Children from Kharkiv were sent to summer camps in Russia. They never came back.

Some Ukrainian parents sent their children to camps in Russia to escape months of violent occupation. Now, as Ukraine takes over the area, the children are stranded. (Video: Whitney Sheft, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

IZYUM, Ukraine – The last time parents saw their kids they were boarding buses to Russia for summer camp near the beach.

It was August 27, and after months of enduring some of the worst conditions, families in this largely destroyed city occupied by Russian forces since March moved their children to Gelendzhik, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. Signed up for camp. They hoped that the camp, advertised in Russian propaganda news outlets, would give their children a break from the war and a glimpse of normalcy.

A few days later, the Ukrainian army advanced unexpectedly and took back control of Izium and other occupied areas of the Kharkiv region. The surprise advance forced Russian troops and Ukrainian allies to flee, leaving most of their equipment in their path.

The residents of Izium celebrated the successful counter-offensive, which gave hope that the tide of the war was turning in Ukraine’s favor. But the advance also left children who were traveling to camp in Russia stranded on the other side of a dangerous front line, with no clear path home.

The Washington Post interviewed nearly a dozen parents of Izium with children who are now stuck in Russia at the camp. The parents said around 200 children from several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region had traveled there in August and were to return home by bus last week.

Most phone and internet service has been cut in Izyum, leaving parents largely unable to contact their children directly as they are now looking for ways to get them back.

Several parents spoke on condition of anonymity to this article, citing concerns that it could harm their chances of having their children safely. Others hoped that speaking up would give them a better chance of bringing the children home.

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Many also expressed concern that publicizing that their children had gone to camp in Russia could lead to accusations that their families had cooperated with the Russian military.

“There’s only one thing on my mind: to get my baby back,” said one woman whose 12-year-old son is at the camp. She said that the last time she spoke to him directly was 10 days ago.

Parents said it could be easy for those who have not survived the business in Izium, claiming that families should have known better than sending their children to Russia.

But he insisted that the decision was not a political one – and instead merely reflected his wishes that his children should avoid shelling, sleep in the basement, wash themselves with snow and rain water, eat less rations and, in some cases. I was injured during the occupation.

38-year-old Vera, who spoke only on condition of using her first name, sent her 15-year-old son Dima to the camp in the hope that it would help him recover physically and mentally from the cluster ammunition bombing .

Vera weeps and remembers how a bomb was dropped in the same room where her son and his friend tried to hide from the attack, injuring them badly. The friend was evacuated for further medical treatment, and Dima remained in Izium, where doctors removed shrapnel from his organs. But he could never recover mentally from this incident. “The kid was all tense,” she said. “He is now afraid of every little noise or rattle.”

Vera said she feared that her son and other children might be abused in Russia because of their Ukrainian nationality. But when he got a phone connection for some time, he managed to video call Dima and see “how tense he was.” He assured that no one is troubling him.

“They’re really having a good rest there,” she said. Still, “the child wants to go back home.”

“I should not have gone,” she recalled in her last call to Dima.

On Monday, many mothers gathered at 10 a.m. in a corner of the Iseum to brainstorm how to bring their babies home. With no phone network, they are sharing information by mouth, through their neighbours, making it difficult to organize themselves and ask volunteers or Ukrainian authorities for help.

Some mothers are standing near Ukrainian soldiers’ bases and connected to their Starlink network to send messages to their children.

On Monday, the mothers compiled a list of the names and ages of 29 children from Iseum whom they knew were still in the camp. Some parents have reportedly already moved out of the area to try to get their children back. Others said they could not afford to make such a trip and that traveling from Europe to Russia would require an international passport, which they do not have.

Izyum deputy mayor Volodymyr Matsokin, who recently returned to the deported city, said in a text message on Tuesday that authorities have a full list of children in the camp and are “currently working closely with state agencies on this issue”. are.”

“We will certainly return the children, no matter what the cost,” Matsokin said, adding that it would be important for international agencies to “help Ukraine return our young citizens to their homeland.” Of the 200 children who attended the camp in Gelendzhik, he said, 80 are from Izium.

