A trail of evidence on social networks and state media detail Minsk’s role in a potential war crime

August 11, 2023



Alexei Talai was waiting on the platform of Minsk’s main train station as a locomotive glided in and dozens of children from Ukraine’s besieged Donbas region spilled onto the platform, where they were greeted with a bunch of brightly colored balloons. According to reports in state media, their journey from eastern Ukraine to Belarus was organized by Talai’s charity with the personal backing of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a man who has described himself as “Europe’s last dictator.”

A broadcast on the state-owned City TV about the children’s arrival last September painted it as a feel-good humanitarian deed: The children surrounded Talai’s wheelchair, chanting “Thank you, thank you.” To international legal experts and U.S. government officials, it is potentially a war crime.

Of all the atrocities that Russian forces have been accused of since the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year—a list that includes mass graves, torture, and the bombing of hospitals—the systematic deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the territories it occupies was the subject of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a top advisor earlier this year. Ukrainian officials estimate that some 20,000 children have been taken to Russia in what researchers at Yale University have described as a systematic program for the forcible adoption and indoctrination of Ukraine’s children.

While Russia’s role in the deportation of Ukrainian children has been well documented, details have only just begun to emerge of a similar operation in Belarus—details that could expose those involved, including Lukashenko, to war crimes charges.

“I think anyone involved could be charged under the same theories,” said a senior U.S. government official, speaking on background under ground rules set by the Biden administration, noting that the deportation of civilians to Belarus followed a similar “fact pattern” as those to Russia.

The arrival of groups of hundreds of children from eastern Ukraine to Belarus, where they are sent to large recreational camps, has been well documented in the country’s state media, which

hews closely to the government’s line. But rights advocates and foreign governments are only just starting to grapple with what happens to the children from there.

“Information about those camps is really in short supply,” said Wayne Jordash, a human rights lawyer who is assisting the Ukrainian government’s war crimes investigations.

Parents themselves have been some of the best sources of information about the deportations, said Kateryna Rashevska, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer who is investigating Belarus’s role. As swaths of Ukrainian territory were liberated in a counteroffensive last year, stories began to emerge of desperate parents traveling to Russia in search of their children. But those taken to Belarus have come from regions that are still under Russian occupation and beyond the reach of investigators.

Pavel Latushka, Belarus’s former minister of culture-turned-opposition figure, has the most detailed public accounting of deportations. By tracking posts on social networks, reports in the state media, and from its own sources, his organization, the National Anti-Crisis Management Group, found evidence that at least 2,100 Ukrainian children were taken to Belarus from occupied territories between September 2022 and May of this year. What they found was evidence of “systematically organized, [large] scale war crimes, led by Lukashenko personally and supported by some individuals and so-called NGOs,” he said in an interview.

In June, Latushka handed over a dossier of information about his findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A spokesperson for the court declined to comment.

When contacted for comment for this article, the charge d’affaires at the Belarusian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Pavel Shidlovsky, responded with a link to a news article in the Belarusian state media in which Lukashenko dismissed concerns about the deportations as “simply ridiculous” and suggested that Ukrainian children were being trafficked to the West to have their organs harvested. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.