Weeks turn to months as children are trapped in camps in Crimea | Ukraine

whatThe town of Herson was liberated by Ukrainian forces in November. But for some, the horrors of the Russian occupation are not over yet. Nadia * sent her 14-year-old son to a Russian-run summer camp in crimea –occupied by Moscow since 2014– in October. He was meant to return after two weeks. It’s been more than two months now.

In late November, he sent her a series of chilling voicemails from the leader of her camp telling her that she would not be allowed to return to Kherson because of her pro-Ukrainian views.

“You are in Russia! You shouldn’t be doing something different [types] of strange nonsense,” the leader of the camp in Yevpatoria, Crimea, said in the voicemails, which have been sent to The Guardian. “I don’t know who is going to deal with you now, but you are not going back to Kherson, that’s 100% [certain] … You can thank your mother for that.”

Like many parents, Nadia did not consider sending her son to such a camp, known as summer camp even at other times of the year, to be a pro-Russian statement. Parents often decided to send their children because their classmates would come and offer them a free vacation by the sea.

A view of the Artek pioneer camp and the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Crimea.
A view of the Artek pioneer camp and the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Crimea. Photo: Reuters

Nadia’s son left Kherson on October 4 and authorities repeatedly extended his stay in the camp, his mother said, speaking from central Kherson after Russian forces left the city. At first, the camp leaders told her it was for security reasons and then, after Ukrainian forces entered the city of Kherson, she was told that she could not return because the city was now “occupied” by Ukraine.

In the messages, the camp leader described his problem with the boy. First, his Telegram profile picture featured a Ukrainian trident, the national symbol of Ukraine, on the background wall. Secondly, his mother had said that she wanted her son to return to Ukraine, which means that she saw the city of Kherson as part of Ukraine, not Russia, thus going against the Russian propaganda that still insists that the city It is part of Russia.

Nadia’s case is one of many. Hundreds of Ukrainian children between the ages of 6 and 16 from the Kherson and Kharkiv regions have been stuck in Russian summer camps for weeks, and in some cases months.

During the summer, Russia offered parents in the occupied areas of Ukraine the opportunity to send their children to summer camps in Crimea and southern Russia for free. But it has refused to return the children to their parents, citing ongoing fighting as well as Ukraine’s “occupation” of areas Russia claimed to have annexed and has now withdrawn from.

Parents are told they can pick up the children if they come in person, which requires them to cross the dangerous unofficial checkpoint through the front line or leave Ukraine and travel through Poland and the Baltics. But many of the parents come from very low-income backgrounds and have not been able to make the trip.

Although the parents willingly sent them, they had agreed to a brief period. The UN convention on the rights of the child prohibits the “illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad”, so Russia is obliged to return the children.

Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with children at the Artek children's holiday camp in 2017
Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with children at the Artek children’s holiday camp in 2017. Photo: Sputnik/Reuters

The Guardian spoke to eight parents who had sent their children to summer camps. Some say they believe Russia wants to use the children to trade them for Russian prisoners of war. Others believe that Moscow wants to assimilate the children and plans to keep them in Russia.

The camps were advertised through schools in the occupied areas as beauty breaks, offering a mix of sports, arts, games, and sea air or lake swimming. But the children have also been taught Russian narratives about the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Soviet history, as well as Russian culture, according to multiple interviewees and videos posted online.

In one video, hundreds of children can be seen in a schoolyard in Crimea singing the Russian national anthem. Most seem not to know the words.

The hundreds of children trapped in Russian-run summer camps add to the thousands of children living in orphanages in the occupied areas who were illegally brought to Russia during the Russian occupation.

Ukrainian human rights defender Dmytro Lubinets has said this is part of Russia’s “genocide against Ukraine”, erasing Ukrainian identity through “re-educating future generations”. Lubinets said the Russians were not interested in returning the children and although Ukraine was trying, “returning each child is like a special operation.” Ukraine asks parents not to publicly name their children, as they then become more difficult to trade.

