Distraught Ukrainian parents tell of how their children were stolen

Ukrainian parents have described the horrifying ordeal to rescue their children from Russian camps after Vladimir Putin’s forces occupied southern regions north of the Crimean peninsula. Tatiana Vlaiko, 36, recounted having to travel for weeks to bring her 11-year-old daughter Lilya back to Kherson, from where she had been taken on the pretence of a school summer camp. It is part of what a Yale University report last month said was a systematic campaign “co-ordinated by Russia’s federal government” to “re-educate” young Ukrainians.

Ms Vlaiko’s young daughter left for a school trip last September having told her mother that it would be a two-week summer camp.

Living in the occupied city of Kherson, which has since been liberated, Ms Vlaiko told the Sunday Times she was “afraid” at the prospect of her daughter leaving but her child was adamant that she wanted to go.

“I was afraid. It’s a war and I told her it might not be so easy to get you back. But her friends were going and she really wanted to go.”

After a few weeks of infrequent contact, during which her daughter had told her about “seeing dolphins and concerts”, she was then informed that her child had been relocated.

“I called her teacher, asking what is happening, will you bring them back?” she said. “But she stopped answering.”

After that phone call, Ms Vlaiko spent months trying to bring her daughter back, eventually having to travel for weeks around the frontlines in Ukraine to pick up her child.

Her story is one of thousands, according to Ukrainian officials, with more than 16,000 children having been taken to Russia under questionable circumstances.

The mass movement of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories into Russia is part of Putin’s Russification plan to undermine the existence of Ukraine as its own sovereign state.

Just 300 children are believed to have made it back to Ukraine, out of tens of thousands of potential victims.

On February 23, Ukrainians left hundreds of teddy bears outside the European Commission to raise awareness of their children’s plight.

Nathaniel Raymond, a Yale researcher at the Humanitarian Research Lab – funded by the US State Department – said that Russia was in “clear violation” of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians during the war.

He said the activity “in some cases may constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity”.

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The report called for a neutral body to be granted access to the camps and for Russia to immediately stop adoption of Ukrainian children.

The study said that Putin’s aides have been closely 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 that more than 1,000 were awaiting adoption.

She herself has reportedly boasted about adopting a child from Mariupol since the start of the invasion.

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