful who had come from regions near the front lines: Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Zaporizhzhia.

“I feel a lot of pressure on me, because if something happens, there will be a lot of problems I should solve. Because of war, everything is changing,” he told me. If any of the children’s towns become Russian-occupied during the course of camp, for example, he has agreed to keep the kids there. (So far this summer, that hasn’t happened.) His situation could change too. The tall, tattooed mixed-martial-arts coach, who is married and has a toddler, is just 29 years old. Which means he could get drafted at some point. Some counselors who have worked at the camp in past years are currently in the army, including the camp’s founder.

But for now things were steady. Steliha checked the news every morning and evening. But, in between, the problems were sweet in their simplicity. One boy had forgotten his shoes. Another had a fever. “Not a problem,” Steliha told me, his face cracking into a grin. “We’re alive … That’s a good day.”

The days continued with a hopscotch of activities. A daily printout of the camp’s itinerary was taped to an outdoor wall near the dining hall: improv-comedy hour, dance lessons, comic-book making, river rafting, and plenty of arts-and-crafts sessions for constructing friendship bracelets, dream catchers, and clay animals.

One afternoon, I watched a girl with a long, blond braid glide down the zip line, her legs bent, back arched like a trapeze artist, and sunflower shirt blowing in the wind. She told me that she “wants to feel adrenaline.”

During free time, kids lazed on the lawn. They took selfies. They passed secret notes. One girl with big, round glasses translated for me one that she’d recently received from an unknown admirer: “How are you doing? We will meet later, and by the way, you are very beautiful.”

In the evenings, a group often gathered to hang in Daria’s bunk. The room was a perfect tableau of camp life: half-made beds; sticky cans of Coke; a spaghetti-string tangle of phone chargers; random tubes of mascara, lip gloss, and toothpaste that used to belong to someone but now belonged to everyone.

The topics of conversation swerved from Stranger Things to poetry to the themes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to …

“One person from our group is listening to Russian songs,” said Mylana, a 14-year-old from near Kyiv, whose father is currently serving in the army. “We really don’t like that. That’s a problem.”

“And to be honest, we have way better music,” said Svyat, a dark-haired boy who’s 15 and also from Kyiv.

Daria nodded.

Picture of Daria, 16, on a hike through the Carpathian Mountains
Daria, 16, on a hike through the Carpathian Mountains (Courtesy of Strokatienoty Camp)

“We kindly explained that listening to the aggressor’s music is bad,” Mylana said, but ultimately the other camper had agreed to disagree with their point of view. They rolled their eyes a bit, and then the conversation moved on.

More than anything, this was all they really wanted: to be with their friends, free of parents and responsibilities. “We can talk all night,” Daria later told me.

But then it was 11 p.m. curfew, and everyone slipped on their Crocs and into the night to get back to their rooms before the evening bunk check. Missing curfew means getting a wake-up call of push-ups and squats. As I headed back down the long, dark hallway of the cabin, one room glowed blue. A girl’s silhouette, curved over a phone. A message from her dad, who she told me was fighting somewhere out there: “Good night. I love you.”

The idea that you could float into camp, in a country in open war, and forget about what’s happening around you is magical thinking. This became clear one rainy afternoon about halfway through camp, when the kids gathered inside to watch a film. The documentary was about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

As the movie rolled, groups of children sat on the foam-padded floor, two by two or three by three or all alone. Some cried or cursed, while others sat stoically. A few stood to leave. When I later saw them outside, one girl told me not to worry, reassuring me, between sobs, that she would be fine. I’ll … stop … crying. She didn’t, not for a long time.

The decision to show the film, as the camp counselors explained it to me, was about letting the kids know that the lines of communication are open, that they aren’t alone in their feelings, and that they don’t have to bottle things up. During the film, children were allowed to leave if they got too upset, but many chose to stay.

“The decision to show a film like that is not an easy one,” Alexandra Chen, a child-trauma specialist who has advised the UN, told me. But she thought that what the camp did would be beneficial, especially because the kids are older and the counselors were prepared to talk them through it. “It is helping them process, because they are already in a safe environment.”

