Ukrainian mothers have recounted the horror of trying to recover their children from deep inside the Russian-occupied territories after they were denied contact for months on end. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin in March, accusing him and his children’s ombudswoman, Maria Lvova-Belova, of the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children, and stories of mothers and grandmothers desperately trying to save their offspring have been abounding ever since.
Tetyana Kraynyuk was just one of thousands of mothers forced to make the perilous journey around the front line in Ukraine, turning a several-hour journey into a five-day expedition, to find her son.
Tetyana kept her son Sasha, 15, out of school for the first seven months of the Russian occupation of Kharkiv Oblast in northeast Ukraine.
But in September of last year, the teenager was forced by the occupying forces to return to school on September 3. He would be learning the Russian curriculum.
When Ukraine launched its counter offensive operations in the region a few days later, Kupyansk Special School, under Russian control, hurriedly evacuated the children, including Sasha, without telling the parents.
“When we reached the school only the caretaker was left. He said the kids had been taken and no-one knew where,” Tetyana said.
According to a teacher who was present at the school on the day of the evacuation, the children were hurriedly “shoved on a bus with some refugees”.
They were moved to a similar facility in Svatove, in Luhansk Oblast further south, which was still under Russian occupation.
A fortnight later, they were moved to a Special School in Perevalsk, a town deeper in the region and closer to the Russian border.
For six weeks from the day the children were evacuated, there was no contact between them and their parents. Tetyana said she “cried every day” as she frantically tried to find her son with the help of volunteers.
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The pair spoke on the phone finally when Sasha was in Perevalsk, where both cried profusely, but they were told they could only be properly reunited if Tetyana came to pick her son up in person.
But the direct route crossed the frontline, making such a journey impossible. Instead, Tetyana travelled from Ukraine through Poland and the Baltics before crossing on foot into Russia, where the FSB Security Service then interrogated her about Ukrainian troop movements.
“I was afraid that if they took Sasha into Russia, I would never find him. I was afraid he’d be put in a foster family, just like that,” Tetyana told the BBC.
“What have our children got to do with anything? Why did they do this to us? Maybe it’s just to cause us pain, like with everything else.”
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When she finally reached Perevalsk, after an exhausting five days on the road, Tetyana hugged her son tightly. Sasha, meanwhile, was crying from happiness.
But for some of Sasha’s classmates, their family were unable to make the journey to retrieve them.
Those Ukrainian children with special needs are now being forced to wear school uniforms with the letter “Z”, the symbol for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, emblazoned on their soldiers in the blue, red, and white colours of the national flag.
Pictures on the website of Perevalsk Special School show some of these children wearing the uniforms while taking part in a class to mark Defenders of the Fatherland Day.
The lesson was dedicated to learning “gratitude and respect” for the Russian soldiers that invaded the children’s homes just a year earlier.
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