Weeks turn to months as children become stuck at camps in Crimea Ukraine

Kherson city was liberated by Ukrainian forces in November. But for some, the horrors of the Russian occupation are still not over. Nadia* sent her 14-year-old son to a Russian-run summer camp in Crimea – occupied by Moscow since 2014 – in October. He was meant to return after two weeks. It has now been more than two months.

In late November, he forwarded her a series of chilling voice messages from his camp leader telling him he would not be allowed back to Kherson because of his pro-Ukraine views.

“You are in Russia! You shouldn’t be doing different [types] of weird bullshit,” the camp leader in Yevpatoria, Crimea, said in the voice messages, which have been forwarded to the Guardian. “I don’t know who is going to deal with you now, but you are not going back to Kherson, that’s 100% [certain] … You can thank your mother for that.”

Like many parents, Nadia did not see sending her child to such a camp – known as summer camps even at other times of the year – as making a pro-Russia statement. Parents often decided to send their children because their classmates were going and they were being offered a free holiday by the sea.

A view of the Artek pioneer camp and statue of Vladimir Lenin in Crimea. Photograph: Reuters

Nadia’s son left Kherson on October 4 and his stay at the camp was repeatedly extended by the authorities, said his mother, speaking from central Kherson after Russian forces left the city. At first, the camp leaders told her that this was for safety reasons and then, after Ukrainian forces had entered Kherson city, they said he could not return because the city was now “occupied” by Ukraine.

In the messages, the camp leader outlined his problem with the boy. Firstly, his Telegram profile picture featured a Ukrainian trident, Ukraine’s national symbol, on the wall in the background. Secondly, his mother had said she wanted her son to return to Ukraine, meaning that she saw Kherson city as part of Ukraine, not Russia, thereby going against the grain of Russian propaganda that still insists the city is part of Russia.

Nadia’s case is one of many. Hundreds of Ukrainian children as young as six and as old as 16 from Kherson and Kharkiv regions have been stuck in Russian summer camps for weeks and in some cases months.

Over the summer, Russia offered parents in the occupied areas of Ukraine a chance to send their children to summer camps in Crimea and southern Russia for free. But it has been refusing to return the children to their parents, citing the ongoing fighting as well as Ukraine’s “occupation” of areas Russia claimed to have annexed and has now retreated from.

Parents are told they can collect the children if they come in person, which requires them to cross the dangerous unofficial checkpoint through the frontline or leave Ukraine and travel via Poland and the Baltics. But many of the parents are from very low-income backgrounds and have not been able to make the journey.

Although the parents sent them willingly, they had agreed to a short stint. The UN convention on children’s rights bans the “illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad”, so Russia is obliged to return the children.

Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with children at the Artek children's holiday camp in 2017
Vladimir Putin poses for a photo with children at the Artek children’s holiday camp in 2017. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters

The Guardian spoke to eight parents who had sent their children to the summer camps. Some say they believe that Russia wants to use the children to exchange for Russian prisoners of war. Others believe Moscow wants to assimilate the children and plan to keep them in Russia.

The camps were advertised through schools in the occupied areas as restorative breaks, offering a mix of sports, arts, games, and sea air or lake swimming. But the children have also been taught Russian narratives about the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Soviet history as well as Russian culture, according to several interviews and videos posted online.

In one video, hundreds of children can be seen in a school playground in Crimea singing the Russian national anthem. Most appear not to know the words.

The hundreds of children stuck in the Russian-run summer camps are in addition to the thousands of children living in orphanages in the occupied areas who were illegally taken to Russia during the Russian occupation.

Ukraine’s human rights’ ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, has said this is part of Russia’s “genocide against Ukraine”, erasing Ukrainian identity through “re-educating the future generations”. Lubinets said the Russians were not interested in returning the children, and although Ukraine was trying, “the return of each child is like a special operation”. Ukraine asks parents not to publicly name their children as they then become harder to exchange.

