Families in territory recaptured by Ukrainian forces in the east of the country are demanding that Russia return children who were taken from them and moved across the border “for their safety”.
One mother said her only child had been offered a “holiday by the sea” by the Russians last month as the fighting raged. Out of fear and desperation, Alla Zinchynko and other parents accepted. But she has not seen her 11-year-old daughter, Sophia, since, and now that Zinchynko is on the Ukrainian side of the lines she does not know how they can be reunited.
She said she could text Sophia, who is in Kabardinka, a town east of Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast. But the child had been told that her “holiday” had been extended for at least several more weeks. “I just want her back,” Zinchynko, 42, said in her home town of Balakliya, between Izyum and Kharkiv. She said she was one of hundreds of parents in the same position.
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Sophia has told her mother that she is being held with 300 other children from towns in Kharkiv province, all of which have been retaken in Ukraine’s lightning offensive in the past week.
“I want to scream at the whole world,” Zinchynko said. “I would do anything to see her again. When I text her, all I really want to do is hug her.”
The United Nations demanded last week that Russia allow humanitarian workers access to thousands of children taken from occupied parts of Ukraine.
Russia says three million Ukrainian citizens have been moved from areas it captured in February and March, many to Russia itself. It claims they volunteered to seek refuge, but has not permitted the Red Cross or similar organisations access to them.
There have been particular concerns about the number of children involved who appear to be unaccompanied by their families. Some were taken from orphanages, but various means appear to have been used to separate parents from children, some of whom are said to have been put up for adoption in Russia.
Zinchynko said that in Balakliya the Russian authorities had exploited parents’ fears for their children’s safety as Ukrainian forces began to bombard Russian positions.
“We are all terrified,” she said, crying on the pavement near her family’s eighth-floor apartment. “The shells were whistling everywhere. They promised to take the children to the seaside for a holiday, to save them from the fighting.”
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She said 25 families from Balakliya took the offer. Now she cannot believe she agreed. “We have just been to a meeting for the families with Ukrainian officials. She said they would do what they could but we had been dumb.”
Balakliya was the initial target of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region. A town that was becoming more prosperous, with one of Ukraine’s largest cement factories, its main bridge was blown up by Russians as they retreated last week, and the buildings where Russian troops were billeted are marked by the destruction wrought by Ukrainian artillery.
Zinchynko said Sophia was trying to keep in good spirits, though the “holiday” had not turned out to be what she expected — the beach was rough and the children were told they could not go swimming “because of the jellyfish”.
Among the other 300 children are scores from Izyum and Kupiansk, the other two big towns retaken by the Ukrainian army. Zinchynko said she could not say if the children were taken away to be used as hostages by the Russians, fearing that the towns were about to be subject to a counter-attack.
She said she wanted to go to the border to appeal for her daughter’s return in person. But Russia still occupies thousands of square miles of territory between Balakliya and the Black Sea border between the two countries. “We have to just stay here for the coming days and wait,” she said.
Ilze Brands Kehris, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for human rights, told its security council last week that the Russians had introduced an accelerated process to grant citizenship to unaccompanied children, and said such children would be eligible for adoption.
“We are particularly concerned that the announced plans of the Russian authorities to allow the movement of children from Ukraine to families in the Russian Federation do not appear to include steps for family reunification or in other ways ensure respect for the principle of the best interests of the child.”