The Insider has identified the man who used violence and intimidation against Ukrainian children taken to Russian camps as Valery Astakhov, a former Berkut officer who took part in the Maidan protests on the side of Viktor Yanukovych's security forces. Astakhov’s details are listed in the Myrotvorets (“Peacekeeper”) database, which states that he served in the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, became a Russian citizen after the annexation of Crimea and switched to serve in the Russian Interior Ministry in Yevpatoria.
Journalist Tatiana Popova showed photos of Astakhov to the boy who told The Insider about the beatings of Ukrainian children in a deportation camp, and he confirmed the man in the images as the one responsible for the violence.
Astakhov is known to have already taken children from Sloviansk to the Rostov region in 2014. According to a Kommersant report, 38 people, including 21 children aged from 2 months to 12 years old, were taken away at the time, with Astakhov accompanying them. At the time, Astakhov claimed that the bus with the refugees was going to be shot by the Ukrainian National Guard, but his claims have not been verified.
On 23 March 2023, 17 children returned to Ukraine, whom occupation authorities in the Kherson region had sent on “holiday” to children's camps in annexed Crimea as early as last October. The children had spent six months in Crimea, with the authorities initially claiming that they would only spend ten days there.
Tatyana Popova spoke to the returning children and their parents in Kyiv. According to Vitaly, 16, the children were beaten, threatened with violence and kept in a basement. Vitaly added that a girl from Kherson was hit with an iron stick with such force that she was left with a striped bruise on her back.
At the Druzhba camp in Yevpatoria, Astakhov took the children to the basement, showed this stick and threatened that he would beat them up for supporting Ukraine. “He said: I will lock you in the basement, you’ll sit there, you’ll obey me,” Vitaly said of Astakhov. According to the child, there was no bed linen in the Druzhba camp – only dirty mattresses and pillows.
Not all children have experienced abuse at the camps, but all speak of poor conditions and bad food.
A study by a Yale University laboratory reported that over 40 camps for Ukrainian children now operate in Siberia, on the Black Sea coast, in Russia’s central regions, in the Urals and in annexed Crimea. According to the report, the camps teach children about “traditional values,” hold history lessons in line with “Russian standards” and teach them how to shoot weapons and handle machinery. “Young fighter’s courses” for children – military training programs – have also been allegedly held in some camps, including those in Crimea and Chechnya.
In late December, reports revealed that the administrations of children's camps in Crimea were not letting Kherson children go home, and over 100 children had not returned to Balakliia from another camp. The website of Ukrainian government portal “Children of War” says 16,226 children are missing. According to the website, 308 children have so far been returned to their homeland.
On 17 March, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, saying they were responsible for illegally deporting children from Ukraine.