Ukrainian children 'taken by Russia' hug families after returning from 'camps'

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A group of kidnapped Ukrainian children held in Russian camps have been freed.

The 17 youngsters were taken to Crimea when Russian forces took over their towns.

They said they were told their families had abandoned them, and were beaten with iron rods if they voiced support for Ukraine.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen praised the children’s release, which was organised by NGO save Ukraine.

She said: ‘It is a horrible reminder of the darkest times of our history, what’s happening there to deport children. This is a war crime.’

More than 16,000 Ukrainian youngsters have been taken since the Kremlin’s invasion.

The International Criminal Court has accused Russia of attempting to ‘re-educate’ the children, which included threatening violence as punishment.

One teenager said he was told: ‘We will take you to a boarding school, you will sit there and understand everything.

‘One girl was hit on the back, she ad a big bruise on her back from where the rod was.

‘We were sat in the hall, and there someone shouted, “Glory to Ukraine!”

‘They were taken away. But I don’t know what happened to him.’

Taisa, 15, ddescribed the intense political indoctrination.

She said: ‘If we didn’t sing the (Russian) national anthem, they made us write an explanatory note. Over the New Year, we were shown Putin’s speech.’

Children were seen running into their parents arms after arriving into Kyiv.

Denys Zaporozhchenko embraced three of his children who were among the 17 who returned.

The dad last saw his children in October in Kherson – when they left to go to the Russian summer camp.

He sent his children to Crimea as he expected tough fighting in the region, thinking it seemed the lesser evil.

He told AFP: ‘Russian officials promised to send them to these camps for a wee or two.

‘By the time we realised we shouldn’t have let them go, it was too late.’

His 11-year-old daughter Yana, said: ‘Everything was like in normal camps’ but camp officials ‘made us sing and dance when inspectors came’ from Moscow.’

One mum, Inesda Vertosh, said her son is not ready to talk about his experience in the camp.

‘He looks at me and says “Mom, I don’t want to tell you about it, you wouldn’t sleep at night”.’

Myroslava Kharchenko, a lawyer working with Save Ukraine, said families were often pressured.

She said: ‘(Russian officials) told parents that they have one hour to think, and that if Ukrainians get there before, they will bring American mercenaries who will beat and rape the children.’

Russia insists they are saving Ukrainian children from the horrors of war.

A week ago, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin, accusing him of committing war crimes in Ukraine.

The warrant seeks to haul him before a tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for allegedly trafficking Ukrainian children from occupied territories into Russia.

Reports by the UN and multiple human rights agencies have detailed a ‘vast network’ of detention facilities and convoys in which civilians are systematically forced out of their homes by invading Russian soldiers.

Allegations include children, the elderly and people with disabilities being separated from their families, as well as detainees being beaten, electrocuted and threatened with execution.

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