To a national audience, Russia presents the children’s deportation as an attempt to save Ukrainian children from war, ignoring Russia’s role in starting the conflict.

Since October, the children began to attend Russian schools while living in the camp facilities. It is not clear what plans Russia has for these children beyond this school term.

One of them is the 12-year-old daughter of Natalia*, who left her home in Balakliia at the end of August and is still in the south of Russia, attending school by bus in Krasnodar. Natalia has managed to keep in daily contact with her, but she cannot afford to make her trip to pick her up. “I think it’s some kind of blackmail,” Natalia said. “I think they want to use them as a bargaining chip.”

A school building in the Artek camp in 2014
A school building in the Artek camp in 2014. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

In at least some cases, Russian camp leaders have said they do not plan to send the children back. In other cases, children have been transferred from one camp to another without informing the parents. Ivana*, a mother from the Kherson region, made the long journey to pick up her daughter from a camp in Crimea, only to be told that the girl was no longer there and had been transferred to a camp in the Republic of Adygea. She then made a second long journey, where she finally found her.

meIt is very difficult to know exactly how many Ukrainian children are left in Russian hands. In mid-October, Russia’s state news agency Tass said there were some 4,500 children from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in summer camps in Crimea.

Natalia said that at least 100 of those who traveled with her daughter were still there. Recent videos taken from some of the five camps in Crimea housing children from Kherson indicate that at least several hundred children are still there.

Part of the problem is that many of the parents refuse to come forward with the Ukrainian authorities. Dmytro*, who managed to get his son back by threatening a teacher into putting him on a bus in early October, said parents he knew feared being labeled as Russian collaborators or sympathizers. They were trying to figure things out on their own, he said, without official help.

An adviser to the new Kherson regional authorities on missing persons, Volodymyr Zhdanov, questioned how parents “could hand over their children to the occupiers,” though he admitted it was a gray area and the full picture was unclear.

“We are hearing many stories through the grapevine [of children stuck in Crimea]”, said Zhdanov, noting that the collection of information about what had happened in occupied Kherson was just beginning. “But the police say the parents have not come forward.”

Andrii Kovanyi, a spokesman for the Kherson police, said they could not comment on the matter because several agencies were dealing with it.

Most of the parents and children who attended the camps said the conditions were good. Children were given the equivalent of hotel rooms to share, taken to see dolphins, to museums and to the beach. Russian-appointed authorities in Crimea claim to have spent 1.2 billion rubles (£16.4 million) in 2022 on the camps, which were also attended by Russian children.

Putin delivers a speech to children during a visit to the Artek camp in 2017
Putin delivers a speech to children during a visit to the Artek camp in 2017. Photo: Sputnik/Reuters

The idea behind the camps seems to be to showcase Russia at its best and integrate the children into their new state. In interviews, the adults in charge present themselves and others as saviors of children who are victims of war and the Ukrainian state.

In videos from children’s camps posted on social media by the Russian-installed Kherson authority, children can be seen holding the Russian flag, singing the Russian national anthem and classical Soviet songs.

A nine-year-old girl in the city of Kherson, whose mother picked her up in October, said that in addition to games and sports they had lectures “on the war”.

Crimea24 Russian TV asked a history teacher from Kherson, Maksym Ivchenko, who like many other teachers accompanied the children to Crimea, to explain how the history curriculum in Russia differs from that in Ukraine.

“The most egregious thing was the setback of modern history. Let’s talk first of all about the great patriotic war [the second world war]what happened in the Soviet period, its collapse and everything to this day,” Ivchenko said.

Tatiana Makarova, program director for Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in one of the largest Crimean camps, Artek, told the same TV channel: “Our task is to remove the psychological pressure that is placed on children who come from the areas where it is war. happening.”

Nadia said that she and her son had argued at first because she did not want him to go to the camp, but she finally relented. “I thought: okay, it’s two weeks, the beach is there, he’ll rest and come.” back.”

*Names have been changed

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