15 years old, Kyiv
At the very beginning of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Andrii experienced not only fear and panic, but also a serious loss: in March 2022, his stepfather was killed in the fighting near Kyiv. This sorrow greatly affected Andrii’s mother, and she was unable to cope with her own pain and had little resources for her child.
The situation in the family was only getting worse. Constant shouting and hysterics filled the boy’s life, he became nervous, aggressive, impatient, withdrew into himself, started running away from home, drinking alcohol and tobacco. The most frightening situation was when, in the middle of a fight with his mother, Andrii picked up a knife and started threatening.
In the camp, we saw a tall, handsome boy who always wears his stepfather’s military uniform. Sometimes he was intemperate, harsh, always tired, could not sleep at night, was silent and did not make contact or take initiative at all. Behind all of this was the immense stress that the guy had accumulated during the year of war. We were kind to Andrii, did not demand him to be different from what he was, gently involved him in chamber activities – and, in the end, we saw the person who was prevented from being realised by terrible pain.
Andrii started participating in a theatre performance, making friends with other teenagers and talking about his clay sculptures. Andrii gave his sculpture mentor a touching and meaningful gift – a chevron and a T-shirt of his dead stepfather. It was an incredible gesture of trust from the young man.
We were even more surprised by the changes that Andrii made in his life after the camp. The young man’s mother tells us how for the first time in a long time, Andrii allowed himself to be hugged, and not only allowed, but even initiated warm contact! He began to help out in the home, walk the dog in the evenings, and play with his younger sister.
“He seemed to become warm… You know, you were like a little family there. I never thought that the environment was so important. But Andrii came back from the camp with the experience that it is possible to live differently, he saw an example that it is possible to interact with people in a different way,” Andrii’s mother shared with us.
Now she and her son have a closer connection, they go for walks together, talk about life, and organise small hikes, which Andriy was inspired to do during the camp. And recently, the young man entered a military college – his choice to be worthy of his stepfather.
15 years old, Hlukhivtsi, Vinnytsia region
Since childhood, Anton has been an enquiring and motivated boy. He easily immersed himself in his interests, explored the world, and helped his parents with the housework. Already at the age of 5, Anton had the confidence to approach his teacher, his mother’s colleague, and ask for reading lessons.
The military actions had a significant impact on the energetic young man, as he experienced the worst that could happen in these events. Anton’s father was killed in a battle with the russian invaders in southern Ukraine. Anton’s mother, Halyna, recalls how her son grew up dramatically: he lost weight, grew 20 centimetres in a year, took on adult responsibilities for the household, and became more serious.
“I may forget that the cattle need to be fed in the morning, but Anton will call me and remind me,” she says.
At the same time, the boy withdrew into himself and was often seen alone at the cemetery near his father’s grave.
The Horytsvit team was impressed with Anton! This boy was determined, had balanced adult thoughts about the world, took initiative and responsibility, was supportive, and sensitive to others.
“He got this inner core from his father,” Halyna shared with us.
Anton impressed the whole camp with his knowledge of poetry, giving treasures of Ukrainian literature every day because he knew so many works by heart! But even in the camp, among the peace and quiet of the majestic Carpathians, the war reached Anton: the news came that a close family friend had been killed at the front. The boy was alone for almost a whole day, and then, in the intimate atmosphere of a tea ceremony, he shared the story of the fallen soldier and his experiences with his mentors. He also mentioned his father. It was a difficult moment for the boy, and everyone in the camp tried to support him.
After the camp, we asked Anton’s mother if she had noticed any changes in her son’s life.
“It seems to me that he has become more open to his friends, because he didn’t have much close contact. He also began to appreciate this human contact more: he became more attentive and caring. He started asking me for advice more, listening to me.”
Anton wanted to enter a military college. His desire was so strong that his family could not convince him that it was dangerous at the moment, because russian missiles were also destroying military educational institutions where very young boys and girls were studying. In the end, his mother and his father’s friends managed to influence his decision, and next year Anton will study business technology and advertising.
