When Sasha Kraynyuk, age 15, examined the photograph provided to him by Ukrainian investigators, he immediately recognized the youth in a Russian military uniform.
The teenager seated at a school desk has the Z-mark of Russia’s conflict, colored in the red, white, and blue of the Russian flag, emblazoned on his right sleeve.
However, the young man’s name is Artem and he is Ukrainian.
Sasha and Artem were among 13 children abducted from their school in Kupyansk, northeastern Ukraine, by armed Russian soldiers wearing balaclavas in September 2014. After being ushered onto a bus with cries of “Quickly!”, they vanished without a trace for weeks.
When the children, all of whom have special educational needs, were eventually permitted to call home, it was from a much deeper portion of Russian-occupied territory.
Their relatives were forced to make arduous journeys across thousands of miles to the nation that has declared war on them to retrieve them. Artem was one of the last children to return from Perevalsk; his mother only retrieved him this spring.
When I called the school’s director, she did not see a problem with Ukrainian students wearing the uniform of an invading army.
“So what?” Tatyana Semyonova answered back. “What should I do? What does it pertain to me?”
I countered that the Z represented the children’s conflict against their own country. Again, the director demanded, “So what?” “What sort of inquiry is that? “No one is compelling them,”
Sarah Rainsford investigates allegations of Russia’s illegal deportation of Ukrainian children and meets some of their relatives who have been battling to get them returned.
As with any self-conscious adolescent, Sasha is a tall, shy boy with a long fringe that he likes to smooth into position.
The separation of a child from his or her family would be distressing for any child. For someone vulnerable, like Sasha, it was profoundly unsettling. His mother, Tetyana Kraynyuk, informs me that, months after their reunion, he remains withdrawn. The 15-year-old has even begun to develop grey hairs as a result of all the tension.
They are now exiles in the western German town of Dinklage, where Sasha spends most of his time after school on his bed playing on his phone. However, he vividly recalls the moment when Russian soldiers abducted him.
Sasha acknowledges in a quiet voice while rubbing his hands back and forth on his thighs, “It was terrifying.” “I didn’t know where they would take us.”
When I ask him about how much he misses his mother, he pauses for a while, says it’s too upsetting to recollect, and asks if he can change the subject.
Sasha attended Kupyansk Special School in northeastern Ukraine before the conflict. He boarded during the week and returned home on the weekends, but when Russia invaded Kharkiv in February 2022, Tetyana kept her son at home for his protection.
As September drew closer, the occupying administration demanded that all students return to school, this time with a Russian curriculum. The same effort was made in all occupied areas, with Russian instructors frequently replacing those locals who refused to collaborate.
Tetyana was hesitant to send Sasha back, but the adolescent was severely bored after seven months in their village, so on September 3, she delivered him to Kupyansk.
After a few days, Ukrainian forces initiated a lightning-fast operation to recapture the region.
“We heard the commotion from a great distance. The explosions can be heard. Then there were helicopters and gunfire. It was extremely loud. Tetyana recalls seeing tanks and the Ukrainian flag during the counter-offensive.
She was distraught because she couldn’t reach her son.
“When we arrived at the school, only the custodian remained. “He stated that the children had been abducted and no one knew where,” Tetyana states.
A teacher was present when as many as ten heavily armed Russian soldiers “swooped into” the school on that day.
Mykola Sezonov told me when we met in Kyiv that they did not care about removing any documents or contacting parents. They simply loaded the children onto a vehicle with some refugees and fled.
I explained to him that Russia’s defense in such situations is that it removes minors from danger.
The teacher responded, “Having lived under Russian occupation, I know the difference between what they say and what I see through the window.”
Six weeks passed with no news of the children.
“I wept every day, called the hotline and reported my son’s disappearance, and wrote to the authorities. We attempted to locate him via volunteers,” Tetyana explains.
A month passed before an acquaintance discovered a video from early September 2022 on social media. It was reported that thirteen students from the Kupyansk Special School had been relocated to a similar facility in Svatove, which is still under Russian control.
Another two weeks later, Tetyana’s phone rang with a message: Sasha was attending a Special School in Perevalsk, and his mother could call to speak with him.
“He was pleased to hear from me. But he truly wept,” Tetyana recalls of their conversation. They informed him that his home had been devastated, causing him to fear for our safety.
Communication with combat zones is difficult, but the Kupyansk children passed through three institutions before anyone attempted to contact their relatives.
“There was no evidence. Only from Perevalsk, and not immediately even then. “I believe they did it on purpose,” Tetyana asserts.
Her struggles weren’t over.
She must return Sasha to her residence in person, but the quickest route crosses the frontline. Instead, Tetyana traveled from Ukraine via Poland and the Baltics before crossing into Russia on foot, where she was questioned by the FSB Security Service about Ukrainian troop movements.
She lacked anything to say.
“It was pitch black, there were checkpoints, and men with guns wore balaclavas.” Tetyana recalls, of the remainder of the journey into occupied eastern Ukraine, “I was so terrified I had to take pills to calm down.”
She had additional cause to be terrified. By that time, Russia was removing children from orphanages in occupied territories and placing them with Russian families.
The children’s advocate’s Telegram channel is filled with videos of her escorting groups of Ukrainian children across the border. Where they are greeted by Russian foster parents with gifts and hugs while the cameras film.
We sent two interview requests to Maria Lvova-Belova but received no response. However, the message conveyed by all of her posts is unmistakable: Russia is the hero in what it still refuses to term a war. Russia asserts that it is rescuing Ukrainian minors.
When Vladimir Putin eased Ukrainian children’s adoption and citizenship, Sasha left Kupyansk. Late in September, he proclaimed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, including Luhansk, where Sasha was located at the time.
Maria Lvova-Belova repeatedly referred to the children in these regions as “ours” in public and online settings. She adopted a teenager from Mariupol, publishing photos of him with his new Russian passport.
“If they took Sasha to Russia, I feared I would never locate him. Tetyana tells me, “I feared he would be placed with a foster family abruptly.”
“What relevance do our offspring have to anything? Why did they treat us this way? Perhaps the purpose is to cause us suffering, as with everything else.”
When she eventually reached Perevalsk after five days of exhausting travel, Tetyana embraced her son tightly. Sasha didn’t utter a word. He was weeping tears of joy.