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31 children return to Ukraine from Crimean “children's camps”, told to only speak about what was “good” there

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Thirty-one children have been returned to Ukraine from the annexed Crimea. As The Insider journalist Marfa Smirnova reports from Kyiv, the buses transporting the children entered Ukrainian territory on the night of April 8 from Belarus. While as many as 33 children were expected to come home, only 31 were brought because the grandmother of two of the children, who was supposed to pick them up, had died.

The majority of the retrieved children are from Kherson. They were kept in several children's camps. As the children recall, every morning they had a workout to the sounds of the Russian national anthem. Those who refused to exercise were reported. When public officials or municipal government members came to visit, the children were made to participate in concerts and sing the song “Go, Russia!” among other things.

According to Marfa Smirnova, all of the children she managed to speak with offered similar accounts. Several girls shared that before sending them home, the heads of their camps spoke to them and told them not to say anything bad about their time in Crimea. As the officials explained, “No one knows how long Kherson will remain Ukrainian.”

On March 23, 2023, Ukraine retrieved 17 children whom the occupation authorities of the Kherson Region had sent to “children’s camps” in annexed Crimea as early as last October. One of them, Vitalii, 16, told The Insider that some of the minors had been beaten, threatened, and kept in the basement. As Vitalii recalls, a girl from Kherson was hit with an iron stick so hard that she had a “stripe-shaped bruise” on her back.

The Insider identified the person responsible for these acts of violence. The man is Valerii Astakhov, an ex-officer of Berkut, the Ukrainian special police that defended Viktor Yanukovych’s regime during the Euromaidan. His personal details are available in the Myrotvorets database, an online resource that publishes a running list of people “whose actions have signs of crimes against the national security of Ukraine, peace, human security, and international law”. According to the database, Astakhov served in the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs but assumed Russian citizenship after the annexation of Crimea and joined Russia's MIA forces in Yevpatoria.

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