Fight continues to return displaced children as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on

14 mart., 2024

Mykhailo Lebedev was 15 years old when Russian forces rolled into Mariupol and separated him from his sisters. Unlike many of the children in Ukraine displaced into Russia or the territories held by Moscow’s forces, the teenager was lucky to escape.

Since Russia fully invaded Ukraine two years ago, more than 19,000 Ukrainian children have been illegally displaced or deported to Russia, according to Daria Kasyanova, head of the Ukrainian Child Rights Network.

“Every time we return children, we learn from these children about others for whom there was no information yet,” she told Context in an interview. “Every day we see information that children continue to be taken out of the occupied territories.”

“It is important to understand that official and operational statistics can differ significantly,” she added.

Despite ongoing efforts by the Ukrainian Child Rights Network and Save the Children in Ukraine, which launched the joint Way Home project, which aims to locate and return children displaced to Russia or occupied areas and reunite them with their families – only a fraction have been returned amid the war.

“As of today, we… have returned 143 children,” Kasyanova said. “These are children from the territory of Russia, from the territory of the occupied regions of Ukraine and Crimea.”

In March last year, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for what it described as the “unlawful” deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

Lebedev from Mariupol, who is now 17 years old, is one of them.

After Lebedev’s parents died in 2014 after both suffering incurable illnesses, he was placed in a boarding school where he lived until 2021 when he was moved into a small foster home. It was a normal functioning home but although his guardians could act warmly towards him, they could also be aggressive.

“As soon as the Russian army entered the city, my foster mother’s opinion changed a lot,” he recalls. “She started saying that it was good that Russia (invaded). She said that there would be no more Ukraine.” 

He added that his female foster carer also began raising her hand to the children there and occasionally hit them if they disobeyed her.

Lebedev has three adult sisters who all left Mariupol after the war started, but could not legally take their brother with them because he was still a minor. “I asked my foster mother to let me go with them, but she refused,” he said.  

Without his sisters nearby, the teenager struggled to adapt to his new reality under Russian occupation. “Before all this, I lived in a Ukrainian city,” he said, “and then I couldn’t even say ‘good morning’ in a shop in Ukrainian – everything became Russian.”

“It was very difficult to adapt to all this psychologically,” he added. “Especially when you walk around the city, see the (damaged) houses around you.”

Lebedev said his sisters – whom he missed and wanted to see — repeatedly asked his guardian to let him go, but she kept refusing. “I wanted to leave this family to go to the territory controlled by Ukraine,” he said.

Last year, despite his legal guardian being opposed to the idea, Lebedev enrolled in a technical college in Mariupol and finally left the foster home. “I went to live in a dormitory (run by) my educational institution, and she let me go,” he said, adding that his move angered her.

Their relationship deteriorated and although his foster carer at the time was receiving a financial allowance for his care from the occupational authorities, Lebedev saw none of the funds, he said. “But she gave me nothing to live on … (so) I went to work” part-time as a barista in a coffee shop.

The occupation authorities began to hint that if the teenager did not return to his guardian he could be sent to an orphanage in Russia, a potential one-way ticket for a boy on the verge of adulthood. Meanwhile, his sisters continued to seek to get him out.

His sister Anastasia, 18, then contacted Anastasiia Khaliulova, a social service worker at the Way Home project who is also from Mariupol. Khaliulova and her team helped her brother flee the occupied city. “It was difficult to leave,” he recalls of passing the scrupulous Russian checkpoints.

In December last year, he managed to flee into neighboring Poland and then returned to reunite with his sisters in an unoccupied area of Ukraine. He is now studying construction at a college that was relocated from Mariupol to Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine. “My sisters Anastasia and Diana are with me, and Masha went to the United States, but we are in touch with her,” he said.

Khaliulova of the Way Home project noted that returning children can be a slow and difficult process, particularly in the case of orphans. 

“For such children, you need to make a power of attorney, they usually have nowhere to return to in Ukraine,” she said. “If a child is in Russia, either a relative or a trusted person goes to get him or her. If the child has no one, we look for a person who can go there to pick them up.”

Khaliulova also said there are risks to repatriating children. “Any trip out of there is a risk and a challenge,” she said. “It is always quite difficult and nerve-wracking.”

“Unfortunately, there are children who tell their story only after a year and are ready to let any of the specialists come to them,” said Kasyanova, the head of the Ukrainian Child Rights Network. “The more difficult the situation, the more difficult the rehabilitation”.

Kasyanova said that many international organisations don’t always have adequate powers to help repatriate children and that Ukraine is now looking for third countries to potentially negotiate with Russia to facilitate the return of minors. 

“They say they have no effective mechanism,” she added. “Now our main task is to find such a mechanism, to understand how to return a large number of children. Not one, not two, not three children, but, for example, a thousand children at once.”

Despre autor: Alina Okolot

Avatar of Alina Okolot
Alina Okolot este o jurnalistă ucraineană din Kiev care lucrează în presă din 2017. Alina a lucrat ca reporter TV în departamentul de știri al canalului PravdaTut TV unde a documentat știri din sectoare diverse, de la politic la economic, cultură și sport. Ea a lucrat de asemenea ca editor de programe educaționale și de divertisment pentru canalul Kiev TV și pentru ediția online a Adevărului de Irpin. Alina spune că jurnalismul este vocația sa. Ea s-a alăturat echipei CONTEXT, după ce s-a mutat în România. Ca jurnalist, ea se ocupă de investigarea crimelor de război comise de Rusia în Ucraina, țara sa natală. Ea scrie des despre corupție și documentează poveștile martorilor în subiecte legate de război. Țelul Alinei este să arate lumii adevărul printr-un jurnalism de calitate.

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