After the movie, everyone broke into small groups to reflect on and discuss what they had seen. In the session I attended, kids sat in a circle passing around a candle as each one spoke. The conversations were largely in Ukrainian, but began with each person sharing how they felt in three words: A little sad. A little happy. Upset. Tired. Cozy. When one girl began crying, tears streaming down her cheeks, the group tackled her with hugs.

This wasn’t the only time the campers talked through their experiences, but it was perhaps the most formal one. The next day, many of the kids who were somber after the movie were belly-laughing with friends over breakfast in the dining hall. But reminders of war were always on the periphery. I heard stories of buildings catching fire and people killed on the street; of a father injured in combat; of rockets exploding in the air. Of a friend whose house had been bombed, a friend who didn’t survive the assault on Mariupol. All reminders that as far as war could seem in this idyllic setting, it was also very near. The staff mostly just facilitated the conversations, but occasionally shared short glimpses into how they were feeling too. There were quiet battlefields inside of everyone.

“Real life will be soon,” Maryna Lipych, the camp’s child psychologist, told me. “I talk with them about this, about real facts, about the real situation, about real war.”

The Ukrainian holiday Ivana-Kupala fell before camp’s end, and on that day there was an energy in the air. The rituals have changed over time, but often the most anticipated is fire jumping.

Around 8 p.m., everyone began to gather. Many wore elaborate flower crowns on their heads and traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka—embroidered shirts or dresses—in an assortment of colors. A bonfire blazed in the center of a grassy field. Snacks of jelly bread and warm, fruity tea were served. It felt like another time and place.

After singing and then dancing in perfect unison to “Stefania,” a popular Ukrainian-language song by the band Kalush Orchestra that was emanating from a nearby speaker—

I’ll always find my way home
even if all roads are destroyed …
I’m not a kid anymore

—the fire jumping began. The kids lined up in pairs; everyone jumped holding hands with a partner. Lipych stood at the edge of the flames, smiling. “This experience will be with them for all their life,” she said. “These memories, these moments, will help them feel happier when they are sad or scared. They can remember this.”

When I caught up with Sofiia, she said that she’d already jumped the fire “maybe 15 times” today. She told me: “You are jumping and running and the moment you are jumping, you are like, There is a fire under me … Everything becomes less scary and you feel like the whole world is only for you.”

Her nails were long and painted red. She’d been painting them blue and yellow—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—since the war began, but shortly before the start of camp, she’d decided on a change. She’d given herself permission to indulge in little acts of normalcy.

Soon camp would be over and the kids would scatter, tethered to one another by the chat app Telegram and the hope of a next time. Some would go back to their cities or villages. Some would return to homes that had become emptier since the war began. Some would become refugees, leaving to go to Austria or Poland or maybe America. Some were trying to figure out a way to stay for another session of camp; they weren’t ready to leave.

Svyat wanted to visit Odesa before summer’s end—an idea he said his mother was not in favor of— because he loves it there and worried that he was running out of time: “Maybe tomorrow the whole Ukraine will be occupied and I will never see it again.”

But tomorrow was a whole day away. On this night, there was the fire. “I think this is one of the happiest moments of my life,” Svyat said. Legend has it that if you successfully jump the flames, you’ll have a future of good health; if you jump with a partner, you may eventually end up married. As Svyat stood in line with his friend, waiting for their turn to leap the flames, he didn’t want to leave his destiny up to chance. “We need to have a dream,” he said to me. “We need to dream about it while jumping.”

What is the dream? I asked.

“End of the war with our victory,” he said. “Let’s do it. One, two, three … ”

And there he was, his hand grasping his partner’s, and it looked as if he was flying. His face was glowing. He was smiling—no, laughing. Freeze it there: On this vision of everything one could ever want for someone in the throes of late childhood—the feeling of being invincible and innocent and rising above it all. The feeling of being young and alive.