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Parents who sent kids to Russia to escape fighting have a hard time getting them back

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Thousands of Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied territories since the beginning of the war. Many parents sent their kids voluntarily to get them out of war zones. Kyiv now accuses Russia of using a system of summer camps and foster homes to indoctrinate and steal Ukrainian children. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently met a group of Ukrainians headed to Russia to get their children after months of separation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS MOTOR IDLING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The group of around 25 mothers boards a bus in Kyiv, the start of a dayslong journey through several countries to reach Russia.

IRYNA HRINCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "We are nervous, but excited to hug our children again," says 46-year-old Iryna Hrinchenko from the Kharkiv region. Her two daughters went to a three-week camp in Russia seven months ago. Hrinchenko explains how her 11- and 12-year-old ended up in Russia. Early in the war, her town, close to the Russian border, was occupied by Russian troops.

HRINCHENKO: (Through interpreter) There was an advertisement at the Town Education Department for a chance to send your child to the seaside. These camps are well known from Soviet days. Another group had gone and returned with no problems, so we decided to send the girls.

BEARDSLEY: A single mother, Hrinchenko says she and her daughters did everything together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RODNOJ DOM")

JAMIK: (Singing in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: She tears up as she shows a video they made for her. Anastasia and Kensia didn't come home as planned in September because Ukraine took their town back in the Kharkiv counteroffensive. She was now separated from her daughters by the front line. Communications were severed for a month. Hrinchenko says her daughters have been treated well, but the response of a Russian official made her very nervous.

HRINCHENKO: (Through interpreter) He said, why are you in such a hurry? We know that Vovchansk has no gas or water. Why do you want to return the kids to such conditions? And I said, because it's been seven months, and I haven't seen my children. I want them back.

BEARDSLEY: Ukrainian officials and human rights organizations allege Russia is using a system of coercion and force to take Ukrainian children and turn them into loyal Russian citizens. Mykola Kuleba is CEO of Save Ukraine, the charity organizing and funding these mothers' trip. He says Russia tells the world it's rescuing children from combat zones and Nazis.

MYKOLA KULEBA: But it is a lie. These children are hostages. It is not evacuation. It is not salvation for these children. When you indoctrinate them, when you Russify them, it is a war crime.

BEARDSLEY: The International Criminal Court agrees. It has issued arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and another top official for the unlawful transfer and deportation of children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: The Kyiv hotel where the charity operates buzzes with activity. Mothers who've already made the trip are allowed to recover here with their kids.

LUIDA: Hello.

BEARDSLEY: Forty-four-year-old Luida is from Kherson. Her town was also occupied in the first days of the war and was only freed in November. She sent her 16-year-old daughter Nastya to a seaside holiday camp in annexed Crimea in September. But when Ukraine retook the city two months later, Nastya couldn't come home. Luida says a camp official told her, if you want your daughter, come get her. She says she and Nastya began to panic.

LUIDA: (Through interpreter) She told me, Mom, take me back soon because they are going to resettle us over the Ural Mountains, and no one is going to return us.

BEARDSLEY: Luida and Nastya do not want to use their last name because Kherson is still an active battle zone. Nastya says there were stories of kids being mistreated, but she was treated fine. Still, she ached to come home.

NASTYA: (Through interpreter) I was in a foreign city, a foreign country. I didn't know where I was. I was lost and scared, and I missed my mom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello, Eleanor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Eighteen-year-old Liza has just returned from picking up her 14-year-old brother, Kostya, in Russia. Their mother died years ago, and their father is sick. They don't want to share the family's last name either for similar reasons.

LIZA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: She says she and her four sisters sent Kostya to a holiday camp in Russia while their town in the Kherson region was both occupied by Russian soldiers and shelled by Ukraine. The family briefly lost touch with Kostya but found him living with a Russian foster family. Kostya says he was treated well, but the family tried to persuade him to stay in Russia.

KOSTYA: (Through interpreter) They said when I'm 18, I'll get 30,000 rubles a month - you know, the good life. And if I return to Ukraine, I won't get anything.

BEARDSLEY: Liza says it took her two days to convince her little brother to come back home with her.

LIZA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "They offered him a flat and a salary," she says. "He's only 14. Of course that impressed him." Liza says, despite that, in some way she's grateful to the family for taking her brother in. If he'd been put in a Russian orphanage, she says, we may never have found him.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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