For a domestic audience, Russia portrays the deportation of the children as an attempt to save Ukrainian children from the war – ignoring Russia’s role in starting the conflict.

Since October, the children have started attending Russian schools while living on the camps’ premises. It is not clear what plans Russia has for these children beyond this school term.

One of them is Natalia’s* 12-year-old daughter, who left her home in Balakliia in late August and is still in southern Russia, attending a school in Krasnodar by bus. Natalia has managed to keep in daily contact with her but cannot afford to make the journey to collect her. “I think it’s some sort of blackmail,” said Natalia. “I think they want to use them as bargaining chips.”

A school building at the Artek camp in 2014
A school building at the Artek camp in 2014. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

In at least some cases, the Russian camp leaders have said they do not plan to send the children back. In other cases, children have been moved from one camp to another without the parents being informed. Ivana*, a mother from Kherson region, made the long journey to collect her daughter from a camp in Crimea, only to be told the child was not there any more and had been moved to a camp in the Republic of Adygea. She then made a second long trip, where eventually she found her.


Eexactly how many Ukrainian children remain in Russian hands is very difficult to tell. In mid-October, Russia’s state news agency Tass said there were about 4,500 children from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in Crimean summer camps.

Natalia said at least 100 of those who traveled with her daughter were still there. Recent videos taken from some of the five camps in Crimea hosting children from Kherson indicate that at least several hundred children are still there.

Part of the issue is that many of the parents refuse to come forward to the Ukrainian authorities. Dmytro*, who managed to get his son back by threatening a teacher into putting him on a bus in early October, said his parents knew he feared being labeled as collaborators or supporters of Russia. They were trying to resolve things on their own, he said, without official help.

An adviser to the new Kherson regional authorities on missing people, Volodymyr Zhdanov, questioned how the parents “could give their children to the occupiers”, although he admitted it was a gray area and the full picture was unclear.

“We are hearing a lot of stories through the grapevine [of children stuck in Crimea],” said Zhdanov, who noted that the gathering of information on what had happened in occupied Kherson was only just beginning. “But the police say parents have not come forward.”

Andrii Kovanyi, a spokesperson for Kherson police, said they could not comment on the matter as it was being dealt with by several bodies.

Most parents and children who attended the camps said the conditions were good. Children were given the equivalent of hotel rooms to share, taken to see dolphins, to museums and to the beach. The Russian-appointed authorities in Crimea claim to have spent 1.2bn rubles (£16.4m) in 2022 on the camps, which were also attended by Russian children.

Putin delivers a speech to children during a visit to the Artek camp in 2017
Putin delivers a speech to children during a visit to the Artek camp in 2017. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters

The idea behind the camps appears to be to demonstrate the best of Russia and to integrate the children into their new state. In interviews, the adults in charge portray themselves and others as saving children who are victims of the war as well as the Ukrainian state.

In videos from the children’s camps posted on the Russian-installed Kherson authority’s social media, children can be seen with the Russian flag, singing the Russian national anthem as well as classic Soviet songs.

A nine-year-old girl in Kherson city, whose mother collected her in October, said that as well as games and sports they had lectures “about the war”.

One history teacher from Kherson, Maksym Ivchenko, who like many other teachers accompanied the children to Crimea, was asked by Russia’s Crimea24 TV to explain how the history curriculum in Russia differed from that of Ukraine.

“The most egregious thing was the reversal of modern history. We’re talking first of all about the great patriotic war [the second world war]what happened in the Soviet period, its collapse and everything up until the present day,” Ivchenko said.

Tatiana Makarova, the head of the program for Kherson and Zaporizhzhia at one of the biggest camps in Crimea, Artek, told the same TV channel: “Our task is to remove the psychological pressure put on the children who come from the areas where the war is happening.”

Nadia said she and her son had argued at first because she did not want him to go to the camp, but eventually she gave in. “I thought: OK, it’s two weeks, there’s the seaside, he’ll get a rest and come back.”

* Names have been changed

Leave a Comment