Desperate parents regularly write to the first lady, pleading for help. ‘As a mother, I don’t know how I would cope,’ she says of the kidnappings by Russia’s troops

Maxim Tucker

November 10, 2023

The Times


There is only a hint of fatigue in Olena Zelenska’s steely green eyes to show she carries the weight of a thousand mothers searching for their children on her shoulders. She remembers the very first child she realised had been taken by Russian troops, a teenager named Serhii, kidnapped from his village in Chernihiv in the first weeks of the invasion. As the war progressed, more and more stories began to emerge. “In the very first months of the full-scale invasion, reports of terrible incidents with children started appearing,” she recalls, speaking as part of an interview given exclusively to The Times and Channel 4, to be broadcast on Monday night as part of the documentary Dispatches: The Hunt for Ukraine’s Stolen Children.

At first it was individual children being seized and taken from their families, Zelenska says during our meeting in a secure room deep in the bowels of Ukraine’s presidential administration. Then entire schools, hospital wings and orphanages were emptied by the Russians. “And the longer this terrible invasion lasted, the more these stories were revealed. We began to understand the huge scale of this when the Russians started abducting children by entire institutions.”

Today, Ukrainian law enforcement has been able to identify 19,546 children that it says have been taken by the Kremlin. Their evidence has prompted the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants for President Putin and the Kremlin’s top official for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

Russian officials say they have moved many more — some 744,000 children — claiming they spirited them across the border for their own safety. Desperate Ukrainian parents regularly write to Zelenska and her husband pleading for help. “Behind every one of these statistics is the story of a terrified child,” she says. “Messages from parents, relatives, grandparents, friends who were looking for children nobody could find.” A mother herself to Oleksandra, 19, and Kyrylo, 10, she was moved to act.  “Frankly speaking, as a mother, I don’t know how I would cope if someone took my child away even for a day and I didn’t know where they were. It’s very difficult for me to imagine how one can survive this. This is probably my worst nightmare,” she says, shaking her head at the horror of it.

As President Zelensky fought for the return of Ukrainian territory taken by Putin’s troops on the battlefield, Zelenska decided to fight for the return of Ukrainian children taken by them during occupation. “I think that everyone who has a voice should spread the information about it, testify. Unfortunately, it is probably one of the most effective ways we can tackle it: to make it

public as much as possible so that every person in the world hears about it. It can initiate more powerful actions to make Russia return our children.”

For a woman once assigned as a target for Putin’s special forces, her trips abroad are becoming increasingly frequent as Kyiv leans on her star power to seek humanitarian aid from world leaders. Time has listed her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Now, she is taking on Kremlin diplomats in the international arena. “We demand that forced deportations be stopped, that forced assimilation be stopped,” she says. “Children of a country cannot be forced to become citizens of another country. It is necessary to create safe corridors to return the children who are now under occupation and in the war zone.” In September she travelled to the UN general assembly in New York to brief diplomats on the matter. “The pressure has to be very strong, it has to come from everywhere, not just from Ukraine. We hope that all the conscious people of the world will hear us and will feel this the way I do, the way parents do.”

Dispatches: The Hunt for Ukraine’s Stolen Children reveals how children as young as three have disappeared under Russian occupation, often reappearing in an archipelago of “re-education” camps across the border, where they are fed Kremlin propaganda and older children are trained for military service against their own country.

In the film, Artem, 15, recounts how he and his classmates were seized at their school in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, by a company of Russian soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and taken to a “correctional” boarding school, where they were kept for months and forced to wear Russian uniforms emblazoned with “Z” patches, the symbol used to denote support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian television is open in its broadcast of how the Ukrainian children are spoon-fed Russian nationalism. They are forced to sing the national anthem, told that Ukraine does not exist and that no one is waiting for them at home.

The Ukrainian Ombudman’s office, led by Dmytro Lubinets, and charity organisations such as Save Ukraine work to rescue them, but only 386 children — less than 2 per cent — have been returned to date. The film follows their efforts as they try to help the family of three-year-old Max, lost in an ambush when his parents are shot trying to flee Mariupol. His aunt is desperate to find him before memories of his home and his mother, who was killed in the attack, fade for good.

The programme also follows efforts to rescue 13-year-old Anastasia and her 14-year-old sister Vlada who were taken to a camp in Russian-controlled Crimea. Both children were told they would be taking a two-week holiday before being put up for adoption by Russian families, despite having their own family in Ukraine.

Documenting evidence of the abductions is the journalist Maryna Mukhina, who escaped occupied Starobilsk, in the Luhansk region, with her three-year-old daughter to avoid her being taken away, before deciding to become a war crimes investigator examining the disappearances for the International Partnership for Human Rights.

Zelenska is clearly moved by the psychological scars left on the children who are saved, let alone those who stay in Russia. “One little girl was returned to her parents after about six months,” she says. “She was asking them every day if they loved her. She was told that her parents had abandoned her. That she is not needed. And she tries to reassure herself again and again that it is not true.” Asked if she is worried the world is tired of the war in Ukraine and distracted by other crises, such as the one in the Middle East, Zelenska says she is “outraged” and that there should be “no place in the modern world to neglect the rights of children”.  “Are we saying that for decades, humanity built mechanisms to protect the rights of the child only to give them up to the aggressor now?,” she asks. “If this can happen now, well, we can already get tired of ourselves. We cannot afford to get tired. If everyone gets tired now and stops fighting, it could be the final rest for the world as we know it.”

Ukraine needs the world’s help to get its children back, Zelenska says, because it has proven impossible for Kyiv to trust Putin in any dialogue. “We need the help of the whole world to make it impossible for them to keep our children. To create facilities and mechanisms for exchange, so that we simply take them back. But this pressure must be so powerful that they don’t have any other way out but to return the children.” Every parent should be motivated to take action to help reunite these children with their families, she believes. “If you are a parent, you know you as an adult are responsible for the little ones. If this was your child, you’d go anywhere, even to hell, to get your child back.”


Maxim Tucker is the producer of Dispatches: The Hunt for Ukraine’s Stolen Children, which airs first on Monday, November 13 at 11pm on Channel 4 and afterwards on Channel4.com. He also reports for The Times.