Parents were told youngsters were going on school trips — most never returned
Christina Lamb, Kyiv
March 04 2023
The Sunday Times
When Tatiana Vlaiko’s 11-year-old daughter Lilya came home from school last September saying her class was going to a two-week summer camp, alarm bells immediately rang in her mother’s head. Their city of Kherson in southern Ukraine was under Russian occupation and the camp was in Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014. “I was afraid,” Vlaiko, 36, said. “It’s a war and I told her it might not be so easy to get you back. But her friends were going and she really wanted to go.”
Nor did there seem to be a choice. Consent forms sent by the school instructed parents to bring birth certificates and other documents and be at the river port at 6am the next morning for the trip by steamboat across the Black Sea.
Vlaiko, a single mother, kissed Lilya goodbye and left her with the headmaster, then hurried to her job in a butter-processing factory. Phone connections between Ukraine and Russia are tricky but over the next couple of weeks, she managed to get through a few times. “Lilya shared good things — about seeing dolphins, concerts, places they visited,” she said. But she also mentioned that everything was in Russian and they had to sing the Russian anthem every morning.
And then, instead of coming home after two weeks, Vlaiko was told her daughter had been moved from that camp to another. Then another. “I called her teacher, asking what is happening, will you bring them back? But she stopped answering.” Lilya is among thousands of Ukrainian children abducted and taken to Russia or Crimea over the past year as human spoils of war.
A report by Yale University last month said more than 6,000 children aged between four months and 17 years were being held in 43 camps in a systematic campaign “co-ordinated by Russia’s federal government”. More than two thirds of the facilities, they said, were engaged in “re-education”.
But Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s commissioner for children’s rights, says it is likely to be far more. “Today the Russians say they have 738,000 Ukrainian kids they evacuated — but it’s not evacuation, it’s abduction and brainwashing and it’s an act of genocide,” she says, sitting at her desk in a black sweatshirt proclaiming “I am Ukrainian”. “We don’t believe it’s as many as that — we have so far documented 16,221 — but I think it’s a few hundred thousand,” she says. “It’s all part of their Russification campaign.”
According to Herasymchuk, the Russians use five methods: “Killing parents and taking the children; taking them directly from parents; separating parents and children in so-called filtration camps; tricking them by sending children to sports or health camps; kidnapping from special schools, boarding schools and orphanages.” Ukraine has the highest rate of child institutionalisation in Europe with more than 105,000 children in orphanages when the war started.
No Ukrainian child has fully escaped the conflict. More than 460 children have been killed and almost 1,000 wounded, while Save the Children estimates that the average child in Ukraine spent more than 900 hours underground over the past year — a total of about 40 days. Some 1538 schools have been destroyed or damaged. “Seven and a half million children have been affected by this war,” says Herasymchuk.“Every child has heard an air-raid siren, hidden in a basement, and has a family member fighting. Many have been forced to leave their home. “This is what the Russians do: try to break our children psychologically because they are the future of Ukraine. It will be a massive problem after the war. “But they are amazing, collecting money for soldiers, sending them pictures and keeping up their own front — they are all little fighters.”
The mass abductions of Ukrainian children are being investigated by Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who was in Ukraine last week and will speak about the issue in Geneva on Thursday. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Isis snatched Yazidi girls for sex slaves and boys to train as fighters, and Pol Pot forced urban families into the countryside but this is different. “The most precious in all communities is the next generation — and when crimes target or affect the most vulnerable, the law must step up for them.”
The Russians have been open about their actions: state-run television shows officials giving teddy bears to new arrivals, who are portrayed as abandoned children rescued from war. Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, boasted last year that she had adopted a teenage boy from Mariupol.
Watching such scenes on social media from occupied Kherson, Lyudmila Motychak, 44, grew increasingly anxious about her daughter Anastasia, 15, who had gone on a school trip to a “health camp in Crimea” to get away from the fighting. “I have no money for trips. Anastasia was desperate to go and see the sea. Besides, they didn’t really give us a choice or time to think.”
Taking her to the school the next morning, Motychak was surprised at the numbers. “There were about 100 buses — it seemed like they were taking all the children of Kherson.”
Anastasia recalls being driven to Yevpatoria in western Crimea. “The place was beautiful and it started like a normal camp but everything was in Russian,” she said. “Then after two weeks they told us there would be a delay of three days going home, then four days, then a month, and started to send children to different camps round Crimea. “We weren’t allowed out even for five minutes. There was a Ukrainian teacher — a collaborator — and she slapped me when I tried to go outside. One day they told us we would be shown a ‘cool movie’. It turned out to be a Russian propaganda film.”
