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Children of fallen soldiers find respite at summer camp amid war’s shadow

‘You can cry here too,’ says psychologist Katya Dolzhenko, taking Sevo’s hand. ‘Crying is the sign of a brave man.’ Photograph: Lara Marlowe

Organized by “Children of Heroes,” a nationwide charity, camps such as 7 Fields offer solace to around 6,000 Ukrainian children who have lost parents, often fathers, due to the war or are internally displaced as a June study by the International Institute of Sociology in Kyiv found that 78% of Ukrainians have experienced the loss or injury of a close family member.

Nestled in the serene landscapes of Semypolky, Ukraine, the 7 Fields summer camp appears like any other children’s getaway with its inviting log cabins, playgrounds, and sports facilities. However, for the three dozen boys and girls attending this camp in August 2023, their childhoods have been irrevocably altered by the ravages of Russia’s war on their country, Irish Times writes.

The summer camp provides them a reprieve from the constant reminders of grief, offering them a respite from their pain. Katya Dolzhenko, a psychologist at the camp, emphasizes that it doesn’t cure their sorrow but serves as a reminder of their childhood.

Dolzhenko navigates the complex emotional landscape, recognizing that the greatest trauma often lies with the mothers who’ve lost partners. For these children, the camp offers a way to step away from their emotional turmoil, even if only temporarily.

Among these young souls, a boy’s exclamation carries the weight of a nation’s pain. “Bakhmut!” cries a little one, pointing to his origins – a city razed by Russia in the Donbas region. Another, his freckled face etched with sorrow, blurts out, “My dad got killed at Bakhmut!”

For Katya, 11, the summer camp offers a brief respite from the loneliness that follows her father’s death. Holding onto a T-shirt adorned with “I love you,” she expresses her longing for a good life and the wish to ease others’ pain. Her impending return to a boarding school is bittersweet, as it uproots her from the familiar surroundings she cherishes.

Sevo, a nine-year-old from Lysychansk in Luhansk, has found solace in the camp’s activities. Despite his brave front, Sevo reveals moments of vulnerability. Dolzhenko’s guidance helps him navigate the intricacies of his feelings, reminding him that tears are a sign of strength.

“I am the man in the house now,” Kolya says. “I will help my mom and sister with tasks around the house… I want to be a policeman or join the army when I grow up. Like my father.”

Children smile at the 7 Fields summer camp. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

The children at 7 Fields are taught that supporting others is a way to heal. Kolya exemplifies this by helping a fellow camper with an injured hand. As these young survivors carve out their paths forward, the shadow of war’s impact lingers. Dolzhenko raises concerns about the negative influence of parents’ discussions, urging them to focus on positive emotions and support. With hopeful songs and shared activities, the summer camp becomes a haven where these young souls can find solace amidst the turmoil.

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