Yevhen Mezhevyi struggled to hide his anger on Sunday when he saw footage of Vladimir Putin, the man who had overseen the deportation of his three children, visiting his home town of Mariupol.
The 40-year-old single father is one of thousands of Ukrainian parents whose children have been abducted and transferred to Russia since Putin invaded last year – forced deportations that prompted the international criminal court to issue an arrest warrant for the Russian president on Friday.
“What can I say about Putin visiting Mariupol?”, Mezhevyi told the Guardian from the Latvian capital, Riga, where he now lives. “I wish he’d get a flat tyre. He’s nobody to me and half of the world knows what he is.”
Mezhevyi’s children were taken while he was being held in jail by Russian-backed separatists for 45 days. Unlike the many parents who have no knowledge of their children’s whereabouts, his family has been reunited, after he undertook a risky journey over the border to rescue them.
Mezhevyi was working as crane operator in the suburbs of Mariupol when Russia invaded in February 2022.
“The day of the invasion, as soon as we started hearing shells, my first thoughts were of my son, Matvii, 13, and my daughters, Sviatoslava, nine, and Oleksandra, seven,” he said. “I was at work and took a cab straight home to my children. We spent the next few days moving from one shelter to another, sleeping on inflated mattresses, without water and electricity.”
Mariupol was quickly encircled and subjected to a siege described by the Red Cross as “apocalyptic”.
“I was going every day to hospital number four, in Mariupol, where I could charge our phones and power banks,” Mezhevyi recalled. “Most of the doctors had left. There were just a few nurses and ER doctors. Some volunteers talked me into moving to the hospital’s bomb shelter with my children. The room was in bad condition, due to years of neglect and absence of basic maintenance. In exchange, I helped volunteers and nurses carry the dead bodies. When we ran out of body bags and the morgue reached its capacity, we just piled them up behind the hospital, one on top of the other.”
Cut off from the world and low on food, Mezhevyi managed to stay in the hospital’s bomb shelter until 17 March, when Russian forces backed by Chechen fighters broke through the city’s defences. His son woke him up and said to him: “Dad, there are Russian soldiers on the staircase …”
“The soldiers told us we had two options,” Mezhevyi said. “Either we went with them immediately or we could talk to the Chechens who were coming after them. We chose to go with them. They brought us to Vynohradne, a village to the south-east of Mariupol, where young people in white shirts and badges saying ‘I love Russia’ were greeting us and offering assistance. We stayed there for a while but then, one day, after we were taken to a checkpoint and searched, a Russian official saw something in my documents”
From 2016 to 2019, Mezhevyi had served in the Ukrainian army at a military base in Yavoriv in the west of the country. He knew that, once the cities had been occupied, the Russian military went looking for and imprisoned former soldiers. He had thrown away his uniforms in an attempt to leave no trace of his time in the army.
Mezhevyi said the Russian soldiers told him “We got you now!” and suggested that he round up a babysitter for his children. “I asked for how long? And they said: ‘Could be two hours, could be seven years.’”
Mezhevyi asked a woman living in the same bomb shelter to keep an eye on his children while the military took him to a base for some checks. “I thought they were going to keep me there for a few hours,” he said, “but it turned out to be much longer.”
Mezhevyi was transferred to a prison near the town of Olenvinka in Donetsk province that housed Ukrainian prisoners of war. He remained there for about 45 days.
“When I got out from prison, again, my first thoughts were of my children,” he said. “After they let me out from Olenivka, I got to Donetsk [city] on 26 May to pick up my documents and find out where they were.”
Mezhevyi noticed that his children’s birth certificates were missing. When he asked an official from the occupying authorities what had happened, he was told that his children had been flown to Moscow that morning “to a camp”.
Mezhevyi had no money left. His thoughts turned to finding work and then trying to make contact with the camp where his children had been transferred. Then one day, early in June, he got a call from his oldest child, Matvii.
“‘Dad,’ he told me, ‘I was told that the camp is closing, in five days, and we have to either go to a foster family or an orphanage.’ I understood there was no time to look for a job. I needed to take the risk, travel to Russia and get them out of there, as soon as possible.
“Thank God, there are volunteers who helped me get to Moscow. It was very hard to cross into Russia from the occupied territories and I was interrogated, again and again, even though I had already spent 45 days in their prison and I just wanted to get my children. But no one cared about that. Eventually, I crossed into Russia and got on a train to Moscow.”
When he arrived in Moscow, Mezhevyi was contacted by Alexey Gazaryan, a Russian official who works at a children’s ombudsman office, managed by Maria Lvova-Belova, who is also the subject of an ICC warrant. Gazaryan told Mezhevyi that he didn’t mind him taking his children back, but that he needed to get a permit from social services of the self-declared and unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
After the head of DNR social services, Elena Maiboroda, called Gazaryan to inform him that they would allow the father to pick up his children, on 20 June, around 11pm, Mezhevyi arrived at the camp on the outskirts of Moscow. “I was shocked when I saw the camp had a giant gate and armed guards,” he said.
Mezhevyi was interrogated by at least five people, including Gazaryan, a psychologist, a nurse and the head of the camp, who made him fill out dozens of papers.
“Then, while I was filling out the last document, I heard my girls’ voices and I stopped. They ran in and we hugged, for a long time,” he said. “After that my son, Matvii, came in.”
Mezhevyi managed to cross into Latvia with his children with the help of volunteers, from where he still struggles to understand how, among the documents that the Russians forced his son to sign, there was also a certificate asking the child to transfer the custody of himself and his sister back to their father.
“A thirteen-year-old boy had to write this nonsense,” he said. “Can you imagine? He had to sign it. A 13-year-old kid signing a custody request for himself and his sisters. Absolutely absurd. But you know what? I don’t want to think about it any more. Even today, I can’t believe what me and my children have been through. But, luckily, I got them back. Luckily, we are now together. And that’s all that matters.”