Text: Diana Deliurman; Photo: Danylo Dubchak

After a heavy rainstorm, the clouds hugged the tall pines and seemed to descend into the valley. There, between three mountain ranges of the Carpathians, children of deceased soldiers have been undergoing psychological rehabilitation for two weeks. Sixty children from all over Ukraine have come to the I da Vinci camp, supported by the Children of Heroes Foundation. Here they attend therapy sessions, play soccer, make friends, fight, cry, laugh, and even build business networks.

To grieve but to keep on living 

This is the first group of children to undergo rehabilitation under the UK-initiated program “Children and Loss”. The program certified only ten Ukrainian specialists, including the camp organizers, Natalia Podolyak and Olena Bozhor. Since 2014, they have been working in eastern Ukraine under the Children and War program while also training colleagues.

During this shift children learn to understand grief and be close with their emotions.

 “The topic of death is considered a taboo in the Ukrainian culture, so children have no other option but to bear their pain in silence ” Olena says.

They are often prohibited to talk about the loss with their closest people or friends. Emotional avoidance burdens them with even more stress, so it was important for the specialists to teach them how to experience emotions and recover.

“Now children allow themselves to grieve. They have realized that they can cry and live, because they have time to experience these emotions and recover. It’s normal to have fun, sing, and be happy,” says Natalia Podolyak, the camp’s director. 

The camp is always filled with noise, laughter and cheerful chatter, but some of children stay quiet and deep in thoughts. From now on, they want to talk about loss, which Olena believes is a great skill that helps them recover from trauma. The therapists recall that at the first psychological session, kids would burst into tears, but at the last one they talked about their fathers’ death without breaking down, accepting this fact.

“What impressed me the most was someone saying “I realize that my father is gone.” This is a huge breakthrough.” Olena says. 

Children feel the value of life

“They have a different scale of values,” says Natalia Podolyak. 

Having experienced the loss, children become way more mature than their peers. At one of the sessions, even the youngest camp participants aged six to eight said they began to value life and family after their fathers’ death.

Natalia introduces us to a remarkable boy.

“Sashko is our “UPA” (Ukrainian Partisan Arrmy) patriot.” Eight-year-old Sasha Shmatko can be found near a small lake, where he releases his shark-shaped slippers or an empty bottle into the water. He is frowning his eyebrows, taking this task very seriously. Then he tries to retrieve the slippers.

Sashko has blue eyes and light-blonde hair, in which his mother has woven yellow and blue ribbons. The temporary tattoos with Ukrainian symbols and puzzles on the boy’s arms are also his mom’s idea. His favorite tattoo is jigsaw puzzles, which he loves to assemble.  

Sasha’s younger sister Liza runs around laughing. She also has a tattoo. She lifts her T-shirt sleeve to show her favourite drawing,  an ear of grain on her shoulder.

Their father, Oleksandr, was killed in action less than a year ago. Their grandmother, Azov soldier Natalia Strebkova, was 45, when she died in the Azovstal bomb shelter during Russian missile drop. Now her daughter and volunteer Iryna Shmatko, is raising four children alone.

“I want to become a doctor to heal the soldiers, because tthere seem to be very few nurses there. And I want to become another one,” says seven-year-old Liza, wearing a t-shirt titled “The Armed Forces are our strength.” 

The girl believes she’s kind because she defends Sashko and her friends when other children bully them. 

“I just talk to them and they don’t do it anymore,” Liza says.

Sasha also thinks he’s kind and brave. 

“At kickboxing training, my friend, who is 13, challenged me to a fight. I  pinned him down so that he couldn’t get up,” Sasha says with a raspy voice.

“I’m afraid that I will never forget” 

Kids are lining up for lunch. Almost the entire room is occupied by two long tables, with children sitting on either side. 

“Dumplings! Dumplings!” the children chant together when they find out what they are having for lunch. The cooks bring out the plates, as the kids quickly pick up the dumplings with cherries and eat them in a flash. 

“I’ll give them a million points,” Matvii, the boy sitting across from me, rated the dish.

At the same time I heard from the other side: “Sorry”. 

“For what?” I asked.

“For not sharing any dumplings with you,” says a girl with blond wavy hair and big brown eyes feeling ashamed. 

“Oh, no worries, it’s alright!” I answered. 

This was our first encounter with a quiet but resilient Vika. She is eleven, but has already had to flee several times. Vika Pchela was three months old when the family left Russia-occupied Luhansk. The family started fresh in Kharkiv until the war returned to their home. Now they live in Kyiv, although without struggles. 

