Ukrainian summer camp provides respite from trauma of displacement

Two hours from the city of Kharkiv, dozens of uprooted Ukrainians found themselves reverting to childhood in a corner once reserved for children.

Children and their mothers in a recreation area of the Promotei Summer Camp. These people had been forced to flee their homes in eastern Ukraine.  © UNHCR/E.Ziyatdinova

PROMETEI SUMMER CAMP, Ukraine, October 7 (UNHCR) - Deep in the thick forests of eastern Ukraine, next to a meandering river, is a summer camp. Prometei is a throwback to another era, that of the Soviet Union. It was also, this summer this year, a refuge.

Here, two hours drive from the city of Kharkiv, dozens of internally displaced Ukrainians found themselves reverting to childhood in a corner once reserved for children. The internally displaced people, mostly women and children, lived in dormitories, ate in a communal cafeteria and, on their walks through the camp, contemplated life-size sculptures - a girl with a lamb, a boy in a blue bathing suit.

The families were lodged and fed here by a Ukrainian charitable foundation. A seemingly idyllic existence, but one that offered its own form of stress. "We have no money, we feel cut off, we are in limbo here," said one resident, echoing many others. Limbo was still better than the small hell that they had escaped.

Their stories were similar - conflict, shelling, cowering in cellars, empty stores, deserted cities and, finally, flight - but their backgrounds were often unusual. Anastasia celebrated her 21st birthday in the camp. Her brother phoned from the town of Makeevka where he had stayed. It was still a battle zone but he had a young wife, a child and an apartment to protect.

Anastasia, too, has a baby, Polina, just seven months old. She and her brother are orphans. She is also a single mother and, like several other young women with babies, she fled from a shelter for single orphan mothers in Makeevka. Her life had been hard. The summer in the camp was almost a vacation.

"Here they gave us diapers, but they didn't have a lot and there are a lot of small babies here," she said in the room she shared with her child. "People have promised to help, they bring baby food, and clean water. They help in any way they can."

Alexandr is 40 and has cerebral palsy. So does his wife Viktoria, but together they brought up one son, Dima, who is now 20 years old and living on his own. Their second son, Ivan, is 19 months old. They had made a good life for themselves, Alexandr as an economist, Viktoria as an accountant in Donetsk.

The conflict drove them out, not only the shelling but also the lack of drugs in the pharmacies. Viktoria depends on drugs to keep her condition in check. At the camp they were able to obtain the needed drugs but, by the end of the summer, their money was running out.

Alexandr had been able to find enough to buy two packages. "But two packages is only enough for two weeks for men," Viktoria told her husband. "What will you do? Can you go to Kharkiv?"

The camp had not been prepared to shelter people during the winter. It also was isolated, kilometres from the nearest town, and money was short. These families fared better than many of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people caught in this conflict, but home was where they longed to go.

"I hope to go back to Makeevka," Anastasia said. 'They promised to buy us tickets next week for free so we won't spend our own money."

Temporary camp accommodation was necessary and helpful, but UNHCR's Ukraine representative Oldřich Andrýsek warns it could backfire later if these people are kept in camps in the coming months.

"So unless the government wants to pay these people unemployment benefits, social benefits and basically feed a large part [of its displaced population], they should move them to cities, not only Kiev... and give them an opportunity to get jobs."

A vacation from the reality of conflict, but not from its stress. Even the children felt it. As they worked on their makeshift house in the woods, one said, "We must make it big enough to hold all of us when we have to leave." In the event, the residents were moved to other heated camps. Still, they remain trapped, far from home, far from work, still prisoners of the conflict. Despite a ceasefire, fighting has been reported in eastern Ukraine.

By Don Murray in Prometei Summer Camp, Ukraine