Ukrainian parents have shared their heartbreak over not knowing where their children are and whether they will ever see them again after Russian troops kidnapped thousands of youths and transferred them to ‘re-education camps’ in Russia – in a policy that has been compared to kidnappings carried out by terror group ISIS .
A study from Yale University last month found that more than 6,000 children between the ages of four months and 17 years old have been transferred to 43 camps across Russia, including Moscow-annexed Crimea and Siberia, for “pro-Russian patriotic and military-related education.” ‘. The actual number is thought to be much higher.
Russia has tried to dismiss the children’s move as rescuing orphans or taking them to camps for medical care – but Ukrainians say children are either being abducted outright or their parents are being pressured or tricked into leaving them to give up.
But International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan this week compared the large-scale kidnappings to those of terror groups such as ISIS, who took Yazidi girls from their homes.
Mr Khan, who has visited Ukraine three times, told The Sunday times he has “never seen anything like it.”
Seven and a half million children are said to have been affected by the war in Ukraine
Russia has tried to portray the children’s move as rescuing orphans or taking them to camps for medical care – but Ukrainians say children are either being abducted outright or their parents are being pressured or tricked into taking them to relinquish (photo: Ukrainian children in Russian-controlled Donetsk)
“Isis kidnapped Yazidi girls for sex slaves and boys to train as fighters, and Pol Pot forced urban families into the countryside, but this is different,” he said.
Khan will speak on the matter in Geneva on Thursday.
Speaking to the newspaper, parents of missing children described becoming suspicious when children came home and described so-called summer camps, which would see them leave for several weeks with less than a day’s notice.
Some of these camps were located in Russian-occupied territory, others in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea.
On the few occasions when parents managed to contact their children, they were initially told about fun activities – but also that everything was in Russian and that they had to sing the Russian national anthem every morning.
Several parents said they were told their children’s return would take a few days, then a few weeks, and then again more than a month.
Their children would be transferred to different camps and would eventually become unreachable.
It has even been reported that some Ukrainian parents were offered money to travel to Russia or the annexed territories, where they could be reunited with their children if they agreed to live there.
Of the tens of thousands of potential victims, only 300 children are said to have returned to Ukraine.
On February 23, Ukrainians left hundreds of teddy bears outside the European Commission to raise awareness of their children’s plight.
Russia has detained at least 6,000 children from Ukraine in camps aimed at re-education in what could be a war crime, a US study has found. Pictured is a woman and child in the Ukrainian city of Bucha
Ukrainian refugees install thousands of child teddy bears and toys on Schuman roundabout in front of the European Commission to highlight the kidnapping of thousands of Ukrainian children
Ukraine government says it has confirmed more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russia (file image)
Nathaniel Raymond, a Yale researcher at the Humanitarian Research Lab – funded by the US State Department – said Russia was “clearly in violation of” the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Civilians in War.
The activity “could in some cases constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity,” he told reporters.
The report called for access to the camps to be granted to a neutral body and an immediate halt to Russia’s adoption of Ukrainian children.
Ukraine’s government says more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russia, where some have been sexually exploited.
According to the study, aides to Putin have been heavily involved in the operation, including Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights.
It quoted her as saying that 350 children have been adopted by Russian families and more than 1,000 were awaiting adoption.
She herself has reportedly bragged about adopting a child from Mariupol since the beginning of the invasion.
The US report, which relied on satellite images and public accounts, said at least 6,000 children have been sent to camps, but the number is “probably significantly higher.”
Last month’s report said that Russian authorities have tried to instill a pro-Moscow stance in children through school curricula, field trips to patriotic sites and veterans’ lectures.
Some of the children have also received firearms training, although Mr Raymond said there was no evidence they were being sent to fight.
It has been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, with President Vladimir Putin denying the neighboring country’s historic legitimacy and formally declaring four regions Russia in September.
But Ukraine’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Daria Herasymchuk, says it will likely be much more.
“Today the Russians say they have evacuated 738,000 Ukrainian children – but it’s not an evacuation, it’s kidnapping and brainwashing and it’s an act of genocide,” she told The Sunday Times.
“We don’t believe there are that many – we’ve documented 16,221 so far – but I think there are several hundred thousand.”
More than 460 children have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured since the start of the war, 7.5 million of them.
Save the Children estimates that the average child in Ukraine spent more than 900 hours underground in the past year – about 40 days. About 1500 schools have been destroyed or damaged.