Спеціальні потреби

Advocates Plead for Help Rescuing Ukrainian Children Abducted to Russia

FILE — In this photo taken in Moscow, Russia, a Ukrainian boy repatriated from Russia to Ukraine sits next to his grandmother, left, and Russian Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, Oct. 13, 2023. (Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout via Reuters)
FILE — In this photo taken in Moscow, Russia, a Ukrainian boy repatriated from Russia to Ukraine sits next to his grandmother, left, and Russian Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, Oct. 13, 2023. (Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout via Reuters)

"The military came to my house in Kherson and said that they were taking me to a children's camp in Crimea," explained 18-year-old Denys Berezhnyi, addressing U.S. lawmakers in Washington last month. His parents are deaf and mute, he said, and couldn't argue with the Russian soldiers.

In the camp, he said, his supervisor denied him diabetes medication to force him into obedience, until his physical condition deteriorated and he was taken to a hospital in an ambulance.

"I did not want to be a Russian citizen. I called the Save Ukraine hotline from a Russian number and jumped for joy when I learned they would come for me," Berezhnyi told the members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Berezhnyi is one of the lucky Ukrainian children who made it back home. Save Ukraine is the largest network for rescuing Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and private donations.

Still, it has been able to repatriate only 239 children; 64 of them are orphans.

Ukraine government ombudsman Dmytro Lubynets told VOA that Ukraine has been able to recover a total of 518 children from Russia and occupied territories through combined efforts of the state, Save Ukraine and UNICEF.

That's just a small fraction of the children taken to Russia since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and sent forces into eastern Ukrainian territories ahead of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Ukrainian authorities have been able to identify about 20,000 children forcibly taken to Russia, though Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk believes the actual number is much higher, possibly in the hundreds of thousands.

Russia claims children 'in need'

Russian authorities don't deny bringing children from Ukraine to Russia but portray their actions as taking care of children in need and finding adoptive parents for orphans. Moscow also doesn't share the exact number of kids taken or their whereabouts.

Save Ukraine CEO Mykola Kuleba, who also testified at the hearings, told VOA that his organization uses information from multiple sources, including relatives, social services, open data, volunteer organizations and media reports to find missing children.

In March of last year, the International Criminal Court issued warrants of arrest for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the commissioner for children's rights in the Office of the President, Maria Lvova-Belova. It said they were "allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of [children] and that of unlawful transfer of [children] from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation."

In April, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared that the deportation and forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia amounted to genocide.

UN demands Russia stop

On Thursday, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child — a panel of 18 independent experts — demanded Russia end the forcible transfer of children from Ukraine, provide information about those already taken and ensure they are returned home.

In some cases, entire Ukrainian families including children are forced to move to Russia. Kuleba said these families are resettled all over the Russian territory, some as far away as Siberia. Some children are separated from their families and sent to the children's camps, while those whose parents were killed in Mariupol or other occupied territories are placed with Russian families or in orphanages.

Kuleba and Lubynets charge that Russia kidnaps Ukrainian children to brainwash them to hate Ukraine and the United States and to use them as soldiers in future wars.

"The Russians are trying to erase the identity of the Ukrainian children they kidnapped and are raising them as a new generation of the Russian army," Lubynets said at the hearing.

'New approaches' needed

The Ukrainian government and nongovernmental organizations face challenges in bringing children home. Kuleba didn't want to share the details "because the Russians do everything not to return any child, to prevent these returns."

Every return remains a separate special operation that requires "new approaches, new arguments, new partners, new logistical routes," said Lubynets.

Many rescue operations start with a call to the Save Ukraine hotline, which then works with a parent or relative in Ukraine to facilitate the children's return. In the case of Berezhnyi, who was 17 at the time, his disabled parents were unable to come to claim him, so the organization engaged the mother of another child who was taken to Crimea with him.

The mother, her son and Berezhnyi were able to cross the border, where Russian authorities questioned them and closely examined their phones, Berezhnyi recounted.

"And when I saw the sign 'Ukraine,' I took the heavy bag in my arms and shouted, 'Glory to Ukraine!' " he said at the hearings. Berezhnyi arrived back home in July 2023, nine months after being taken from his family.

Kuleba said it became more difficult to repatriate children after the March 2023 ICC decision, which made Russia more reluctant to let the children leave because they would be witnesses to a crime.

At the same time, Lubynets said, it has helped in many cases by bringing international awareness to the situation. "This decision became like a cold shower for the leaders, and everyone started not just 'being deeply concerned,' but finally started to act," he told VOA.

Qatar is so far the only foreign country that has directly facilitated the return of Ukrainian children, helping to bring home 16 in all.

Girl returns 'hostile to Ukraine'

There is no legal mechanism to repatriate deported children, said Andriy Kostin, Ukraine's prosecutor general. He said that Ukrainian authorities provide information and legal arguments to world leaders, asking them to either stop engaging with Putin or, if they do, request that he return the abducted kids.

"The first sentence of every communication with Putin by anyone should start with, 'Putin, bring back the Ukrainian children,' " said Kostin in an interview with VOA.

Kuleba said that children who return home are often exhausted, withdrawn and brainwashed. Many believe that Ukraine no longer exists or that Ukraine is a republic of Russia. Some refuse to go home because they are afraid of "Nazis," a propaganda label that Moscow applies to Ukrainian citizens, some of whom are Jewish.

"One girl, 16 years old, whom we brought back from Mariupol, was so hostile to Ukraine — just hostile — and we can see that she is a very traumatized child. We treat them with respect, try to warm them with love," he said.

Save Ukraine employs psychologists, social workers and case managers to help children readjust. Kuleba also said that they were able to find adoptive families for all the orphans they brought back from Russia.

Mariia Ulianovska, Hanna Tverdokhlib, Ostap Yarysh and Oleksii Kovalenko of VOA Ukrainian contributed to this report.

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    Тетяна Ворожко

    Головна виконавча редакторка Української служби Голосу Америки, журналістка. Висвітлюю політику, відносини України-США, соціальні питання, але найбільш люблю розповісти гарну людську історію. Роблю включення із місця подій, записую інтерв’ю, пишу аналітичні статті, запускаю нові проєкти. Авторка двох книг та двох документальних фільмів. 

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