13 years old, Vodiane village, Zaporizhzhia region
The war came into Vitalina’s life not with a full-scale invasion, but 8 years earlier – it was then that her father volunteered for the ATO. After serving for 2 years, the man returned home to look after his old grandfather. Vitalina’s family lived a quiet rural life: they had their own house, garden and greenhouses. In her spare time, Vitalina painted and had many friends. The girl went to school with pleasure because she loved to learn, and every year she received letters of gratitude for her hard work. On 24 February 2022, the war came to the Tabachny family again – and Vitalina’s father was mobilised again.
Soon, the village where Vitalina lived with her mother and grandmother was occupied. The village was left without any communication with the outside world: for months, neither Vitalina nor her mother knew what was happening to her father at the front, whether he was healthy or alive. Six months passed in such isolation until the tension and pressure from the occupiers began to grow in the village.
“Our father is a soldier. And we knew that sooner or later the occupiers would come for us. Especially, they would blackmail us with a child.”
This was the last straw of the sense of danger – and Vitalina and her mother decided to leave their occupied home. The journey was difficult, as cars were detained at the checkpoint and not allowed topass, so they had to stand in line for 2 days, and then take an evacuation train to Lviv in Zaporizhzhia.
Vitalina and her mother settled in the Lviv region, in the small town of Stryi. It was difficult for Vitalina to adapt to such a serious change: she felt lonely among her classmates, she felt like a stranger, she was ashamed because of the language barrier. It was hard for her to accept that her study skills had become worse due to stress and that she had to make every effort to achieve results. She failed at many things in her studies, and this made her angry, she would break down, get nervous, and withdraw from others.
Her mother says that Vitalina often gets homesick. But what scares her the most is the assumption that her home will never be a safe place again. She is worried that because of the occupation, many people in the village will accept the new government and will continue to hold enemy ideas even after Ukraine liberates it.
“How will we live afterwards?” – this is the question Vitalina asks, feeling that she will never be able to experience her own home as a completely safe space again.
In her heart, this sensitive girl is always worried about her father at the front. Sometimes she hasn’t heard from him for weeks. Vitalina’s mother says that it is impossible to live a full life because they are constantly monitoring the phone, waiting for a call from their father, but the worst part is living with anticipation and fear of terrible news.
The father himself encourages his family: “What are my girls doing? Everything will be fine! Every war ends!”
Vitalina accepts her father’s choice to defend Ukraine and be a soldier, but sometimes she feels despondent, resentful, and annoyed that her father is not there, that he is the one who is risking his life for the sake of the future.
When we met Vitalina at the Horytsvit camp, we saw a shy, polite and slightly sad girl with big blue eyes. Day by day, Vitalina opened up, relaxed and we could see her smiling, lively and active more often. But she often retired to herself – a new wave of pain for her father always came unexpectedly. This page of her life cannot be erased, this pain and sadness, but in the camp, Vitalina found support: among other teenagers with similar stories, among mentors who were always ready to listen, hug, and be there for her.
The most valuable thing for Vitalina in the camp was the feeling of freedom and respect. The freedom to express herself, to be different, to express her thoughts, to be vulnerable among other people, to be free to engage in creativity without restrictions and tasks. Vitalina’s mother shared that her daughter returned from the camp more emotional, as if she had more vitality and more interest in the world in general.
14 years old, Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk region
Daria has been a girl involved in the arts since childhood. In kindergarten, she took piano and vocal lessons, and her teachers noticed little Daria’s natural musical abilities. She was a soloist in a vocal ensemble and took part in city concerts and competitions. But soon Daria’s family moved to another district, so she had to give up music lessons. After 6 years, young Daria felt an unstoppable attraction to the world of sounds again and decided to enter a music school to study guitar.
Throughout her childhood, the girl also attended aerobics, sports dancing, and pole dancing.
The beginning of the full-scale invasion was a turning point for Daria’s self-identification. She immediately switched to the Ukrainian language, even though she grew up in a russian- speaking environment. Hiding in a corridor during the shelling, Daria started writing poetry as a way of expressing her feelings. Her mother recalls how calm and reasonable her daughter was at the time. The girl became an island of calm and support for her family and neighbours: she offered to play games, encouraged and supported them, and played songs on her guitar.