Communicating by Telegram, her mother was becoming suspicious. “Anastasia said they’d been told, tell your parents if you come here, you can have a flat and money. Some of the parents went to Crimea and didn’t come back. I didn’t want that. I just wanted my daughter back.”
When Kherson was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, they lost contact. Neither the Red Cross nor the police could help. “She’s my only child and I was so afraid they’d send her deep into Russia and I would never find her. I realised it was all very well planned to depopulate us.”
Eventually she heard about an organisation called Save Ukraine run by the former children’s ombudsman, Mykola Kuleba. “We are doing everything we can to get these kids back,” he said. “What the Russians are doing is pure indoctrination.”
Motychak was told by Save Ukraine that they would arrange for her to go to Crimea with 15 other parents. As she had never left Ukraine before, the organisation got her a passport and tickets. They set off in late January, an astonishing journey into the heart of enemy territory. “I was very afraid to go to Russia as we were at war,” she said. Lilya’s mother was also on the trip. “I was staring out of the bus windows, and it felt like being in some terrible movie,” she said.
It was a marathon trip — although Crimea is only a few hours’ drive from Kherson, there were Russian troops in between so they had to make an enormous circle west by train to Poland then north by bus to Belarus where they were aggressively searched at the border. Vlaiko was asked if she was a sniper. From there they travelled east and crossed into Russia where they were asked if any men in their family were fighting, and finally journeyed south to Crimea. When they got to the camps and presented their documents, to her surprise the gates were opened and the children allowed out. “When I saw Lilya running towards me, we both wept,” Vlaiko said. “I felt as if I’d had three sacks of rocks on me that in one second all fell off.”
At another camp, Motychak and her daughter Anastasia ran into each other’s arms. “I was so happy I was crying,” said Anastasia. “We’d been told if your parents don’t come you will be sent to boarding schools or new families.” The journey back took even longer. Belarus refused to let them in so they had to go on to Latvia. In total they travelled 8,100km in 15 days to go less than 500km as the crow flies.
Yet they are among the luckier families. Only 307 children have so far been retrieved, according to Herasymchuk. It is unclear what negotiations have underpinned those successes. Save Ukraine has rescued 164 of them but on their last mission their driver in Belarus was arrested. Some children have been in prisoner-of-war swaps.
Among the many mothers still waiting is Yanna Klymenko, 33, who has not seen her son Dmitro, 13, for almost six months. “We are still in touch but me and his grandmother are very worried and crying in the night because months have passed and we don’t have him,” she said by phone from their house in Ostriv amid the sound of shelling. “He tells us he is eating and studying but he’s tired and wants to come home. And he doesn’t like going to Russian school so often pretends to be sick.” She fears that he will be moved to an orphanage in Russia.
Inessa Vertash, 43, from Beryslav, 55 miles east of Kherson, last saw her middle son Vitaliy, 15, five months ago. He was urged to go to a camp by his headmistress. “I told her I wanted to think about it but she said there’s nothing to think about, they were leaving the next day and would get food five times a day and why would you keep him here where there are bombs and missiles?”
He too enjoyed the first two weeks but was then moved to a much less welcoming camp. “He called me, crying, saying it’s not a camp for kids, it’s like a prison. There were no sheets on the beds, they were made to wear clothes of old people, given food only fit for pigs and beaten if they didn’t sing the Russian anthem.”
That was not all. “He told me camp workers were forcing 13-year-old Ukrainian girls to have sex with them.”
Vitaliy begged her to get him out. “I went every day to the headmistress, pleading with her, but she refused to do anything. Eventually she disappeared. “They told the children your parents have left Ukraine and are never coming for you,” she said. “I told him I will never leave you.”
Christina Lamb OBE is a British journalist and author. She is the chief foreign correspondent of The Sunday Times. Lamb has won sixteen major awards including four British Press Awards and the European Prix Bayeux-Calvados for war correspondents. She is an Honorary Fellow of University College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Global Fellow for the Wilson Centre for International Affairs in Washington D.C. In 2013 she was appointed an OBE by the Queen for services to journalism. In November 2018, Lamb received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Dundee. She has written ten books including the bestselling The Africa House and I Am Malala, co-written with Malala Yousafzai, which was named Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards 2013.