The anguish of Ukrainian families separated by Russian forces
By Marcel Gascon
Kyiv, Apr 5 (EFE).- When Yevgeniya Kondratieva said goodbye to her mother on October 7 to spend a few days in a camp, neither of them thought that the vacation that was paid for by the Russian authorities could have forever separated the fifteen-year-old from her Ukrainian family.
The camp, in the then-occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, was presented to the family as an opportunity to rest, have fun with other young people and forget about the constant shelling and wailing sirens.
“All you needed was parental permission,” the teenager recalls in an interview with Efe.
“They told us two weeks and it ended up being six months,” says Yevgueniya’s mother, Marina Kondratieva, in a Kyiv cafe just days after rescuing her daughter.
Marina embarked on a grueling 10-day trip across Ukraine via Poland, Belarus and parts of Russia to find her daughter who is one of the thousands of Ukrainian children who have been forcibly separated from their families by Russian forces after Moscow occupied swathes of southern and eastern Ukraine.
The nightmare for the Kondratieva family began when those in charge of the camp announced that dozens of schoolchildren had been transferred to Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014.
It was then that Marina was told that the camp was not a vacation but “an evacuation.”
At the time, Ukrainian forces were intensifying their counter-offensive to retake the city of Kherson and its surroundings, and Russian authorities used the battle to announce that the children would be safer in Crimea.
“We knew that there was something strange when they told us that they were extending the vacations and when we asked her tutor, she answered that her decision did not depend on her but on the (Russian) government,” says Marina.
On November 11, 2022, more than a month after the fake camp began, the Russian army completed its withdrawal from the entire western bank of the Dnipro River, which slices the Kherson province in two.
The city of Kherson came back under the control of Kyiv, which resulted in the severance of all contact between Yevgueniya’s school in Ukraine and the Russian authorities who had the children but continued to communicate with Marina online.
Marina turned to Save Ukraine and she was included in their third rescue mission of children.
“Our team carefully prepared these parents and relatives for our trip to Russia. They trained them because it’s a lot of investigation, it’s very dangerous and any person should be prepared well for this trip. Then we organize all logistics, cover all expenses, plan a route, because we often have to adapt the rescue mission because sometimes Russia tries to block the return of our children,” the founder of Save Ukraine, Mykola Kuleba, tells Efe.
Barely 300 kilometers separate Kherson from Crimea, but the border dividing Russian-occupied territories with Ukraine is extremely dangerous and forced the 13 families intent on retrieving their children to travel thousands of kilometers to reach the peninsula on the Black Sea.
“It took us five days to go and another five to return with the children,” says Marina.
When asked why she thinks Kremlin forces took her child, the 37-year-old says she is convinced that Russia seeks to force as many Ukrainians as possible to settle in Russia or occupied territories in Ukraine.
“They want the Ukrainians to make up for their losses in the war and get more people on their side,” she adds.
Yevgeniya tells Efe that in the camp, the young people were forced to listen to the Russian anthem every morning and that symbols of Russian nationalism such as flags were placed in their backpacks.
Some have denounced that the camps Ukrainian young people were taken to were intensive re-education programs to turn Ukrainian minors into Russian nationalists.