When there was not a single child left in the neighbourhood, Daria’s mother decided to leave the house as well. The shelling was becoming more frequent and loud. But Daria didn’t want to go anywhere, she argued for a long time, but finally agreed to leave on one condition: if she could take her pet rat, Semya, with her. So Darya and her mother packed a backpack with documents, a pair of socks, underwear, and a T-shirt for sleeping and left their home. Daria’s new guitar, which had just been given to her as a birthday present, had to be left behind because there was not enough space in the evacuation bus for even people.
Later, Daria and her mother ended up in western Ukraine. During the year, she changed 4 schools, made and lost friends. Her mother recalls how her daughter lost the desire to study and had very few resources. At the same time, Daria was always a very active volunteer: she participated in the life of the youth community and created projects to improve the community.
At the camp, Daria found support primarily from her mentors. The girl was looking for recovery tools that she could use in everyday life, as her volunteer work required a lot of energy. Thus, Daria was first introduced to the practice of nail standing, and it became her little ritual every evening. She also liked tea drinking, and soon after returning home she bought her own tea set.
“This is my personal space. Space for thoughts, calming down, time to hear myself,” she says.
During the camp, she was very open to any activity, listening to the mentors with interest, asking questions, writing songs and poems.
After the camp, we asked Daria’s mother about the changes she had noticed: “My girl came back inspired, full of life. She would like to live this kind of life.”
15 years old, Mariupol, Donetsk region
Ilya lived in Mariupol with his grandmother and mother. He studied English with a tutor and went to the sports ground with his friends to play volleyball and football. The most interesting thing for Ilya was to visit the city children’s library: every Saturday during the year and three times a week during the holidays. There, he took part in workshops, read books, and watched films with his classmates. Ilya’s favourite places in Mariupol were, of course, the sea and the meadow where the river flowed nearby.
On 24 February 2022, Ilya’s mother left early for an appointment. Ilya recalls that it was gloomy and cloudy outside, and when he heard an explosion, he first thought it was thunder. But it was the first sound of war.
On 2 March, the house where Ilya’s family lived lost power, heating and all communication. Ilya and his mother moved in with their neighbours because their own apartment was on the 8th floor and there was a higher risk of a shell hit. Ilya was always worried about his mother and grandmother because they were very tense and panicked. The boy was comforted by his neighbours of the same age, with whom they stayed together and distracted from the horror around them.
The biggest challenge for Ilya at that time was the cold. They lived in winter clothes all the time, with almost no way to keep warm. When we went on winter hikes in our camp, we were surprised at how easily the boy could endure bad weather. But Ilya would smile back at us and say that he had already experienced the worst cold and that hiking for 8 hours in the snow did not scare him.
On 11 May 2022, Ilya’s family finally managed to leave the occupied city. It took them 4 days to get to the evacuation train.
Now Ilya lives in Ivano-Frankivsk, studies remotely and is actively involved as a volunteer. At first, they came to the volunteer headquarters as a family to receive humanitarian aid, but soon Ilya was offered more responsibility and began to help distribute food to the displaced people himself, and later began to take care of younger children.
Ilya got into Horytsvit on his second try. He didn’t really want to go because he was worried that he would go without his friends and feel lonely. But the opposite happened – and Ilya met people in the camp with whom he felt comfortable, had fun and was interested. And even six months after the camp ended, Ilya’s group is still in touch, communicating and meeting whenever possible.
A visit to the sculpture workshop was important for Ilya. He had never interacted with clay before. He was really fascinated by this activity. The brightest moment he remembers was when he could shout at the mountains and let his emotions run wild.
“I felt so light afterwards!”
To this day, Ilya continues the tradition of recording his thoughts and feelings on paper. From time to time, he looks through the diary he kept in the camp and adds drawings and notes to it. He says that sometimes he feels sad, because this notebook of memories reminds him of the community where he felt close.
Photos: Lena Kyrychenko