(Belarusian-Ukrainian border) For weeks after Russian troops forcibly removed Nataliya Jornyk’s son from school last fall, she had no idea where he was. found nor of what had happened to him.

Then she received a phone call.

“Mom, come get me,” said her son, Artem, 15. He remembered his mother’s phone number and borrowed the school principal’s cell phone.

Nataliya Jornyk made him a promise: “When the fighting calms down, I will come. »

Artem and a dozen classmates had been picked up by Russian troops and transferred to a school in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

While Nataliya Jornyk, 31, was relieved to know where her son was being held, reaching him would not be easy. They were on opposite sides of the front line as the war raged, and the crossings between Ukraine and Russian-occupied territory were closed.

But months later, when a neighbor brought one of her son’s classmates home, she learned of a charity that helped mothers bring their children home.

As it is now illegal for men of military age to leave Ukraine, Ms Jornyk and a group of women aided by Save Ukraine undertook a harrowing 5,000 kilometer journey through Poland, Belarus and Belarus in March. and Russia to enter Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and Crimea to retrieve Artem and 15 other minors.

In the 13 months since the invasion, thousands of Ukrainian children and adolescents have been forcibly displaced or transferred to camps or settlements in Russia or Russian-controlled territories, operations that the Ukraine and rights advocates consider war crimes.

The fate of these children is the subject of a desperate standoff between Ukraine and Russia and is the basis of the arrest warrant issued last month by the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, its Children’s Rights Commissioner, of illegally transferring them.

Ukrainian authorities and human rights organizations describe the forced displacement as a plan to rob a generation of young Ukrainians, turn them into loyal Russian citizens and eradicate Ukrainian culture, which amounts to genocide, say -they.

No one knows the total number of Ukrainian minors who have been transferred to Russia or Russian-occupied Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has formally identified more than 19,000 minors it says were forcibly transferred or deported, but people working on the issue believe the real number is closer to 150,000.

Russia pleads that its transfer of children and teenagers is a humanitarian effort, describing it as a relief operation in a war zone, but it refuses to cooperate with Ukraine or international organizations to find a large number of between them. After the ICC issued the arrest warrant for Ms Lvova-Belova, she said the parents were free to pick up their children, but only 59 of them were waiting to go home — a claim that Ukrainian officials have deemed absurd.

For the thousands of children who have been transferred, sometimes from broken homes and disadvantaged families, being away from home for so long is a real ordeal. Some are in tears when they call family and cannot speak freely, their parents said.

And then there is the feeling of guilt. Some sent their children to summer camps on the Crimean peninsula, after being assured they would return two weeks later. Others simply gave in to pressure from officials and soldiers to have their children taken away. They all felt guilty for not bringing them back.

“I felt completely lost. I was heartbroken,” said Yulia Radzevilova, who brought her 12-year-old son Maksim Marchenko home in March after he had spent five months in a camp in Crimea. “No one supported me. Family, relatives, friends started accusing me. »

But other children were transferred without warning or, like Artem, simply disappeared.

Artem had gone to his school in Kupyansk on September 7 – as Ukrainian troops were driving out the Russian occupation – to collect documents he needed to go to university. As no bus returned that day, he spent the night there. The next day, Russian troops arrived and loaded him and other students into military trucks.

When he did not return home, his mother tried to pick him up in Kupyansk, but she turned back under heavy artillery fire. For three weeks, there was no electricity or telephone in his village because of the fighting. Without news of her son, she reported him missing to the police.

That’s when Artem’s phone call came. He said he and his schoolmates, aged 7 to 17, were taken to Perevalsk in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, where they were placed in a boarding school.

He was only a few hours away, but in a territory closed by the war.

“It was hard,” she said shaking her head, “very hard.”

Across the country, in southern Ukraine, Olha Mazur faced an even more daunting search. Her son, 16-year-old Oleksandr Chugunov – colloquially known as Sacha – lived in a boarding school for disabled children in Oleshky, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, across from the city of Kherson where she lived. Sacha is autistic and he does not speak, she says.

She last saw her son over the summer. Kherson was still busy, and a Russian headmaster had been placed in charge of his school. Then the bridge over the Dnieper was bombed and she could no longer move to see it. In November, she saw her name on the internet in a list of minors transferred to Crimea by the Russians.

She was both relieved and worried. “I’m grateful he’s alive,” she said, but the school never let her know what she was doing, and Ash had no way of contacting her.

Few mothers, if any, could afford such a trip. But there are several charities doing it, and Nataliya Jornyk had heard of one of them, Save Ukraine.

Founded after the attack by Russian forces in 2014, the group was created to move children and their families from occupied areas and places of intense fighting to shelters or new homes. After children were stranded in Russian-occupied territories last fall, the group began organizing rescue missions. The mothers embarked on a 5,000 kilometer journey through Poland, Belarus and Russia, to the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine and Crimea.

They had to cross hostile borders and undergo police checks along the way, which included a flight from Belarus to Moscow and nine hours of questioning by immigration officials at the airport. From Moscow, they traveled more than 1600 kilometers to Crimea. Nataliya Jornyk broke away from the group to pick up Artem in Perevalsk. Then the whole group went the other way and returned to Ukraine via Belarus.