Ukraine Children Held by Russia Reunited with Parents in Emotional Reunion

Ukraine Children Held by Russia Reunited with Parents in Emotional Reunion

In a heartwarming scene in Kyiv, a ten-year-old boy jumped straight into his father’s arms moments after a bus returning him and 16 other Ukraine children from Russian-held territory arrived. Denys Zaporozhchenko held his son tightly and kissed his forehead, then hugged his two daughters who were also among the children separated from their parents for months. The reunion was organized by Save Ukraine, an NGO that fights against what it says are illegal deportations of Ukrainian children to Russian-controlled territory.

Since the February 24, 2022 invasion, over 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia, with many allegedly placed in institutions and foster homes, according to Kyiv. However, Russia denies the allegations, claiming instead that it has saved Ukrainian children from the horrors of the war. The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued an arrest warrant against President Vladimir Putin for unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children.

Zaporozhchenko last saw his children in October in Kherson, the only regional capital that Russian forces captured following the invasion, when they left for a so-called Russian summer camp. He expected tough fighting in his home city as Ukrainian forces were pushing closer to recapturing it, which they ultimately did in November. Sending his kids to Crimea, a scenic and touristy peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, seemed the lesser evil. Russian officials had promised to send them to these camps for a week or two, he told AFP. “By the time we realized we shouldn’t have done it (let them go), it was too late,” he said.

Parents were sometimes pressured into sending their kids on these so-called holidays, said Myroslava Kharchenko, a lawyer working with Save Ukraine. “(Russian officials) told parents that they have one hour to think, and that if Ukrainians get there before, they will bring American mercenaries who will beat and rape the children.” After “blackmail, manipulation, and intimidation, they take the children away,” Kharchenko added.

Parents have previously had to embark on the fraught journey themselves to find their children on their own, but for the first time, the Save Ukraine group organized a group collection for the separated children by assuming power of attorney for those parents unable to make the journey. They chartered a bus that went through Poland and Belarus and then to Russia, before picking up the children in annexed Crimea.

Some of the children interviewed by AFP described a level of political indoctrination in the camps. “If we didn’t sing the (Russian) national anthem, they made us write an explanatory note. Over the New Year, we were shown Putin’s speech,” said 15-year-old Taisia. Zaporozhchenko’s 11-year-old daughter, Yana, said “everything was like in normal camps” but camp officials “made us sing and dance when inspectors came” from Moscow.

Inesa Vertosh, a 43-year-old mother, said her son had become “more serious” after the long separation. “He looks at me and says ‘Mom, I don’t want to tell you about it, you wouldn’t sleep at night’.” All children will be given psychological support, said Kharchenko.

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