Kidnapped Ukrainian teen lured to Russian holiday camp, mum says

Russia: Woman is dragged off bus after criticising war in Ukraine

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A Ukrainian mother has described the terrifying ordeal of recovering her daughter from Russia after occupying soldiers lured her young teenager to a holiday camp. Ms Kozyr said she thought she would “never see my daughter again” after 13-year-old Veronika became one of more than 13,000 Ukrainian children to be taken to Russia under the guise of safety. She recounted the moment she finally arrived at the holiday camp, in the Black Sea coastal city of Anapa, still not knowing whether the Russian authorities would honour their promise of letting Ms Kozyr retrieve her daughter or leave Russia subsequently. 

After Russians refused to send Veronika back following the liberation of her village Nechvolodivka in the far east of the country, Ms Kozyr enlisted the help of a non-governmental organisation, Save Ukraine, to help her. 

After acquiring passports and a mode of transport – a lack of money had precluded her family from leaving prior to the occupation and, in part, contributed to the family’s willingness to let their daughter go away with the Russians – Ms Kozyr joined 13 other mothers on a journey to find their children. 

Though the city of Anapa is only 350 miles away from Nechvolodivka, directly south, the mothers were forced to travel thousands of miles in the opposite direction to cross the western border with Poland, traverse across Belarus and then descend around the frontline in Ukraine through the west of Russia. 

Not a single one of the parents had been given assurances that they would be safe while in Russia, nor that they would be allowed to leave once they entered. 

Ms Kozyr said: “We were really scared that we wouldn’t be able to leave Russia but there was no other choice. 

“Standing in front of the entrance to the camp waiting to see my daughter, I had this feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach that they would tell me she wasn’t there. I was in tears as I waited.

“But when I saw her — I don’t even know how to describe the feeling. We just hugged and kissed and cried together. I was so happy she was in front of me.”

Speaking about why she allowed Veronika to go on the holiday camp in the first place, she described the underhanded tactics employed by the Russian authorities to separate her from her child. 

She said: “The Russians told us the Ukrainian forces had forgotten about us, that they weren’t coming. So when these trips started happening in the summer I thought it would be a nice break for my daughter. In fact, she pushed me to let her go.

They told us the children could have a break at a holiday camp near the sea. Other children from the area had been for short stints and come back so we thought it would be safe.” 

But after her daughter had left and the fighting in Nechvolodivka had intensified, parents in the area were told the trip “had been extended”. Following the liberation in mid-September, Ms Kozyr was then told she would have to come to Russia if she ever wanted to see her daughter again. 

Since the first villages and cities in Ukraine were occupied in late February, 13,613 children have been taken out of the country by Russian forces under the guise of safety, according to Kyiv. Just 122 have been returned.

Many are believed to have been adopted into Russian families, according to Ukrainian, western and United Nations officials, in what critics have called a deliberate depopulation campaign. 

Russian soldiers have also targeted orphanages and boarding schools, where children are already separated from their parents, to lure younger people away. 

Ms Kozyr and her fellow mothers managed to bring back 21 children from that trip. For teenager Veronika, it was the end of an ordeal that had quickly spiralled into something more akin to kidnapping than a holiday. 

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The young girl said: “The camp leaders were young and very kind to us. We played sports and had competitions. We practised dance routines and we were rehearsing for a New Year’s Eve production.

“But two weeks was enough to be away from my family. I was really missing my mum and dad — even my brother. The longer I was stuck at the camp the more worried I became about my family. 

“When I found out my mum was going to come and collect me I thought it would take just a few days. Travelling home with her along the same route made me realise how far she had travelled. I’m really proud of her for coming to get me.”

Myroslava Kharchenko, head of Save Ukraine’s legal department, said the trip had been the organisation’s second run. They are now focusing on finding more than 1,000 children who are understood to have been taken from schools and orphanages in the southern port city of Kherson, which was liberated at the end of November.

“Our understanding is that children have been told by the Russian authorities that they will stay at the camp until the new year,” she said. “Now we’re very worried that after this time, these children will be adopted.”

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