Russian authorities are beating Ukrainian children in an attempt to “re-educate them”, according to one teenager who was among more than a dozen freed from Moscow-run youth facilities after months of negotiation.
Parents of more than a dozen children sent by Russian authorities to a youth camp on the Black Sea peninsula last year were able to finally bring them back to Ukraine on Wednesday, a non-governmental organisation that managed the evacuation said.
The children, mostly teenagers, were living in Russian-occupied parts of the Kherson and Kharkiv regions when local education authorities suggested sending them for a trip to a summer camp in Crimea, which has been controlled by Russia since 2014.
But authorities at the summer camp refused to send them back when the children’s home towns, including the city of Kherson, were liberated by the Ukrainian army later in the year.
Save Ukraine, the charity that organised the evacuation, said it helped some of their parents to travel to Crimea via Poland, Belarus and Russia in order to retrieve their children.
Parents and children were seen hugging and kissing as they arrived in Kyiv on Wednesday. Some of them were seeing their siblings or parents for the first time in months.
One of the children interviewed by local television spoke of mistreatment. The teenage boy, who was not identified, told local television that children from Kherson were punished for expressing pro-Ukrainian views.
“We will take you to an orphanage, you will sit there and understand everything,” the boy quoted a security officer at the camp as threatening him and other teenagers.
He also said he saw a bruise on a teenage girl’s back – allegedly from a stick that the security officer had used to beat the children.
The boy said the camp’s director told him that his parents had decided to give him up and that he would be put up for adoption. He said he then called his mother, who told the administration she had no such thing in mind.
The camp administration reportedly told the boy’s mother at some point: “You’re not going to take them anyway. They will be children of Russia.”
The repatriation was carried out less than a week after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman, over Russia’s suspected involvement in the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from Ukraine’s occupied territories.
Mr Putin has not commented on the allegations. Ms Lvova-Belova earlier this week defended what she called an “evacuation” of Ukrainian children, claiming that they have not had a single complaint from a parent who wanted to get their child back.
The Ukrainian government says more than 16,000 children have been deported from the occupied territories to Russia while a Yale study has identified 43 facilities involved in holding about 6,000 children, aged four months to 17.
Some of those have been put into orphanages, foster care, or put up for adoption, ostensibly after losing or becoming separated from their parents during the invasion. Ms Lvova Belova last month said she herself had adopted a 15-year-old boy from Mariupol.
Others, including most of those repatriated on Wednesday, were told they were going to summer camps in Russia and Crimea for a few weeks but became trapped when the lines moved and their homes were liberated by the Ukrainians.
Denis, the father of a teenage girl and a young boy, told Ukraine’s Channel 5 on Wednesday the head teacher of their school in Kherson assured him his daughter would be safe when he sent them off to a youth camp in Crimea.
“We waited for six and a half months – and now they’re here,” he said.
Russia has defended what it calls evacuating children to safety. But children who have returned from Russia have spoken about attempts to re-educate them.
At some of the camps, Ukrainian children were asked to learn and sing the Russian national anthem and were taught that Ukraine was part of Russia.
Some Ukrainian parents who willingly sent their children to youth camps in Crimea or mainland Russia were first hesitant to go public about their plight, fearing that they could be targeted for perceived pro-Russia sympathies.
One family from a village in the Kharkiv region told The Telegraph last year that they had agreed to send their daughter to a summer camp in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, for safety reasons after a shell hit a neighbouring house.
When the village changed hands weeks later the collaborating official who organised the trip fled with the documentation and contact details of the camp in question, making it difficult to track her down.
Attempts by third parties to organise evacuations have been complicated because the camps often insist they will only release the children to their parents or legal guardians.
Although some parents have made the journey, travelling from Ukraine to Russia now involves crossing several international borders. Crossing the lines at the only checkpoint between occupied and Ukrainian controlled territory can take days or even weeks.
Save Ukraine, the non-governmental organisation handling the repatriation, said there are still at least 61 Ukrainian children at the camp in Crimea who need to be claimed by their parents.
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