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

Some Ukrainian parents sent their children to camps in Russia to escape months of violent occupation. Now, with Ukraine regaining its lands, children are stranded. (Video: Whitney Shift, John Gerberg/The Washington Post)

Izyum, Ukraine – The last time parents saw their children, they were taking buses 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 this largely devastated city that had been occupied by Russian forces since March were enrolling their children at a camp at Gelendzhik, a Russian Black Sea resort. They hoped the camp, which was advertised in the Russian propaganda media, would give their children a break from the war and a semblance of normalcy.

Days later, Ukrainian forces unexpectedly stormed forward and regained control of Izyum and other occupied areas of the Kharkiv region. The sudden advance forced the Russian forces and Ukrainian collaborators to flee, leaving much of their equipment on their way out.

The inhabitants of Izyum celebrated the successful counteroffensive, which reignited hopes that the tide of war was turning in Ukraine’s favour. But the progress has left children who traveled to the camp in Russia stranded on the other side of a dangerous front line with no clear way to return home.

The Washington Post interviewed dozens of Eziom parents with children now stuck in Russia in the camp. The parents said that about 200 children from several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region traveled there in August and were supposed to return home by bus last week.

Most of the phone and internet services in Ezeum have been cut, leaving parents largely unable to contact their children directly as they are now frantically searching for ways to bring them back.

Several parents spoke on condition of anonymity for this article, citing concerns that it could harm their chances of safely getting their children back. Others hope that speaking out will give them a better chance of getting the kids home.

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Many also expressed concern that announcing their children’s travel to camps in Russia might prompt accusations of their families’ collaboration with Russian forces.

“I only have one thing in my head: getting my child back,” a woman said her 12-year-old son in the camp. She said she last spoke to him directly over 10 days ago.

The parents said that it might be easy for those who did not survive the occupation at Izyum to claim that the families should have known better than to send their children to Russia.

But they insisted that the decision was not a political one – and instead reflected only their desire to allow their children some sense of normal childhood after they survived the bombings, sleep in basements, wash themselves in snow and rainwater, eat meager rations and, in some cases, get injured. during the occupation.

Vera, 38, on condition that she 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 from a cluster munition bombardment.

Vera cried as she remembered how a bomb fell in the same room where her son and his friend tried to hide from the attack, seriously injuring them both. The friend was evacuated for further medical treatment, and Dima remained in Izyum, where doctors removed fragments of his limbs. But he did not recover mentally from the accident. “The child was tired,” she said. “Now he is afraid of every little noise or rustle.”

Vera said she fears her son and other children will be mistreated in Russia because of their Ukrainian citizenship. But when I got a brief phone call, I was able to make a video call with Dima and saw “how tan he was.” He assured her that no one had bothered them.

“They really enjoy a good rest there,” she said. Still, “The kid wants to go home.”

“I shouldn’t have gone,” Dima remembers saying in her last call.

On Monday, several mothers gathered at 10 a.m. in a corner in Izeum to share ideas on how to bring their children home. With no telephone network, they share information through neighbors, by word of mouth, which makes it difficult to organize themselves and seek help from Ukrainian volunteers or officials.

Some mothers stood near Ukrainian troop bases and called their Starlink networks to send messages to their children.

On Monday, the mothers compiled a list of the names and ages of 29 children from Izium who they know are still in the camp. Some parents have reportedly already traveled outside the area to try to get their children back on their own. Others said that they could not afford such a trip and that traveling through Europe to Russia would require international passports, which they do not have.

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

“We will definitely return the children, whatever the cost,” Matsukin said, noting that it would be important for international agencies to “help Ukraine return our younger citizens to their motherland.” He said that of the 200 children attending the camp in Gelendzhik, 80 are from Izyum.”

He added: “Russia is violating international law and human rights, ignoring them, creating propaganda stories for Russians who are deceived by these lies about loving and protecting young Ukrainians. This is disgusting.”

Messages left behind by frustrated Russian soldiers on the run

During the summer, at least two groups of children from the Kharkiv region went to similar camps and returned home, the parents said, building a sense of confidence that the camps are safe and not a ploy to permanently transport the children deep into Russian territory. (Russia has been accused of carrying out forced deportation Thousands of Ukrainians.)

The decision to send their children to the camp also reflects a sense of confidence between Russian forces and Russian officials that they have already annexed the lands they once controlled in Kharkiv—a miscalculation that clearly contributed to the sudden success of the Ukrainian offensive.

Parents said attending summer camp is a common ritual in Russia and Ukraine, and some children who were at this camp previously attended summer camps in pre-war Ukraine.

Parents said the camps appeared to be well organized and required routine medical examinations as part of the registration process. Anatoly Kovalenko, 58, a general surgeon and chief medical officer at a hospital in Izium, said he had performed standard health checks on 10 to 15 children who he later learned had traveled to the camp.

Russian propaganda promised a poetic, restorative experience.

“Parents who want to improve the health of their children in children’s health camps in the Russian Federation should contact the Izyum Education Department at the address 4 Vasylkyvskoho Street from Monday to Saturday between 10:00 and 15:00,” one of the camps reads an advertisement in a Russian newspaper Published in Iseum. “Bring the child’s birth certificate with you.”

An article about the camps showed pictures of smiling children and said they were “resting safely” in Medvezhonok, which the newspaper called “one of the best regions of Russia, on the Black Sea coast”. One article said that other children attended camps in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Russia-appointed head of the Civil Military Administration of the Kharkiv region, Vitaly Ganchev, was quoted as saying that it was the first time that children could vacation in Crimea and other regions “for free and in an organized manner, especially in August – in the high season”.

“This is an invaluable experience for them,” the article reads. “It is impossible to overestimate the assistance that Russia has given us.” The article said that officials intend to send “at least 800 young residents of Kharkiv to rest.”

When they left in August, the kids packed lightweight clothes for the summer weather. This week, Dima told his mother that the camp would extend until October 10 and that the children would start school. He said they were also expecting to get warmer clothes and move into a heated building.

“Since Russia was still here, they were supposed to come back here,” Vera said. “And then, when Ukraine came here, they said, ‘We’re extending another 21 days.'”

A woman who met with other mothers on Monday but declined to give her name due to security concerns said her teenage daughter understands “it will be difficult for them to go back” now that the lines of control have shifted.

Separatist regions pressure to join Russia as war effort falters

At first, parents had no interest in Russian camps. “At first there wasn’t even a question to send them,” the mother said. “Then the first set went and came back and the second set went and came back.”

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

Now that Iseum is back in Ukrainian control, and children are stranded in Russia, “Nobody really pity us,” she said.

To some observers, the simple fact that they remained in Izium for the duration of the occupation “means that we are collaborating,” she said. She said the announcement that their children would be sent to a camp in Russia would only encourage such skepticism.

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

When she heard about the camp on Russian radio, Yemelyanskaya said: “We had only one consideration – that they were really tired of all this.” Yemelyanskaya said she had two foster daughters living with her, one of whom was 18 and was too old to register at the camp.

Of the girls, she said: “Seeing all this, these ruins, the burning houses – they became even more closed.” She said they wanted the girl younger than her, Valentina, to at least get some rest.

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

“We miss her so much,” she said.

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

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