May 20, 2023
One of the most appalling and perplexing atrocities committed by Vladimir Putin has been the abduction of Ukrainian children. At least 20,000 boys and girls, some just babies, have been separated from their parents and placed in Russian camps, orphanages or foster homes. They are portrayed in Russia as grateful orphans being saved from “Kyiv’s war” – but this is a lie. Most of the deported children have families who are searching for them, desperate to find them and take them back home before their names are changed and they become untraceable.
The abduction of another nation’s children is a form of genocide. But Russia’s population is decreasing and Putin is obsessed with expanding the Russky Mir or “Russian World”. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he launched the “Train of Hope” programme – any willing Russian could adopt an orphan from Crimea. Ukrainian children were deported from Donbas too: some 1,700 of them were ‘evacuated’ within eight years, according to Moscow state media.
The abductions have been carried out by various means. Some parents were duped into believing that their child was being temporarily evacuated – like young Londoners in the Blitz – and would be returned in a few weeks. In other cases, children were whisked off for medical tests, diagnosed with mysterious diseases and taken off for more “tests”, never to return. When Russian forces moved into Berislav in the Kherson region, for example, every family was asked to send at least one child to so-called “wellness” camps. Some who refused to do so were labelled bad parents and lost custody of all their children.
One child deported in this way was Vitaliy Vertash, taken from his mother in the early days of the occupation and sent to the Druzhba camp in Crimea. Vitaliy, who is 16, was supposed to be away for a fortnight but was released only upon his rescue six months later. He had the advantage of being older and having a mobile phone, so he called his mother’s number and she contacted a charity, Save Ukraine, which brought him home.
When I spoke to Vitaliy by video link, he talked calmly about what he witnessed. “We were told that our parents had abandoned us,” he says. “They locked us up in isolation cells and in basements. They just hated us.” Vitaliy’s “re-education” was brutal. Any mention of home was punishable. “I was shut in a detention centre for four days because we were listening to Ukraine’s national anthem.” His mobile phone was confiscated, evidence was deleted, and when he was released from detention he was made to stand in front of the other children from occupied Luhansk and disparaged for being pro-Ukraine. “They said that we were sick, that we should be killed and slaughtered. The camp counsellors stood and laughed at us.”
Compulsory citizenship lessons followed. “They made us sing the Russian national anthem. Told us to learn it, recite it by heart in the morning. Whoever didn’t do it would be punished, denied the right to shower or sent to the isolation centre. Then they told us to smile on the camera, and if we didn’t, we would be punished.”
A spirit of defiance set in, even among the younger children, says Vitaliy. “My friend Olya was hit on her back with an iron stick for saying ‘Slava Ukraini’,” he says. “Then a counsellor was making moves on a 13-year-old girl, telling her that they had some kind of relationship. He told her that if she said anything to anyone he’d stab her to death. He said he wanted intimate relations.” That girl ended up being one of the lucky ones. Her father found his way into occupied Crimea and took her from the camp.
The deportation of children is the only war crime Russia does not deny – instead it twists the truth. It claims that the children it has taken were in care or abandoned, and that it has rescued them, reinforcing Putin’s narrative of Russia-as-saviour. It boasts that it has “rescued” as many as 744,000 Ukrainian children. This is a wild exaggeration, although the US State Department has estimated the number of deported kids may be as high as 260,000. Whatever the true figure, the fact remains that the majority of the children transported to Russia are not orphans. Some were taken during “filtration”, when families try to flee occupied territories and the Russians forces decide who is allowed to pass. Most have at least one parent or relative searching for them.
Propaganda films are released in Russia showing Ukrainian kids happily living with adoptive Russian families. Fees are paid to parents whose adoptee proceeds to take Russian citizenship. On the anniversary of the full-scale invasion, children deported from Mariupol were brought on to the stage at a rally in the Luzhiki stadium in Moscow to demonstrate their gratitude for the “rescue”. Several were shown hugging a Russian serviceman. One started to thank a Russian officer in words so obviously scripted that she stumbled and said, “Oh, I forgot a bit”, laughing nervously. Her mother had been killed by shrapnel during the city’s shelling.
Vitaliy says he saw children as young as five in his camp. Their chances of remembering their parents’ phone numbers – or even getting access to a phone – would have been slim. “Most of them didn’t have phones, they couldn’t call. They were crying, saying ‘Call my parents’, but we didn’t know the numbers,” he says. “They were told that their parents had abandoned them, that they would now live in Russia and be sent to an orphanage. Then they sat and cried.”
Save Ukraine is trying to help parents find their deported children in Russian camps, hospitals, prisons and in foster families, but it’s a race against time. Moscow has said that if a child is to return, he or she has to be claimed within six months. When the six months are up, the “adoption” by a Russian family becomes formalised and the child is, in effect, given a new identity and becomes untraceable.
The best chance of a rescue mission’s success is if a parent or close relative, or someone with notarised consent from a parent, goes to Russia to pick up the child. Since Ukrainian men of conscription age are not allowed to leave the country, this usually means the mothers must go. Captured children are often hidden or moved if their location becomes known, so the recommended tactic is to show up without warning, with documents such as birth certificates which prove a relationship to the child. Parents normally film this, making it harder for Russians to refuse – live abductions are very bad PR. But of the tens of thousands of stolen children, just 364 have been returned to Ukraine. Sometimes, parents who do find their children are told that
they too can stay in Russia – and this is also part of the Russian plan to claim not just a child, but the whole family.
Daria Herasymchuk, adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky for children’s rights, says the idea of using children as collateral for any kind of deal or prisoner swap is out of the question. “There are no negotiations with Russians and won’t be. They should return every Ukrainian child without any conditions,” she tells me.
“We have not been able to return any “adopted” child yet, because of the secrecy surrounding the process,” says Mykola Kuleba, the founder of Save Ukraine and a former Ombudsman for Children. “Their names, surnames and even their dates of birth get changed.” The youngest child that the charity has been able to trace was eight years old. Finding toddlers seems impossible for now. He adds that while formal lines of communication do exist between Kyiv and Moscow, they have resulted in the return of just three children. Bringing back hundreds of deported orphans is also a challenge; they have no one to come for them except for volunteers, whom the Russians do not welcome, so it is up to the government to arrange their return.
Ukraine’s allies have so far been keen to condemn the mass abduction but have not been able to assist in rescuing the kids. The deportation of children did lead to an arrest warrant issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court, but this has not helped the situation. You have to go back to the 200,000 Polish children sent for “Germanisation” during the second world war to find an equivalent of what is happening now, and with every day that passes, the chances of retrieving the missing children recedes. So the race is on; children are now being mandatorily evacuated by the Ukrainian government from hot spots in the east of the country, not just to save their lives but also to prevent their abduction in the event that the cities fall to Russia, Herasymchuk told me.
How Kyiv can reclaim the stolen children is as yet unknown: Russia won’t return them voluntarily and there are no means to compel it. So parents and volunteers have to pull the children out one by one if they are lucky enough to locate them. It seems inevitable that thousands of these children will never return to their homes and their real families; many will never find out their real names. We may never know how many – but for each and every one of them it is a tragedy.