Freezing during the first weeks of the war in a village in the western part of Ukraine — I had to flee there from Kyiv on Feb. 24 — I thought about the war stories that are not yet being told. Since the full scale invasion, journalists in Ukraine have revealed a solid amount of reports, helping to see the conflict through human eyes. Due to the scale of the war, however, the international community hears only a fraction of Ukrainian tragedies. The kidnapping of Ukrainian children is one type of the Russian war crimes that is often overlooked.
In most cases, the occupants forcefully put the kids into so-called recreational camps, orphanages or foster families in various regions of Russia and regions of Ukraine that are temporarily occupied by Russia. Sometimes they deport children and teenagers to Belarus. The recent Associated Press investigation covers a story of Olga Lopatkina and her adopted children. The six kids were trapped in occupied port city Mariupol, where they were spending their vacation, and later transported to Donetsk, the center of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, also known as DPR. Olga, with one daughter who had stayed behind, could not reach Mariupol due to the bombardment and had to evacuate Ukraine for France without the rest of her children. To reunite with them, she had to endure a fierce legal battle with Russian authorities, while they told the children that their mother had abandoned them and did not love them.
Slava, a Ukrainian 17-year-old, was kidnapped from the outskirts of Kyiv and sent to Belarus. As he told the ABC News reporters, Russians took him and a few others to a vehicle and drove them to Chornobyl. Upon arrival to the partially abandoned city, the occupants put plastic bags on the children’s heads, tied their hands, blindfolded them and eventually continued the journey to Minsk orphanage. Slava’s mother adds that before he was dropped off at the final destination, Russians beat and used electric shocks on him. The Ukrainian police were able to find out what happened and make sure he made it home. Now Slava is recovering, but battling the post-traumatic stress. These stories are just two examples among many others, most of which did not have what under the war circumstances we would call a happy ending, nor were they made public.
Although adoption of children from foreign countries is prohibited in Russia, Putin signed a document in May that makes it easier for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children. Under the mask of “liberation,” Russians hide the lies they tell children about being unwanted by their loving parents and use the kids for propaganda by painting a picture in the media in which children are rescued by, for instance, foster families. Those foster caretakers are paid for each adopted child that gains Russian citizenship — “up to $1,000 for those with disabilities,” the AP investigation revealed. The Russian government portrays the deportation of children without consent as an act of goodwill, yet such action violates the U.N. Genocide Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Some of the kids are not orphans, as Russia commonly claims. Often, their parents or relatives who could take care of them are in the regions of Ukraine that are free from Russian occupiers and would be eager to take them in. Growing up in their home country or with their family members and communities is undoubtedly better for those children who lost their caregivers due to Russia’s attacks.
According to the Ukrainian government, at least 8,000 children have been taken by Russia, but the precise numbers are unknown. Very few have been reunited with their loved ones. The Ukrainian government and various volunteering organizations work on bringing the kids back home, but it is a highly complicated challenge. Speaking up about the issue will aid the process; therefore, we must work to shed light onto the dark crimes of Russia and make sure the incidents are not forgiven or brushed under the rug.