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A Ukrainian camp teaches children how to heal from war

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In 2021, before Mark Rozvozov was even ten, his mother and stepfather were taken by government authorities in the embattled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, leaving him alone with his older brother.

Mark said he felt “very shaken” and cried every night.

An acquaintance of the family soon began to care for the boys.

The Ukrainian woman’s husband lived in Russia. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which Mark said he supported, she left Ukraine to join him. And she took Mark and his brother with her.

The boys would stay there for months, far from family.

“I tried not to think about it,” Mark said. “And I hoped everything is okay with my mother and stepfather.”

Mark’s mother was released later that year in a prisoner exchange. He was sent back to Ukraine in December 2022, and his brother followed. Both now live with their mother in Ukraine.

Ukraine says more than 19,000 children have been taken to Russia by Russian authorities since the massive invasion, of which only 388 have returned. In 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the unlawful deportation of children.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky highlighted the issue in a speech last weekend in Singapore.

“Time is running out and the children are growing up in a Putin country where they are taught to hate their homeland,” he said.

While Ukraine works to bring these children home, treating the returned children is another challenge.

Mark Rozvozov takes part in a camp for Ukrainian youth, organized by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation. The 10-day experience aims to give children a respite from war.

The harrowing experience has taken a mental toll on Mark. His mother recommended that he spend time in a camp aimed at helping children recover in western Ukraine, on the border with Hungary, far from the war in the Carpathians in the Zakarpattia region.

The camp, ​​“Rinat Akhmetov for children. Peaceful Recreation for Children of Ukraine,” gave Mark about ten days of rest and relaxation, along with time to bond with his peers and access to psychologists and mentors.

“I like being here,” Mark said, adding that there are “no shootings (and it’s) a nice, quiet place.”

The camp is managed by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, a charity run by the Ukrainian billionaire of the same name. (The foundation paid for this reporter’s trip to Ukraine to cover the camp).

It has given a lifeline to Ukrainian children, who have been hit hard by the war. They get the chance to have fun, make friends, breathe freely and address the mental health issues created by the conflict – all at no cost to them.

Oksana Ishchuk, project manager at the foundation, said the war has driven many children to withdraw from their lives, exacerbating a mental health crisis around the world.

But by attending the camp, children begin to “believe in” and hope for a better life, she added.

“Children become more communicative and open-minded,” Ishchuk said, referring to the results at the end of the camp session. “Thanks to this organization, parents have noticed a huge, positive change in their children.”

The camp, which began in 2015, a year after Russian-backed separatists began waging war against the Ukrainian government, has helped more than 5,000 children. The effort began in eastern Ukraine but has since moved to Zakarpattia following the large-scale invasion.

Approximately 50 children attend each camp, which takes place four times a year. Children are selected based on their vulnerability, with children from frontline or occupied areas of Ukraine often given priority, along with children who have lost a parent or guardian.

During the last camp, which stretched from late May to early June, children could relax at Hotel Illara, a resort-style hotel with a large swimming pool, water slide, soccer fields, tennis courts, pond and other recreational areas. The Carpathian landscape surrounds the hotel, with hiking trails nearby.

The children can play games and do hands-on activities, play sports and swim in the hotel pool. Particular attention is also paid to blogging, or teaching the children to use their phones to take videos and photos and post them on social media. The camp even brings some famous Ukrainian actors and artists to talk to the kids.

Sonya Zabolotnaya, 16, is one of the campers at a Ukrainian youth retreat. She said she has found a positive atmosphere there.

Sonya Zabolotnaya, 16, said she wants to become an Instagram or TikTok influencer and express her opinions on climate change and environmental issues. She went to the camp partly to learn more about blogging, and found the atmosphere at the camp to be positive.

The 10-day retreat is not just about fun and games. One aspect of the camp focuses on developing career skills.

And psychologists are available to work with the children to process difficult emotions and deal with any distressing memories or experiences, with the ultimate goal of teaching coping skills that they can take with them when they leave.

Yuliia Kruchkova, a psychologist at the camp, said art therapy is key.

“Art therapy helps them, through creativity, to express themselves… to be strong,” she said. “The most important thing for these children is to use their imagination so they can focus and build their world.”

Kruchkova works one-on-one with children when they need extra attention. While some campers may have difficulty opening up, she said they work hard to resolve these cases, including reaching out to their parents or dealing with their own emotions with them.

Overall, the children learn to be part of a community, and while they cannot be “completely changed,” they learn that “everything will be okay.”

“This organization cannot save all the children, even in Ukraine – but the children who are here in this camp can help and try to do something good for those children,” she said.

A popular method to combat mental health issues involves children writing down a fear and putting it in the mouth of a doll, metaphorically getting rid of whatever has been eating them away.

Zabolotnaya, from Kherson in eastern Ukraine, has found a similar practice cathartic.

She was forced to resettle in Kiev when Russian troops invaded. It was difficult to adjust to a new life, Zabolotnaya said, but working with psychologists was “amazing” and has given her more confidence.

“They do help with dealing with trauma,” she said. “I used to cry, but now I can control my emotions.”

The camp consists of three age groups, with each age group supervised by a mentor. The youngest is for children around 10 years old, the second is filled by young teenagers and the third for 14 to 17 year olds.

Yaroslav Kolesnikov, 21, is a mentor at the camp and helps guide the oldest students every day wherever they go. Each group has a dedicated mentor, usually a young adult, who can more easily connect with the students.

Kolesnikov said that for many of the campers, Russia “stole their childhood,” and this camp was a way to give back.

“I want to show them that some people love you,” he said. “We want the children to be as happy as possible in their situation.”

Kolesnikov, who is from Luhansk, has struggled to cope with the war himself after being driven from his home when the conflict broke out in 2014.

After the large-scale invasion, he lives alone. His mother and younger brother fled to Italy, but men are not allowed to leave the country. He is also considering enlisting in the army once he turns 25, the age at which Ukraine begins deploying troops.

His experience has helped Kolesnikov connect with the children at the camp, and it has fueled his passion for helping the country’s youth.

“I have to show them that not the whole world is like that,” he said, referring to the war. “There is a lot of laughter, a lot of freedom and a lot of possibilities.”

On the last day of camp, the children gathered in a small room, huddled in front of a projection screen that flashed through photos taken during their stay.

They looked at memorable moments and experiences, from silly individual smiles to flashy group photos. They held up their phones and waved flashlights in the dark. One child strummed a guitar, others howled with laughter.

Later, the mentor of each age group gave a farewell speech; the children danced, laughed and cried as the music boomed through the speakers; and no one seemed ready for it to be over.

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