“The apartment was sold with us!” she said.

One day, the family had to pack their belongings in a few days because their house was sold off without any warning.

At the final therapy session, Natalia asks several questions to children.

“Have you become more vulnerable after the loss? Like an exposed sharp dart.” 

Everyone raised their hands.

“After my dad died, I cry over everything. Even when I don’t want my mom to add meat to the buckwheat fpr my meal,” Vika said.

Vika’s father Yurii died last year in the Luhansk region, dreaming of the liberation of his hometown. In class, Vika admits that she is afraid to think about her dad. 

“I’m afraid I will never forget. I’m afraid I’ll cry at school.” Vika says, looking away. 

Although her parents divorced six years ago, the girl felt way worse after her father’s death. At first it was hard for her to accept her stepfather at home, but the family managed to cope.

“I call him Zhenya out of habit, but I consider him my dad now,” Vika adds. 

In her room, the girl shows us two envelopes with gifts she made in the camp during art therapy. There are neatly written inscriptions with a blue marker: “for mom” and “for dad”. Vika has a well-developed vocabulary for her age.

“Sometimes my dog barks at the others, but he never bites!” Vika says confidently about her huge Argentinean dog named Kit. 

Our active conversation was interrupted with a knock at the door.

A blond boy Vlad entered the room with a bouquet of daisies and a note. He gave them to Vika’s neighbor Kira and quickly left. The friends say that Vlad had fallen in love with Viktoria, but she refused to accept the flowers, so it was Kira who negotiated with him. Vika stubbornly denies it.

She unfolds the note and reads it aloud.

“I like you. This is from Vlad.” 

“Ahhh!” the neighbors shout back in delight.

“But it doesn’t say to whom! Maybe it’s for you,” Vika defends herself.

“You’ll find out when you grow up” 

Eleven-year-old Kira Lotz has a bedside table with lined up frog-shaped things: a panama hat, a cup, a toy, and a ring. She even argued with her mother demanding to not throw away her broken plastic cup with a frog’s face on it. It is an important belonging for her. 

Kira found an actual frog in the lake near her camp house, which she named Kartoshka (“Potato”). The night they heard croaking and went out into the yard with flashlights they met Kartoshka for the first time.

Kira doesn’t remember the name of her home neighborhood in Kharkiv, but she recalls her happy childhood in the yard. The kids tried to ride dogs, treated their wounds with plantain, and stole carrots from her grumpy grandmother in the neighboring building. Kira imitates the pose her grandmother used to take at the window and shows how she would swing a fly swatter at the little thieves.

“That’s why we called her “Gorilla,” Kira said. 

The girl easily transforms into the characters of her memories, changing her voice tone and facial expressions.

“We fled after the train station was destroyed,” is the only thing Kira says about her war experience. 

Now she lives in Poland with her mother and younger sister, but she still faithfully recounts the now-famous sayings of her Polish teachers. Kira wants to write a book about her life in her new country, which she will call Dear Diary.

On walks along the Brusturyanka River, Kira got into picking mint leaves. This is something her mother taught her once. She hands me a few clumps saying she’s not pulling them by the roots, although sometimes it’s hard.

“I now understand why my grandmother grew out her pinky nail. I used to ask her: “Grandma, why?”. And she said: “You’ll find out when you grow up.”

“We’re not just kids”

During the last therapy session, Olena hands out some paper sheets to kids.

“Imagine that you spill your anger on this sheet. Now do what you want with the paper.” 

The children eagerly start squeezing, tearing and stomping on the paper. Then the therapist asks them to put the torn pieces in a black bag. Only twelve-year-old Sofia Skrypnyk awkwardly holds the whole sheet in her hands and puts it untouched in the bag.

Olena told us that many children feel guilty about their father’s death because they believe that he went to the war for them. So she asked the group a cautious question:

 “Don’t you think that you are just children and have to enjoy your childhood?”

No one in the group agrees. They are not just children. They already know what loss is, and how to recover from a traumatic situation, which shouldn’t have happened at the age of ten. 

“Every day I give myself an hour to grieve,” eleven-year-old Vlad says at the session. 

Often he tells his friends that he can’t go out as he has plans, even though he actually doesn’t. Before meeting the children from this camp, he didn’t feel supported by his peers, thinking he had to deal with problems on his own.

Sofia agrees. Since her father died, she hasn’t felt supported for two years. She recalls how a classmate cried during an air raid alarm and told her: 

“I don’t want to have your fate.” 

