Mriia, Druzhbа, Promenystyi: Russian camps for “re-education” of children kidnapped from Kherson

"Mriia (Dream)" сamp in temporarily occupied Crimea. Screenshot from the SURGe Ukraine video

Russia occupied Kherson in the early days of the full-scale invasion. Since then, the occupiers had been taking Ukrainian children from there to other temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine or even to Russia.

Various methods were used to separate children from the family, including manipulation, psychological and physical pressure, and threats to revoke parental rights. The names used for child abduction also varied: “vacation camps”, “rehabilitation”, or even “evacuation”. 

However, the essence remained the same: children were taken away from their parents to unknown destinations, and then the occupiers refused to return them. 

Witnessing the War informational campaign aims to tell the stories of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through the eyes of Ukrainian children who were forcefully deported, separated from their families, injured, and deprived of their fundamental rights to safety, health, education, and freedom. Deprived of their childhood.

As of May 2024, Ukraine has identified 19,546 children who were illegally and forcibly deported to Russia, Belarus, and temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Thousands more cases may remain unknown. At the same time, only 388 Ukrainian children have been rescued and reunited with their families.

Here are the stories of children who were forced to experience Russian deportation camps in the temporarily occupied Crimea, shared by the SURGe Project.

“Mriia” and “Druzhba”, which no one asked for

Ukrainian children from Kherson were often transferred to camps located on the territory of the temporarily occupied Crimea. According to the witnesses, there were thousands of children in just three camps: “Mriia (Dream)”, “Druzhba (Friendship)”, and “Promenystyi (Radiant)”.

The promised “rehabilitation” for the children quickly turned into “re-education” in the Russian way.

The children were repeatedly told that the Ukrainian language did not exist, that their parents had abandoned them, and they had come not to a “children’s camp” but to an orphanage.

Children recall that they were mocked in the camp and humiliated based on their nationality.

“They told us directly: ‘You are like in a prison here. You have no opinion. There is only our [point of view] and the wrong one,’ say Zhenia and Taia, girls who returned from the temporarily occupied Crimea.

Zhenia and Taia.
Photo: Screenshot from the SURGe Ukraine video

The Ukrainian flag was burned in front of the children. They were forced to stand to the Russian anthem during the lineups and learn the song “Onward, Russia” to perform” it in front of the commission from the Russian Federation. 

Boys and girls from Ukraine had no right to refuse to participate in these “performances”. If so, children were forced to write explanatory notes about their behavior – or they were locked up in isolation. Vitalik,  who returned home from camp “Mriia”, said that he and the other children were kept like that for four days and were released only after they started begging the counselors. 

“If we hadn’t been begging, we probably would have stayed there,” he says.

Photo: Screenshot from the SURGe Ukraine video

In addition to psychological pressure, the “educators” of the camps also did not shy away from using physical force against the newly arrived children.

“There were many children crying because the counselors beat them. They locked them in a room, shouted at them with obscenities, beat them with sticks, and forced them to clean the corridors,” Vitalik recalls.

There was no talk of proper nutrition. According to the children, “it was safer not to eat“. The portions were small, and half of the children did not eat enough.

In such conditions, children from Kherson were held in the camps for six months. They were returned to their parents only in March 2023.

“When we arrived in the Volyn region, crossing the border of Belarus and Ukraine, and saw the sign “Ukraine”, it was the first time we could smile sincerely,” the children say.

Stolen childhood

According to Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Russia uses several methods to abduct Ukrainian children:

● children whose parents were killed in the temporarily occupied territories are forcibly displaced;

● children are removed from their families, and their parents are deprived of parental rights according to the “laws” of the occupation authorities;

● рarents are separated from their children during the filtration process;

● uninhabitable conditions are created, and then it is “offered” to transfer children for “rehabilitation” under duress;

● children from residential care facilities are taken away.

Currently, state statistics can only count confirmed cases of child abduction reported by their relatives or friends. In reality, the number may be much higher. Thousands of children remain in the temporarily occupied territories under Russian control.

Russia does not provide information about abducted children, often moves them not only within the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine but also to different regions of Russia, and changes data about children to make them harder to find and return. Those who were abducted from orphanages were forcibly sent for adoption to Russian families in various regions of the Russian Federation.

Map with “temporary accommodation centers” for deported persons in Russia and Belarus.
Source: Where are our people? website

Those are brutal violations of international law with many indications of genocidal practices. All Ukrainian children, forcefully deported, abducted, forced through the “re-education” process, or illegally adopted must be returned as soon as possible.

Find more stories of Ukrainian children amidst Russia’s full-scale invasion and the up-to-date stats on the matter through the Witnessing the War informational campaign.

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