In an attempt to escape war, this Ukrainian father ends up in a Russian prison — and his children in Moscow

Ukraine says more than 13,000 children have been deported to Russia since the start of the war

In some of Evgeny Mezhevoy's darkest moments, such as when he was questioned and crammed into an overcrowded detention center in Russian-occupied Donetsk, the single father imagined himself talking to his three children, whom he said were snatched from him at a checkpoint while trying to save him. to avoid the Russian attack on Mariupol.

"I talk to them one by one. I calm them down," Mezhevoy told CBC News in an interview from their two-bedroom apartment in Riga, Latvia, in late November.

"I said I would come for them - and I'm still alive."

That inner conversation helped him survive the weeks of fear and uncertainty, until his family could be reunited.

Mezhevoy, 39, was separated from his children in April, when Russian soldiers on the outskirts of Mariupol noticed Ukrainian military identification in his passport, which he received while he was working as a mechanic.

He eventually ends up in jail, while the children are flown to Moscow with promises of attending camps.

"I don't want to go anywhere. I know this isn't any summer camp," says Mezhevoy's 13-year-old son, Matvey.

Matvey and his two sisters, Sviatoslava, 9, and Alexandra, 7, are among more than 13,000 children Ukraine says were forcibly deported to Russia after launching its invasion on February 24.

Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing some of its youngest and most vulnerable people. Russia, on the other hand, portrays itself as the savior of forgotten orphans.

Many of the children reportedly sent to Russia came from orphanages in the occupied territories, but child welfare experts say most are not actually orphans and were previously placed in foster care because their parents were unable to care for them.

Other children, like Mezhevoy, end up in Russia after being forcibly separated from their families by soldiers at checkpoints, or through the chaos and violence of war.

Life in war-torn Mariupol

Ukrainian officials have urged the United Nations and the G20 to get involved. International organizations say there is a great need for an independent body to verify Ukraine's data and work with the two countries to find the children and link them to relatives who have been scattered over the past nine months.

After the Russians launched their invasion, Mezhevoy and his children spent weeks huddled in a cellar in Mariupol, trying to survive as Russian troops laid siege to the southern port city.

Toward the end of March, they moved into a bunker in one of the city's hospitals, where they took shelter with more than 100 people. At that time, Mezehevoy said the city was in ruins and corpses lay in the streets. The only time they go out is to fetch water.

One day in early April, Mezhevoy said Russian soldiers told everyone living in the hospital bunker that they had to leave. While some chose to stay, Mezhevoy packed up his children and took the minibus to the checkpoint.

It was there that soldiers saw his passport and eventually took him away from the children.

"It's scary not knowing where your kids are," she said. "The unknown is the scariest."

Over the next month and a half, he was questioned about his ties to the Ukrainian military and asked if he was affiliated with the Azov regiment, a unit that is part of the Ukrainian National Guard, and which Russia accuses of being Nazi sympathizers.

Mezhevoy said sometimes those detained had to sleep standing up because the rooms were so crowded, and the unbearable heat meant most of them were wearing only their underwear.

He said he was hit several times, when the guards didn't like how he answered questions. He told CBC that several other men had dark bruises all over their bodies.

Sent to Moscow

In May, Mezhevoy was transferred to the Olenikva prison in the Donetsk region, which eventually became a holding cell for Ukrainian prisoners of war. It was attacked in July; Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for the attack, which killed dozens of people.

Mezhevoy had been released by then. She said that on May 26, the guards there suddenly told her she could go, and at that point she started making phone calls to trace her children.

He discovered that the day after his release they had flown to Moscow, after spending weeks at various locations in Donetsk, including a cultural center and hospital.

Mezhevoy's son Matvey said that during their separation he did not know where their father was. At one point, the children put up a homemade poster saying they were looking for their father.

When they flew to Moscow, Matvey said they were on the plane with dozens of other children.

They were all sent to what the Mezhevoys described as a heavily fortified place outside Moscow. The camp was called Polyana.

Mezhevoy's children told CBC they did not want to be there, but they did not describe any abuse, saying they spent a lot of time relaxing.

They said officials there organized activities for them, including a dance party, which the children took video of and shared with CBC.

Matvey said that during their stay, they were given a number of health checks, including a blood test, as well as pills which he believed were vitamins.

Although the separation was difficult, Mezhevoy thought the children were better off staying where they were, until he could find work and a safe place to take them.

Mezhevoy said Russian officials told him the children would be brought back to Donetsk in a few weeks. But in mid-June, those plans changed, as heavy fighting was still going on.

On June 16, Mezhevoy received an urgent call from Matvey. She told her father that a social worker said the camp was over, and that if their father didn't pick them up soon, they would either be taken to an orphanage or placed in a foster family.

Mezhevoy blamed the Russian government for taking Ukrainian children — but he didn't blame ordinary Russians.

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