He said: “Russia violates, disregards international law and human rights, creates propaganda stories for Russians who lie about the love and protection of Ukrainians who are younger than these liars. This is ridiculous.”

Letters that demoralized Russian soldiers were left behind while fleeing

During the summer, at least two groups of children from the Kharkiv region went to similar camps and returned home, instilling a sense of confidence with the parents that the camps were safe and that there was no need to permanently relocate children inside Russian territory. was not a trick. (Russia has been accused of carrying out forced transfer Thousands of Ukrainians.)

The decision to send their children to the camp also reflected a sense of confidence among Russian soldiers and officers that they had already effectively occupied the territory they controlled in Kharkiv – a miscalculation that apparently led to the surprise of the Ukrainian invasion. contributed to the success.

Parents said that attending summer camp is a common rite of passage in Russia and Ukraine, and that some of the children who attended this camp attended summer camps in Ukraine before the war.

Parents said the camps seemed to be well organized and regular medical check-ups were required as part of the enrollment process. Anatoly Kovalenko, 58, general surgeon and chief physician at a hospital in Izium, said he conducted standard health check-ups for 10 to 15 children who later learned they had traveled to the camp.

Russian propaganda promised a pleasant, relaxing experience.

“Parents who wish to improve the health of their children in children’s health camps in the Russian Federation should contact the Education Department of the city of Izyum at the address 4 Vasilkivskoho Street between 10:00 and 15:00 from Monday to Saturday must,” read a camp advertisement in a Russian-issued newspaper distributed in Izyum. “Bring the child’s birth certificate with you.”

An article about the camps featured pictures of smiling children and said they were “resting safely” in Medvezhnok, which the newspaper describes as “one of the best parts of Russia on the Black Sea coast”. . One article stated that other children attended camps in Crimea, the peninsula going into the Black Sea.

Russia-appointed head of the Kharkiv region’s military-civilian administration, Vitaly Ganachev, was quoted as saying that this was the first time children were holidaying in Crimea and other regions “in a free and organized manner, especially in August”. could. a high season. ,

“This is an invaluable experience for them,” the article read. “It is impossible to overestimate the aid provided to us by Russia.” The article said the authorities intended to send “at least 800 more smaller Kharkiv residents to rest”.

When they left in August, the children packed light clothes for the summer season. This week, Dima told his mother that the camp would be extended to October 10 and the children would start school classes. They said they were also hoping to get warm clothes and move to a warmer building.

“As Russia was still here, they were going to come back here,” Vera said. “And then, when Ukraine entered here, they said, ‘We are extending the term for another 21 days.’ ,

A woman who gathered with other moms on Monday but declined to be named due to safety concerns said her teenage daughter understands it’s going to be “more difficult for them to come back” now because of the lines of control. have changed.

Separatist regions insist on joining Russia as war effort falters

Initially, the parents had zero interest in the Russian camps. “In the beginning it was not even a question that we would send them,” said the mother. “Then the first group went and came back and the second group went and came back.”

She eventually sent her daughter to the camp because she was “psychologically damaged” by the months of the war.

Now that Izumi is back under control of Ukraine, and the children are stranded in Russia, “no one really takes pity on us,” she said.

For some supervisors, the simple fact that they stayed in Iseum throughout the business “means we are allies,” she said. Advertisements that they had sent their children to camp in Russia would only encourage such suspicion, she said.

In May, Olya Yemelyanskaya’s home was shelled, set on fire, and much of it destroyed—including the bedroom of her teenage foster daughter.

When she heard about the camp on Russian radio, Yemelyanskaya said: “We had only one thought – that they were really tired of all this.” Yemelinskaya said she has two adopted daughters, one of whom is 18 years old and too old to enroll in the camp.

“Seeing all this, these ruined, burnt houses – they became more and more closed,” she said of the girls. They wanted little Valentina, “at least some rest,” she said.

Since then, he hasn’t spoken to her directly. Another sister living in Kharkiv city has spoken to him through Viber. “She was saying that they were treated well,” Yemelyanskaya cried, describing her daughter’s condition. “And now of course she’s crying and wants to go home.”

“We miss him so much,” she said.

Whitney Schefte, Wojciech Grzeszinski and Lesia Prokopenko contributed to this report.

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