The offer sounded compelling for any family living in a warzone – send your children to a summer camp in Russia to relax, enjoy the weather and swim in the sea.
The parents of 13 families in one Ukrainian village occupied by Russian forces accepted.
At around 6am on 28 August a bus arrived, picked up the children and drove them out of Ukraine to the camp, hundreds of miles away on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
It was meant to be for a three-week break.
But halfway through, a Ukrainian counteroffensive across the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine unexpectedly ended the Russian occupation of their village.
Russian forces retreated without returning the children.
The mothers of two girls, one aged 13 and the other nine, are distraught.
“I am so worried,” said Natalia Med, standing in the living room of her home in Kozacha Lopan, a rural village surrounded by fields that stretch up to Ukraine’s border with Russia.
On the wall are several photographs of her daughter, Karina, 13, a pretty girl with long, blonde hair. Her mother described her as sensitive, chatty and fun.
“I just want her to come home as soon as possible so I can hug her and kiss her,” she said, starting to cry, wiping away the tears as they streaked across her cheeks.
The second mother, Tetiana Hlahola, 38, is also desperate for news.
Her nine-year-old daughter, Polina, similarly disappeared on the holiday bus.
“It is very difficult because I don’t know what to do,” she said. “We ask everyone to bring back our child… I don’t know how she will be feeling right now.”
She showed a video on her husband’s mobile phone of her daughter dancing. It was taken just a couple of days before she left.
“We hugged. We wished each other the best. We kissed and she went,” Tetiana said, describing the moment they said goodbye.
“Nobody knew it would be so difficult to get her back.”
Russia is accused of forcibly relocating millions of thousands of Ukrainians during the war. There is no suggestion the camp was a deliberate ruse to steal children, but Moscow does not seem to be doing much to help reunite the children who are still stranded.
The Russian forces that controlled the village had told parents the Medvezhonok summer camp would be an idyllic break for the children, away from the shelling and rocket fire that intermittently shook the village given its location next to the border.
Natalia picked up a copy of a Russian newspaper in her home that carried an article on the trip and a photograph of a number of children, including Karina, departing for the camp.
“We trusted them,” the mother said.
She said Karina had spent a week debating whether to go as she had not wanted to leave her mother. But in the end, she decided to attend as three other friends had signed up.
Draft-age Russians flee country as plane ticket prices soar and border crossings increase
‘Reasonable grounds’ to believe war crimes committed in Ukraine, says international court
‘We are afraid’: Ukrainians on frontline as Russia strikes back in the east
Recalling the last conversation, the mother said she had told Karina: “‘Sweetheart, don’t worry, everything will be fine.’ She was crying on the bus. So was I. Then she was gone.”
Locals at the village said the eleven other sets of parents that sent sons and daughters to the camp decided to leave with the Russians when they retired.
Natalia said she would gladly go to Russia as well to retrieve her daughter but only if she had a guarantee that the two of them would be allowed to return home.
“I will take any chance, any lead, if any could help me,” she said. She spends her time trying to obtain information from the Ukrainian authorities.
Tetiana is doing the same. She said she cannot afford to travel to Russia and does not have a passport.
“I thought they [the Russians] would deport Polina and send her home. Why do they need other people’s children?” she asked.
She said she hopes that Russia is not keeping her daughter deliberately.
“We are not thinking they could be” so cruel, she said.
Tetiana offered a message directly to her little girl, saying: “Polina, my daughter, if you see me, please don’t worry, don’t be nervous. Father and mother will bring you home.
“Be a fighter. You know what these words mean…. We will bring you back. I promise. Just don’t worry. We love you so much.”
Natalia also had a message for her daughter, saying: “Daughter, I will bring you back for certain. Don’t worry. We are safe. I love you and I will definitely get you back and I will never let you go. I have sorry you have had to wait so long.”