The aid organization “Save Ukraine” brought back to Kiev 17 children who had been taken by Russians to the Crimea peninsula annexed by Moscow and who had been separated from their parents for months. Denys Zaporoshenko, for example, has not seen his son for more than five months. The ten-year-old and his two older sisters came to Crimea in early October.
The family lived in Cherson in southern Ukraine, which was then occupied by Russian troops. When fierce fighting broke out in the port city with the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the father agreed to send his children to an alleged Russian holiday camp in Crimea, far away from the war.
Russian officials “promised to send them to this camp for a week or two,” Zaporozhenko says. "When we realized that we shouldn't have done that, it was too late." The supposedly short vacation turned into months of separation. At least he was able to talk to his children on the phone, says the father.
The non-governmental organization "Save Ukraine" campaigned for the return of the children. The organization fights against the alleged kidnapping of Ukrainian children in Russian-controlled areas. According to Kiev, more than 16,000 minors have been deported to Russia since the Russian invasion, many of whom are said to have been placed in institutions and foster families.
The International Criminal Court last week issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for illegally deporting Ukrainian children. The Kremlin denies the allegations, claiming it is merely saving children from the horrors of war.
Russian authorities used "intimidation, manipulation and blackmail" to take control of the children, says Myroslava Kharchenko, a lawyer for Save Ukraine. "They tell the parents they have an hour to think" and scare them of "American mercenaries who will beat and rape the children."
So far, the parents have had to go on the arduous search for their children themselves, says the lawyer. Now, for the first time, Save Ukraine has managed to bring a group of children back together. The organization rented a bus and took some mothers with them. Since they were not allowed to cross the front in eastern Ukraine, they had to make a detour via Poland, Belarus and Russia to pick up the children in Crimea.
Some of the 17 children report political indoctrination in the camp. “If you didn't sing the Russian national anthem, you had to write down why not. And on New Year's Day, we were shown Putin's speech," says 15-year-old Taissia from Kherson. "Everything was like in normal camps," says Zaporozhenko's eleven-year-old daughter Jana. "But when inspectors came from Moscow, we had to sing and dance."
Attorney Chartschenko assures that all children are being looked after psychologically. And her organization does "everything so that the children and their parents do not return to dangerous areas".