“Every child is important”: Head of rescue network vows to continue fight for minors abducted by Russia

06 sept., 2023

As Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine drags on, concerns are growing about the plight of thousands of Ukrainian children who have been forcibly deported or relocated to Russia or territories held by Moscow’s forces, tearing apart families in what amount to war crimes.

Since the war started last February, Russia has illegally transferred – often under the guise of evacuation or rehabilitation – as many as 19,500 Ukrainian children, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration which monitors the occupied territories. 

But despite vigorous efforts, rescuing and returning the minors is no easy feat. It is drawn-out, complicated process plagued with bureaucracy and is being increasingly blocked by Russian authorities, said Mykola Kuleba, the head of Save Ukraine, a charitable rescue network that works to return abducted children.

Of the thousands of children illegally deported since last February, the 140-strong team at Save Ukraine have managed to return 161 of them over 10 separate rescue missions. But Kuleba told Context.ro in an interview that, “Every returned child is important to us … [it] means another life saved.”

After being illegally transferred, many Ukrainian children are subjected by Russian authorities to anti-Ukraine “reeducation” schemes, are often given Russian citizenship before being put up for adoption into Russian families. This can have damaging psychological effects on the children and their real families back home. 

Mykola Kuleba

Mykola Kuleba, the head of Save Ukraine

When Ukraine announced its counteroffensive this summer, Russian forces ramped up their “mass deportations” of Ukrainian children to Russian territory, Kuleba said. 

“We receive information only from social networks, volunteers, or relatives,” he said. “We can only assume that tens of thousands of children were taken during the summer to the territory of Russia … we are still determining how many of them will return.”

While Russia does not publish official data on the matter, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, stated in a recent report that more than 700,000 Ukrainian children have been moved out of Ukrainian territory to Russian territory since the full-scale invasion.

In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Lvova-Belova, both on war crimes charges for the illegal deportation of Ukranian citizens, including minors.

In a UN Security Council meeting in August, the Save Ukraine leader said that “our children are not weapons or shields, they are just little children who have the right to a happy childhood.”

Kuleba told Context.ro that Russian authorities now make concerted efforts to block the children’s return to Ukraine since they fear every returnee is a potential witness to war crimes. This further encourages Russian authorities to indoctrinate the abducted children with anti-Ukraine sentiments, he said. 

“A 16-year-old girl told us how she and her peers were put on buses from an occupied territory, [were] taken to Moscow,” Kuleba said, and that the children there were forced to listen to anti-Ukrainian lectures “from morning to evening.”

“Children were told that Ukraine no longer exists, that it was conquered,” he said. “This is how the propaganda machine works in Russia.”

Kuleba estimates that since Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, more than a million Ukrainian children in total have been moved into territories occupied by Moscow’s forces. And despite the myriad challenges, efforts must continue.  

“In no case can you [guarentee] that you will bring back a child. There is a considerable risk that you will not be allowed to cross the border,” he said. “Many children were instilled with hatred for Ukraine by telling lies about our country.”

But he added: “We still continue our missions.”

Edited by Stephen McGrath
Photo: Save Ukraine

Despre autor: Taisiia Bakharieva

Avatar of Taisiia Bakharieva
Taisiia Bakharieva este o jurnalistă din Kiev, Ucraina, care acum locuiește în România. Este în media din 1994 și a lucrat pentru agenția de presă RATAU, ziarele Kray și Vseukrainskie Vedomosti și ca redactor-șef al departamentului de cultură al ziarului și al site-ului FAKTI. Taisiia a intervievat numeroase personalități din Ucraina și este autor și prezentator al secțiunii de televiziune TV-FAKTI. După ce Rusia i-a invadat țara, Taisiia s-a mutat în România și s-a alăturat echipei CONTEXT. Munca ei se concentrează acum pe investigații privind crimele de război ale Rusiei în Ucraina și realizează interviuri cu victimele și martorii terorii rusești. Este de multă vreme membră a Uniunii Jurnaliștilor din Ucraina.

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