Such things used to offend Sonia, but now she feels more independent and grown up. She also realized that she was not responsible for her father’s decision to join the battle. 

“I could have had a little influence, but not completely,” the girl concluded.

At the first sessions, the therapists noticed that Sonia’s grieving was poorly developed. During the therapy, they used many techniques, including different ways of perception. Sonia had problems with her breathing, struggling to deeply inhale. 

“Later, she had a breakthrough. She cried and allowed herself to talk about the loss, and then ran to play. Children switch faster,” Natalia added.

Sofia has long brown hair, well-defined eyebrows and eyelashes. She is somewhat shy, but in the room with her friends Vlada and Mira, she opens up. Sonia laughs loudly, plays, sings a song by this year’s Eurovision winners, and dances. Then the girls begin to do tarot readings. Sofia offers to make a spread. 

“I have a lucky hand. I got a magic cat in Brawl Stars.”

“For dad”

“Everyone knows our trio,” says Mira, a blonde girl with big dark eyes. Her, Vlada and Sonia are always easy to spot and communicate even with the older group.

Eleven-year-old Myroslava Kosheleva always has a lot to do. She attends modern dance, guitar and singing classes at home. At the camp, when children have phones for only fifteen minutes, the girl has to post on all her social media blogs that she is “alive and breathing.” 

“Some people say that’s too much activities for this age, but I don’t think so,” says Mira.

The blonde girl always maintaints her confidence. 

“I’m always calming everyone down,” Mira says. At a karaoke night in the camp, the children were singing a Ukrainian song and two girls who lost their dads started crying. Myroslava was the first to support them, even though she had lost one too.

Mira is sure that she inherited her mother’s strong personality. She also inherited this passion for tarot and spiritualism from her, so she calls herself “practically a tarot reader.” Mira shares a way to get into other people’s dreams, which is like meditation.

Myroslava confidently says that she inherited her love of photography from mom. Walking along the Dnipro River, she take pictures of sunsets. Here, in the Carpathians, she gently takes our camera to capture shots of clouds and mountain ranges.

“I have aspirations, but I don’t believe in myself,” Mira states calmly. 

In the fall, she is going to Paris to compete with her dance group. Her biggest dream right now is to win there. “For my dad,” Mira says. 

Another girl of the trio, twelve-year-old Vlada Kukhar, is the one who laughs and jokes the most.

“I am mega-energetic. When we first meet, I just stand there shy, and as soon as I say my name, I spring around and have fun,” the girl says, gesturing all the time. 

“Her energy never runs out,” says twelve-year-old Polina Bocharova. 

We ask what Vlada dreamed of before the full-scale war. 

“I don’t remember. There were many things, dolls, toys and everything. I was eight or nine years old,” the girl answers us, running her blonde curls through her fingers.

Now she wants to become a dentist.

“I like pulling people’s teeth, including my own. We had one fun way to do it with my dad: a rope, a door, and you know what’s next.” Vlada says.

In the last days, kids went to the Synevyr lake. However, they were much more interested in the colorful souvenirs than in the largest lake in the Carpathians. The kids show us what they bought and for whom. Vlada purchased Ukraine’s wooden coat of arms on a stand.

“Will you put it in your room?” I asked the girl.

“Yeah,” Vlada replies, and then lowers her voice a bit, “or in my dad’s.

The boats are swept by a mountain river

Most kids like it here at the camp, but complain that all their sweets have been taken away. One day I saw one of the girls offer her friend a bag of sugar. The girl said with fear:

“Hide the sugar, Vadym (the counselor – ed.) is coming.”

“Why?” her friend asked, simple-mindedly, “It’s not forbidden.”

Business networks have quickly developed in the camp. One of the girls told me that someone in the younger group had Snickers bars and was selling them for a dollar. They set up a whole routine: get up early in the morning, dress up and go for morning exercise. The kids complain that they don’t always have time to get ready.

 “A homeless man looks better than we do in the morning,” Kira exclaims, raising her eyebrows.

Then they have breakfast and a variety of activities, such as walks among the mountains.

“I feel calmer after the camp. If I hadn’t come here, something would probably go wrong with me. I really liked the trainings and art therapy,” said Sonya Skrypnyk.

Throughout the therapy sessions, the children wrote down self-management and recovery techniques. They will return home with a so-called “piggy bank” of knowledge.

After the final therapy session, children make paper boats writing or drawing whatever they want to let go of. They color them in dark colors with words “stress,” “fear,” “negative emotions,” and “war.”  

And then the boats are swept by a mountain river.