Hundreds of Ukrainian children have been unable to leave Russian-run summer camps in Crimea for months due to the ongoing war between the two countries.
Parents are growing more and more concerned about the children, who some believe Russia wants to assimilate to its cause or use for prisoner exchanges, The Guardian reported.
One of those parents, identified only by the pseudonym Nadia, said she sent her 14-year-old son to a camp in Crimea more than two months ago, only for the boy to get trapped there.
Nadia, who is from the southern city of Kherson, which was occupied by Russia in the first days of the war and liberated by Ukrainian forces in early December, is worried that the children are getting caught in political gamesmanship.
She said her son began to forward her disturbing voice messages from one of his camp leaders, who said he would not be allowed to return home because of his pro-Ukraine ideology. “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. “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.”
The camp leader went on to tell the boy the issue was his Telegram profile picture, which included a Ukrainian trident, the national symbol, and that his mother said she wanted him returned to Ukraine, indicating that she saw Kherson as separate from Russia, which had tried to annex the region.
It is unclear exactly how many children are being held, but Russia’s state media, Tass, said that there were approximately 4,500 children from Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the camps as of mid-October.
Natalia, another mother using a pseudonym, said her 12-year-old daughter told her at least 100 of the children who traveled with her to Crimea are still there.
“I think it’s some sort of blackmail,” Natalia said. “I think they want to use them as bargaining chips.”
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, said that he believes holding the children captive in the camps is part of Russia’s plan to commit genocide against Ukraine by “re-educating the future generations” to erase their national identity after they began attending Russian schools in October while living at the camps.
Lubinets added “the return of each child is like a special operation.”