One mother’s heroic journey to save daughter ‘abducted’ by Russia

Sergei Lavrov mocked as he discusses Ukraine war

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Last September, a Ukrainian mother from occupied Kherson lost her daughter to a two-week summer camp from which it seemed unlikely she would ever return. In the regions its forces occupy, Moscow has sought to indoctrinate the next generation by snatching them from their parents and stripping them of their Ukrainian identity. In a daring rescue mission, a group of parents travelled thousands of miles to free their children from so-called “camps”.

Vladimir Putin’s forces first captured the southern city of Kherson in early March last year. Just as Moscow had done following the annexation of nearby Crimea back in 2014, a campaign of rapid “Russification” got underway.

Tatiana Vlaiko, 36, was a single mother working in a butter-processing factory. One day in September, her 11-year-old daughter Lilya announced her class was going on a two-week summer camp, The Sunday Times reports.

She was worried. Strict drop-off instructions were given for the very next morning. “It’s a war and I told her it might not be so easy to get you back,” she said. “But her friends were going and she really wanted to go.”

At 6am, Ms Vlaiko kissed Lilya goodbye and left her in the hands of the headmaster as they boarded a steamboat across the Black Sea.

Phone lines were poor, but the little her daughter shared sounded innocent enough – dolphin sightings, concerts and day trips. Everything was in Russian, however, and her class had to sing the Russian national anthem every morning.

A fortnight passed, but Lilya did not come home. Ms Vlaiko was told her daughter had been moved to a different camp. This happened again and again, until eventually her calls to the teacher were no longer picked up. Lilya was gone.

Last month, Yale University released a report saying over 6,000 children between the ages of four and 17 were being held in camps as part of a “re-education” campaign by the Russian state.

Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s commissioner for children’s rights, believes the actual numbers are far higher. She said: “Today the Russians say they have 738,000 Ukrainian kids they evacuated — but it’s not evacuation, it’s abduction and brainwashing and it’s an act of genocide.

“We don’t believe it’s as many as that – we have so far documented 16,221 – but I think it’s a few hundred thousand.”

READ MORE: Distraught Ukrainian parents tell of how their children were stolen

Kherson was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November. No longer within reach of the Russian state apparatus, this came with the unfortunate consequence of cutting all communication with Crimea. Neither the police nor the Red Cross could help parents find their children.

For its part, Moscow advertised its actions for all to see. State-run broadcasters beamed pictures of children being handed teddy bears, portrayed as abandoned rescues from the conflict.

Ms Vlaiko was ready to do anything to get her daughter back. Eventually, she found out about an organisation called Save Ukraine. Run by the former children’s ombudsman Mykola Kuleba, their plan was to take a group of 16 parents into the heart of Russia and get their children back themselves.

In the freezing cold of late January, they set off. Lilya’s mother said: “I was staring out of the bus windows, and it felt like being in some terrible movie.”

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Crimea is only a few hours’ drive from Kherson, but with the frontline fight raging in between, they had to take an impossible detour – first west by train to Poland, then north by bus to Belarus, then east into Russia.

They were searched roughly at the border – Ms Vlaiko was suspected of being a sniper. Once in Russia, they circled all the way around Ukraine to reach Crimea.

The group found the camps and the parents presented their documents to the officials. To their surprise, the gates were opened and the children were let out, Ms Vlaiko’s daughter among them.

She said: “When I saw Lilya running towards me, we both wept. I felt as if I’d had three sacks of rocks on me that in one second all fell off.” The journey had been a resounding success, but getting home proved even more gruelling.

Belarus denied them entry, so they had to go even further north to Latvia to get into Europe. The rescue mission totalled 8,100km (5,033 miles) over the course of 15 days – to reach somewhere less than 500km (311 miles) as the crow flies.

Those families are among the lucky minority. Only 307 children have been located and brought back to Ukraine, according to Ms Herasymchuk. Save Ukraine claims to have rescued 164 of them, but the arrest of their driver in Belarus is hampering further efforts.

Ms Herasymchuk added: “Seven and a half million children have been affected by this war. Every child has heard an air-raid siren, hidden in a basement, and has a family member fighting. Many have been forced to leave their home.

“This is what the Russians do: try to break our children psychologically because they are the future of Ukraine. It will be a massive problem after the war. But they are amazing, collecting money for soldiers, sending them pictures and keeping up their own front – they are all little fighters.”

After just over a year of devastating conflict in Ukraine, over 460 children have been killed and around a thousand wounded. 

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