Siobhán O’Grady, Anastacia Galouchka, Serhii Mukaieliants
IZYUM, Ukraine: The last time the parents saw their children, they were boarding buses to Russia – for summer camp near the beach.
It was August 27, and after months enduring some of the worst conditions imaginable, families in this largely destroyed city, which had been occupied by Russian forces since March, had signed their kids up for camp in Gelendzhik, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea.
They hoped the camp, advertised in Russian propaganda news outlets, would give their children a break from war and a semblance of normalcy.
Days later, Ukrainian forces unexpectedly stormed forward and retook control of Izyum and other occupied areas of the Kharkiv region. The surprise advance forced Russian troops and Ukrainian collaborators to flee, abandoning much of their equipment on their way out.
Residents of Izyum celebrated the successful counter-offensive, which reignited hopes that the tide of the war was turning in Ukraine’s favour. But the advance also left the children who travelled to the camp in Russia stranded on the other side of a dangerous front line, with no clear way home.
The Washington Post met about a dozen parents from Izyum with children who are stuck in Russia at the camp. The parents said some 200 children from several towns and villages in the Kharkiv region had travelled there in August and were supposed to return home by bus last week.
Most phone and internet service has been cut in Izyum, leaving the parents largely unable to contact their children directly as they frantically seek ways to bring them back.
Many parents spoke on the condition of anonymity in this article, citing concerns it could harm their chances of safely retrieving their children. Others hoped speaking out would give them a better chance of bringing the children home.
Many also expressed worries that publicising that their children went to camp in Russia could spark accusations their families collaborated with Russian forces.
“I only have one thing in my head: to get my kid back,” said a woman whose 12-year-old son is at the camp. She said she last spoke to him more than 10 days ago.
It might be easy for those who did not survive the occupation in Izyum to claim that the families should have known better than to send their children to Russia, the parents said.
But they insisted that the decision was not a political one. It instead reflected only their wishes to allow their children some sense of normal childhood after they had survived shelling, slept in basements, washed themselves with snow and rain water, eaten meagre rations and, in some cases, been wounded during the occupation.
Vera, 38, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used, sent her 15-year-old son, Dima, to the camp in hopes that it would help him recover physically and mentally from a cluster ammunition bombing.
Vera wept as she recalled how a bomb landed in a room where her son and his friend had been trying to hide from the attack, badly wounding them. The friend was evacuated for further medical treatment, and Dima stayed in Izyum, where doctors removed shrapnel from his limbs. But he never mentally recovered from the incident.
“The kid was all stressed out,” she said. “He’s now afraid of every little noise or rattle.”
Vera said she feared that her son and the other children could be mistreated in Russia because of their Ukrainian nationality. But when she briefly got a phone connection, she managed to video call Dima and saw “how tanned he was”. He assured her no one was harassing them.
“They are really having a good rest there,” she said. Still, “the kid wants to go back home”.
“’I shouldn’t have gone,’” she recalled Dima saying in their last call.
On Monday, several mothers gathered at 10am on a corner in Izyum to brainstorm ideas about how to bring their children home. With no phone network, they are sharing information through neighbours, by word of mouth, which makes it difficult to organise themselves and ask volunteers or Ukrainian officials for help.
Some mothers have stood near Ukrainian troops’ bases and connected to their Starlink networks to send messages to their children.
On Monday, the mothers compiled a list of the names and ages of 29 children from Izyum who they knew were at the camp. Some parents have reportedly gone to try to retrieve their kids themselves. Others said they could not afford to make such a trip and that getting through Europe to Russia would require international passports, which they didn’t have.
Volodymyr Matsokyn, the deputy mayor of Izyum, who recently returned to the de-occupied city, said in a text message on Tuesday that officials had a list of children at the camp and “are currently working on this issue together with state agencies”.
“We will definitely be returning the kids, whatever the cost,” Matsokyn said, noting that it will be important for international agencies “to help Ukraine to return our younger citizens back to their motherland”. Out of 200 children attending the camp in Gelendzhik, he said, 80 were from Izyum.
He added: “Russia violates international law and human rights, neglects it, creates propaganda stories for Russians who are fooled by these lies about love and protection of little Ukrainians. It’s disgusting.”
Throughout the summer, at least two groups of children from the Kharkiv region went to similar camps and returned home, parents said, building a sense of trust that the camps were safe and not a ploy to permanently move children deep inside Russian territory. (Russia has been accused of carrying out forced relocations of thousands of Ukrainians.)
The decision to send their children to camp also reflected the sense of confidence among Russian troops and officials that they had effectively annexed the territory they controlled in Kharkiv – a miscalculation that evidently contributed to the surprise success of the Ukrainian offensive.
Attending summer camp is a common rite of passage in Russia and Ukraine, and some of the children attending this camp previously attended summer camps in Ukraine before the war, the parents said.
The camps seemed well organised and required routine medical checks as part of the enrolment process, parents said.
Anatoliy Kovalenko, 58, a general surgeon and chief doctor at a hospital in Izyum, said he did standard health checks for 10 to 15 children whom he later learnt had travelled to the camp.
Russian publicity promised an idyllic, restorative experience.
“Parents who wish to improve their children’s health at children’s health camps in the Russian Federation should contact the Education Department of the City of Izyum at the address 4 Vasylkyvskoho Street from Monday until Saturday between 10:00 and 15:00,” read one camp advertisement in a Russian-issued newspaper distributed in Izyum. “Bring the child’s birth certificate with you.”
An article about the camps featured photos of smiling children and said they were “having a safe rest” in Medvezhonok, which the newspaper describes as “one of the best parts of Russia, on the Black Sea coast”. Other children attended camps in Crimea, the peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, one article said.
Vitaliy Ganchev, the Russia-appointed head of the military-civilian administration of the Kharkiv region, was quoted as saying it was the first time children could have a holiday in Crimea and other areas “for free and in an organised manner, especially in August – in a high season”.
“This is an invaluable experience for them,” the article read. “It is impossible to overestimate the assistance provided to us by Russia.” Officials intended to send “at least 800 more little Kharkiv residents to rest”, the article said.
When they left in August, the children packed lightweight clothes for summer weather. This week, Dima told his mother that the camp would be extended until October 10 and that the children would start school. They were also expecting to receive warmer clothes and move to a heated building, he said.
“As Russia was still here, they were supposed to come back here,” Vera said. “And then, when Ukraine entered here, they said: ‘We are prolonging the term for another 21 days.’”
A woman who gathered with other mothers on Monday but declined to be named because of security concerns said her teenage daughter understood “it’s going to be more difficult for them to come back” because the lines of control have changed.
Initially, parents had zero interest in Russian camps. “In the beginning, there was not even a question that we would send them,” the mother said. “Then the first group went and came back and the second group went and came back.”
She ultimately sent her daughter to the camp because she was “psychologically damaged” from months of war.