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Kharkiv children were sent to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.



Some Ukrainian parents have sent their children to camps in Russia to escape months of violent occupation. Now, as Ukraine recaptures the territory, the children are trapped. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Jon Gerberg / The Washington Post)

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

It was August 27, and after months of enduring some of the worst conditions imaginable, families in the city largely destroyed by Russian occupation since March gave their children their camp in Gelendzhik, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. They hope the camp, advertised in Russian propaganda newspapers, will help their children rest after the war and regain a sense of normalcy.

Days later, Ukrainian forces suddenly rushed forward and regained control of Izyum and other occupied areas in the Kharkiv region. The surprise attack forced the Russian troops and their Ukrainian collaborators to flee, leaving most of their equipment behind on the way to retreat.

The residents of Izyum celebrated the successful counter-offensive, raising hopes that the outcome of the war was going in Ukraine’s favor. But the offensive also left the children who arrived at the camps in Russia stranded on the other side of a dangerous front with no way back home.

The Washington Post met about a dozen parents from Izyum with children currently stranded in Russia at the camp. Parents said about 200 children from several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region went there in August and were supposed to return home by bus last week.

Most phone and internet services have been cut off in Izyum, leaving parents largely unable to contact their children directly as they are frantically trying to get them back.

Many parents spoke on condition of anonymity in this article, citing concerns that it could compromise their chances of finding their child safely. Others hope speaking out will give them a better chance of bringing their children home.

Torture, murder, kidnapping: Russia’s retreat from Izyum shows horror

Many have also expressed concern that making public that their children are camping in Russia could spark accusations that their families are collaborating with Russian forces.

“I only have one thing on my mind: bring my baby back,” said a woman with a 12-year-old son at the camp. She said the last time she spoke to him directly was more than 10 days ago.

Those who did not survive the occupation of Izyum could easily assert that families should have known better than to send their children to Russia, the parents said.

But they insist that the decision is not a political one – and instead only reflects their desire to allow their children to have a normal childhood after they survive the shelling. , slept in basements, bathed in snow and rain, ate meager diets and, in some cases, was injured during the occupation.

Vera, 38, who said she could only use 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 after an accident. cluster bombs.

Vera cries as she recalls how a bomb fell on the very room where her son and his friend tried to escape the attack, seriously injuring them. The friend was evacuated for further medical treatment, and Dima remained in Izyum, where doctors removed shrapnel from his limbs. But he never recovered from the incident. “All kids are stressed,” she said. “Now he’s afraid of every little noise or click.”

Vera said she feared that her son and other children might be mistreated in Russia because of their Ukrainian citizenship. But when she briefly had a phone connection, she videotaped Dima and saw “how tan he is.” He assured her no one was harassing them.

“They are really having a good break there,” she said. However, “the child wants to return home.”

“I shouldn’t have gone,” she recalls Dima saying on their last call.

On Monday, several mothers gathered at 10 a.m. on a street corner in Izyum to think about how to bring their children home. Without a telephone network, they share information through neighbors, by word of mouth, which makes it difficult to organize themselves and ask Ukrainian volunteers or officials for help.

Several mothers stood near Ukrainian military bases and connected to their Starlink network to send messages to their children.

On Monday, the mothers made a list of the names and ages of the 29 children from Izyum they knew were still at the camp. Some parents are said to have traveled out of the area trying to find their children themselves. Others said they could not afford such a trip and that traveling through Europe to Russia would require an international passport, which they do not have.

Volodymyr Matsokyn, the deputy mayor of Izyum, who recently returned to the preoccupied city, said in a message Tuesday that officials have a complete list of children at the camp and are “currently working on the matter.” this together with state agencies.”

“We will definitely return the children, no matter what the cost,” Matsokyn said, noting that it is important for international agencies “to help Ukraine bring our young citizens back to the country.” mom “. Of the 200 children who attended the camp in Gelendzhik, he said, 80 were from Izyum. “

He added: “Russia violates international law and human rights, ignores it, creates propaganda stories for Russians who are deceived by these lies about the love and protection of Ukrainians. small. It’s disgusting.”

