Ukrainian brings her ‘kidnapped’ daughter home from Russia
There came a time when Lyudmila Kozyr thought she would never see her daughter again. Taken to Russia as fighting engulfed her village in the northeast of Ukraine, Veronika, 13, was just one of thousands of children who were removed from their families by the occupying Russian authorities.
Like many other children, the Russians refused to send her back when her village was recaptured by Ukrainian forces. But determined to find her daughter, Kozyr ventured into the heart of the beast and took a bus to Russia, wondering if she would ever return.
“We were totally lost,” she said. “We had no idea where to even start to get our children back. I thought I’d never see my daughter again. We were scared that we wouldn’t be able to leave Russia but there was no other choice.”
Since the start of the war, 13,613 children have been identified as taken out of Ukraine by Russia, according to the Kyiv government. Just 122 have been returned. The whereabouts of many remain unknown.
Many have been adopted into Russian families according to Ukrainian, western and United Nations officials. Critics have described this process as a deliberate depopulation campaign.
Many children were separated from their families as they fled the fighting in cities like Mariupol. Others were offered holidays, like Veronika.
Some were taken directly from orphanages and boarding schools “for their own safety” on the grounds that they were already separated from their parents.
Natalya Vasilyevna Shvereva, 59, a teacher at a boarding school for children with learning disabilities in the town of Kupiansk, described how a group of Russian soldiers entered on September 8 with guns and balaclavas covering their faces. They abducted 13 pupils aged between 6 and 16, announcing that a new military law had been enacted and children in an active conflict zone had to be evacuated across the nearby border.
“What could I say to these threatening men with weapons?” Shvereva said. There was no mobile phone connection to call for help, or even check what the soldiers had told her with the occupation authorities.
The school was almost empty, but 13 students had returned to school just a few days earlier. Shvereva, a teacher at the school since 1991, was responsible for them.
“These children come from low-income households where parents are struggling to look after them and feed them,” she said. “It’s a state school, so their parents knew that if they came to the school someone would take care of them and provide meals for them.”
Wherever the children have gone, they are still there. Two days later, the city was liberated by Ukrainian forces, but the children did not return. By then, in her village of Nechvolodivka seven miles from Kupiansk, Kozyr was working out what to do about her own missing child.
The offer of a holiday for Veronika and 250 other children the month before had sounded tempting, even coming from the Russians.
“The Russian authorities told us the children could have a break at a holiday camp near the sea,” Kozyr, 49, told The Times. “Other children from the area had been for short stints and come back so we thought it would be safe.”
It had been a tough time, under occupation in a poor area of the country. “People with money and cars left early on, but we had no money and nowhere to go so we stayed,” Kozyr 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.”
But as fighting intensified, parents were told the trip “had been extended” and after the village was freed in mid-September, the Russians told her that if she wanted to see her daughter again, she would have to come in person to collect her.
For many parents, this was a huge demand. Some had never been to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city just 70 miles away, let alone abroad. However, an NGO, Save Ukraine, stepped in with advice and help with passports and transport.
The 14 mothers who agreed to go travelled west, to the Polish border, then to Belarus and on to Russia. They knew the children were being held in the Black Sea coastal city of Anapa: less than 350 miles away as the crow flies, but in a time of war it turned out to be a gruelling 11-day bus ride.
“We were really scared that we wouldn’t be able to leave Russia but there was no other choice,” Kozyr said. “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.”
The group brought 21 children home in time for Christmas. For Veronika, it was the end of an ordeal that had begun happily, but was becoming increasingly frightening.
“The camp leaders were young and very kind to us,” she told The Times. “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.”
She had no idea what was happening at home. “The longer I was stuck at the camp the more worried I became about my family,” she said.
“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.”
Despite everything, Kozyr believes the trip organisers had the children’s best interests in mind, but Myroslava Kharchenko, head of Save Ukraine’s legal department, is sceptical.
“By making it so that mothers had to come and collect their children, the Russians knew many would not be able to,” she said. “We had zero guarantees, it was a huge risk, but it was either take the risk or allow the children to remain in Russia.”
This was the second group of children the organisation has helped return home. Now its focus is on finding missing children from the newly-liberated Kherson region, where more than 1,000 children are understood to have been taken from schools and orphanages.
Kharchenko worries time may be running out. “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.”