‘We had to hide them’: How Ukraine’s ‘kidnapped’ children led to Vladimir Putin’s arrest warrant | Ukraine

Volodymyr Sagaydak shows video of the day four thugs from the Russian FSB security service arrived at the city’s main orphanage, where he is a staff member. Kherson was liberated in November after eight months of occupation, but is being pounded day and night by Russian artillery from the left bank visible across a narrow stretch of the Dnieper River.

We are meeting days before the International Criminal Court issues arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, for directly overseeing the kidnapping atrocity. of Ukrainian children for the purposes of “adoption” and “re-adoption”. education” in Russia.

The armed Russians who arrived at the orphanage – two masked in camouflage, two in black – were captured on CCTV; once inside, the camera shows one standing guard outside the room where the files are kept, while the others go inside to search through the files. It was June 4, 2022, and the orphanage was now empty – thanks to a mix of courage and ingenuity from the staff. But that was not the end of the story.

Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, its commissioner for children’s rights, have received arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court. Photo: Sputnik/Reuters

It’s more than just a military frontline: This orphanage is one of many stories of that outrage – among many of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and now an unprecedented case in international law. , reaching a head of state. According to the Ukrainian government, 16,226 children were deported to Russia, of whom 10,513 were located and 308 returned.

A report released last October by the Yale University Human Rights Lab, citing a wide range of open sources in Russia and Ukraine, traces many reasons for their abduction: including the so-called “evacuation” of state institutions like that of Kherson, the transfer of children to camps – often in the Crimea – sometimes with parental consent, coerced or not.

Asked by the Observer in Kyiv, the government mediator for abducted children, Daria Gerasimchuk, adds other “scenarios”: “They kill the parents, for some reason, and kidnap the child. In other cases, they simply snatch the child directly from the family, perhaps to punish that family. Others pass through the appallingly named “filtration camps” – collected, indoctrinated and prepared for the “adoption” of the kind Commissioner Lvova-Belova has herself boasted about.

When Kherson was occupied in February 2022, Sagaydak says, “we had 52 children here – 17 real orphans, and others here for different reasons – struggling families or otherwise.

“We knew the Russians were taking children and had to hide them, like conspirators running a clandestine operation. Even some of the neighbors didn’t know they were here.

Children were fed by runners, some of whom were arrested, and allowed into the yard for 15 minutes a day.

“The staff hoped for three months that our army would somehow evacuate them,” Sagaydak continues, “but when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, we arranged for those who had living relatives should be placed in the care of grandparents, friends or neighbours”. This left the 17 actual orphans, who were evacuated and brought home by staff. A lady, a teacher, took three, aged three, seven and eight. “It took everything we had,” says Sagaydak. “We had to falsify documents and histories to pass Russian checkpoints.”

The silent playground of the regional children's home in Kherson, southern Ukraine
The silent playground of the regional children’s home in Kherson, southern Ukraine. Russian authorities have been accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia to raise them as their own. Photography: Bernat Armangue/AP

It was an intense and tense drama: “Another woman here, only 30 years old, took five, which couldn’t be hers, so we made up a legend that she was helping her pregnant sister while she was giving birth. We had to make up all the medical records, and worried when a driver showed up who wasn’t the one we had planned. But when they were stopped, and the untrustworthy driver even told the real story, the children managed to outwit the occupying soldiers.

Our conversation is punctuated by missiles landing in the city. Exhausted soldiers in heavy combat gear enter the cafe for a break and a coffee.

When the Russians arrived at the orphanage, Sagaydak continues, “all the documents leading to the children had been hidden”, although they took other documents. But then, on July 15, the Russians returned, with 15 more children to care for, brought from the then fierce front lines between Kherson and Mikolaiv in the north. There were 11 boys and four girls, aged 7 to 16, “with various mental disorders”, who were duly taken care of.

On October 19, the Russians began to prepare their retreat from Kherson, “and the so-called evacuation of the children. There was no way I could hide 15 children, under surveillance. Sagaydak protested, “If I don’t know their destination, I can’t let them go. They lied to me; they said they were going to Genichesk, on the Sea of ​​Azov. But when I asked the driver where he was going, he replied: “Crimea”.

A few days later, contact was made with the director of a special school in occupied Novopetrivka, near Mariupol, who had “accompanied the children for three days, and had found them as far as the town of Anapa, in the Krasnodar region in Russia”. At that time, “volunteers” were called in to try to retrieve the children.

Ukrainians are naturally discreet on networks helping to locate children. Diplomatic sources suggest ingenious involvement by some Western government agencies, rival Ukrainian and Russian branches of the Orthodox Church, and evangelical missionaries and volunteers working astride the front lines and the Russian-Ukrainian border. So far, the International Committee of the Red Cross does not appear to be directly involved. Gerasimchuk denies any cooperation with the ICRC.

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Sagaydak inevitably refuses to reveal who he dealt with, but says the children were transferred to Tbilisi, Georgia, and “returned to Ukraine 10 days ago – they are back in Mikolaiv”. An undisclosed number of other Kherson children, Gerasimchuk says, “are still wanted.”

Children look out of a train window in kyiv, Ukraine.
Children on a train in kyiv, Ukraine. Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP

In a case under investigation, the Observer learned that in Kherson, 28 children hidden in the crypt of a church were revealed by local collaborators and abducted.

Gerasimchuk’s office is in a former center for deaf children behind a dinosaur theme park on the outskirts of kyiv. There she expands on taking children to supposed “health and rest camps”, which parents sometimes consent to, whether under duress or simply to protect their children from the relentless bombardment. “They are taken to occupied Crimea or Russia,” Gerasimchuk explains, “sometimes moving from camp to camp, and the date of their return pass, with no sign of their release.”

She adds: “We believe that some of them are not camps at all, but mental institutions.”

While the territory was ruthlessly occupied in February 2022, she explains, “the Ukrainian government was able to quickly evacuate children from the east and south. But of course not everyone. It’s an old story with Russia: It was all a chaotic situation, but they had a plan to execute – and they did. We still don’t know how many children were abducted in Donetsk and Luhansk during the 2014 occupations.

“The numbers are not final,” adds Gerasimchuk. “These are the best estimates we can make.” She broadcasts a widely circulated video of a 12-year-old child called Olesandr, abducted from Mariupol to a filtration camp in the east, who was told his mother ‘didn’t need’ him and that he would be placed with adoptive parents in Russia. . For obvious reasons, she says, “the kids themselves aren’t ready to talk to the press.” Today, they are witnesses in an international criminal investigation.

After the warrant was issued, I went back to see Gerasimchuk, who told me that she “held a couple of meetings” with ICC officials, and that the government’s position was to push for the cases of abducted children are “part of a case of genocide, although we are aware of the higher burden of proof”. The government and its agency were, she said, “determining how the configuration of cooperation with the ICC will unfold.”

It should be noted that the first ICC warrants are for children and damage to civilian infrastructure, rather than massacres in, say, Bucha or Mariupol. Among the most effective independent experts investigating Russian war crimes, Nataliya Gumenyuk of the Laboratory for Public Interest Journalism in Kyiv, says: “It probably has to do with establishing the chain of command. It is more difficult to establish links between this crime and this commander, at the top of the scale. But with children, that’s it: the “filtration” camps, filter who? The Russians condemned themselves with their own mouths about this. But on the genocide, she warns: “As any good lawyer knows, this is the bar high.”

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