Russia is accused of deporting thousands of Ukrainian children. 17 returned home this week
As Ukrainian troops pushed into Kherson last fall to try and retake the region from Russian control, parents were being pressured by local Russian officials to send their children away to Russian-occupied Crimea, where they said they would be safer staying at summer camp.
The families told CBC News they were promised that the short break along the sea would be good for the children.
Some parents were even told they would be returned within a few weeks.
But the reunion took nearly half a year.
"It was not summer camps, it was a trick," said Mykola Kuleba, the founder of Save Ukraine, a foundation which helped bring 17 children back to Kyiv on Wednesday.
The foundation financed and organized the trip which took the children's mothers on a 10-day journey through Poland, Belarus and into Russia. Save Ukraine made sure that the group had all of the proper documents to make the trip and made sure they were prepared for any questions asked by Russian authorities.
The small group is part of what Ukraine calls a massive deportation of more than 16,000 of its children and part of what war crime investigators see as an attempt to "re-educate" them with pro-Russian views.
Earlier this month, on March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country's children's commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for the unlawful deportation and transfer of children.
Kremlin officials and Lvova-Belova have dismissed the accusations as "nonsense."
The spokesperson for Russia's foreign ministry has even suggested that as a leader of state, Putin has immunity from the court.
Experts suspect the actual number of Ukrainian children sent to Russia and its occupied territories is far higher. It includes those with medical conditions who were living in group homes and orphanages, along with those who were separated from their parents by the war.
Other children, like most of those who were returned to Kyiv this week, were sent to Crimea after parents reported being pressured by Russian authorities.
Stranded in Crimea
Denis Zaporozhchenko said a teacher at his children's school urged him and his wife to send three of their children, the youngest 10, to Yevpatoria in Crimea, where they would stay at a camp.
But after they left, he says they realized they made a mistake.
"We were just left broken," he said in an interview at a reception centre after reuniting with his two daughters and son.
He and other parents and children spoke to a freelance crew working for CBC News.
Zaporozhchenko was unable to travel to Russian-occupied Crimea as most men are banned from leaving the country, so he only saw his children once they arrived back in Kyiv.
He and his wife planned to take them back to Kherson later this week.
He says while they were in Crimea, he was able to keep in touch with his children by phone and they shared photos through a messaging app. They told him they were being fed and had been given warm clothes.
At the camps, there was schooling, including classes in Russian, English and math. There were also organized events for the children, like concerts and dances.
While at least one of the 17 children said they were conflicted about returning to Ukraine, as Crimea seemed safer, others said they detested being away from their parents.
Vitaliy Vertash was sent to the same camp, but he told CBC News that he ran away from it along with another child. He says the police picked him up two days later, and officers confiscated his phone.
Another boy Maxim, 12, said he was often sworn at by the camp leaders and some of the children had their belongings stolen.
Natalia Zhornyk says when her 15-year-old son Artem refused to sing the national anthem he was threatened with being sent to an asylum or put up for adoption.
Unlike most of the children in the group he is from a village in the Kharkiv region, and was sent by Russian soldiers to a boarding school in a Russian-occupied area of Luhansk.
He had become separated from his parents after going to his secondary school in Kupiansk to pick up some documents, but after he arrived Russian forces shut off all entrances to the city.
Eventually, a director from the boarding school where Artem was taken, got in touch with Zhornyk to tell her where he was.
She said she had no way of picking him up back then, because she didn't have a foreign passport which prevented her from making the journey to Russia earlier.
Zhornyk says when she heard that the ICC had issued a warrant for Putin, she was glad but wanted more.
"I want him sent to a penal colony," she said. "I want him to suffer."
The most vulnerable
When the children and the parents pulled into Kyiv on Wednesday, they all filed out of the van except for 16-year-old Sasha, who has severe autism because his mother Olga Mazur said the large crowd, waiting with cameras, was overwhelming.
He had been living in a group home since he was nine, when his behaviour and often-violent outbursts became too much for his parents to handle.
Mazur says she used to frequently visit him at his home in the community of Oleshky, on the southside of the Dnipro river, but COVID-19 made the visits more difficult. When the war began, it became nearly impossible.
Civilian convoys in Kherson had frequently come under attack and the main bridge to Oleshky, the Antonivsky bridge, was controlled by Russian forces and had been targeted by Ukraine as it tried to retake the area.
In October, Russian officials moved Sasha and approximately two dozen other children, many of whom were in wheelchairs, to a special boarding school in Crimea, but Mazur said she was never informed.
She only found out where her son was, after reading a post on social media by the Russian installed administration in Oleshky, which posted about moving the children to Russia where they would get medical treatment.
Mazur got in touch with Save Ukraine which helped her make the journey to Crimea to reunite with her son.
"He recognized me immediately and came to me," she said.
Mazur says she has since learned that her son had developed bedsores at the home in Oleshky when it was under Russian occupation.
She believed there wasn't enough staff to take care of the children because many had left as it was so dangerous.
"If my child suffered so much, I can't imagine what happened to other children there, particularly those in wheelchairs," said Mazur. "They must all be returned from there. And the sooner the better."
It is unknown how many children have been sent to Russia and areas under its control, nor how many of the children have been put up for adoption. Russian officials have posted information and even posted video of ceremonies where some of the children have been granted Russian citizenship.
Last month, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health released a report examining the dozens of facilities that children have been sent to, most of which were previously used as camps.
They initially documented 43 sites, including a couple which are located in Siberia, and another in Russia's far east.
"We think that two of the facilities were specifically engaged in military training for boys, 14 to 17 years old," said Nathaniel Raymond, a war crimes investigator and the head of Yale's Humanitarian Research Lab.
He told CBC News that since the publication of their report, his team is investigating an additional two to three dozen locations which are also suspected of being destinations for children deported from Ukraine.
He says most of the camps they have already confirmed are linked to what he calls a Russian "re-education" program, two of the sites have specifically linked to adoption programs.
Raymond says this is now the "golden hour" for family reunification because it will become more difficult to track children and find documentation as time passes.
"It's great the ICC indicted, but I'm not going to be happy until those kids are home," he said.
Raymond describes the warrants issued by ICC as conservative but smart, saying he believes it would be easy to prosecute Putin and Lvova-Belova because Russia has posted about the children they have taken.
Lvova-Belova made light of accusations and posted on her Telegram social media account that she was "glad that the international community has appreciated our work to protect children," saying they are surrounding them with care and loving people.
She told a state media that Russia won't simply "leave children in war zones, and wants to give them a chance to live a normal life."
Evgeny Popov, a state television host and MP in Russia's State Duma told BBC News last week that Russia is saving the children and hadn't received any requests from relatives for the children to be returned.
Mykola Kubela, the founder of Save Ukraine, is infuriated by Russia's attempt to frame this as an evacuation.
"It is like somebody comes to my home, cuts my wings and causes bleeding, then says, 'Oh, let me help you. I am your saviour.'"
Kubela's group has now organized four trips for parents to go pick up their children and part of their work prepares the parents for the interrogation they may face by Russia's security services, the FSB.
He says they have seen plenty of evidence of Russia trying to brainwash the children in an attempt to erase their Ukrainian identity. He says all of the families who have returned are now receiving social and psychological support.
"[Russia] has no rights as an aggressor to touch any family — any child. It is a war crime."