Letters left by demoralized Russian soldiers as they fled

During the summer, at least two groups of children from the Kharkiv region went to similar camps and returned home, parents say, building a sense of trust that the camps were safe and not a threat. plot to permanently move children deep inside Russian territory. (Russia has been accused of making forced to relocate of thousands of Ukrainians.)

The decision to send their children to the camp also reflects a feeling of confidence among the Russian military and officials that they have effectively annexed the territory they control in Kharkiv – a miscalculation that has clearly contributed to the unexpected success of the Ukraine offensive.

Attending summer camp is a common ritual in Russia and Ukraine, and some of the children who attended the camp had previously attended summer camps in pre-war Ukraine, the parents said.

The camps appear to be well organized and require periodic medical checks as part of the enrollment process, parents said. Anatoliy Kovalenko, 58, a general surgeon and chief physician at a hospital in Izyum, said he did standard health checks on 10 to 15 children he later learned had come to the camp.

The Russian public promises an idyllic, restorative experience.

“Parents who want to improve the health of their children at children’s health camps in the Russian Federation should contact the Izyum City Education Department at 4 Vasylkyvskoho Street from Monday to Saturday. from 10:00 to 15:00”, one person reads an advertisement in a Russian-issued newspaper published in Izyum. “Please bring the child’s birth certificate.”

An article about the camps featured pictures of smiling children and said they were “resting safely” in Medvezhonok, which the newspaper described as “one of the most beautiful regions of Russia, on the Black Sea coast. ” Other children attended camps in Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, one article said.

Vitaliy Ginchev, head of Russia’s appointed military-civilian service in the Kharkiv region, is quoted as saying that for the first time children can go on vacation to Crimea and other regions “for free and with held, especially in August – during a high season. “

“This is a priceless experience for them,” the article said. “The assistance that Russia provides us cannot be overestimated.” Officials plan to send “at least 800 smaller Kharkiv residents to rest,” the article said.

When they left in August, the children packed light clothes for the summer weather. This week, Dima told her mother that the camp would be extended until October 10 and the children would start school. They also expect to receive warmer clothes and move to a heated building, he said.

Vera said: “Because Russia is still here, they have to come back here. “And then, when Ukraine came in here, they said, ‘We’re extending the deadline for another 21 days.’ “

A woman who gathered with other mothers on Monday but declined to be named because of security concerns said her teenage daughter understood “it will be harder for them to come back now” because of the lines of control. control has changed.

Separatist regions push to join Russia as war effort stalls

At first, parents were not interested in Russian camps. “Initially there were not even questions that we would send them,” said the mother. “Then the first group goes and comes back and the second group goes and comes back.”

In the end, she sent her daughter to the camp because she was “psychologically damaged” after months of war.

Now that Izyum is back in control of Ukraine, and the kids are stuck in Russia, “nobody really pity us,” she said.

For some observers, the simple fact that they stayed at Izyum for the duration of the job “means we are collaborators,” she said. She says that advertising that they have sent their children camping in Russia will only encourage such suspicions.

In May, Olya Yemelyanskaya’s home was shelled, setting it on fire and destroying most of it – including her teenage adopted daughter’s bedroom.

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

“Seeing all this, these ruins, the burned houses – they become more closed,” she said of the girls. They want the younger one, Valentine, to “at least get some rest,” she said.

Since then, they have not spoken to her directly. Another sister, who lives in the city of Kharkiv, spoke to her via Viber. “She said they were treated well,” Yemelyanskaya said, crying as she described her daughter’s situation. “And of course now she’s crying and wants to go home.”

“We miss her so much,” she said.

Whitney Shefte, Wojciech Grzedzinski and Lesia Prokopenko contributed to this report.

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