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How Russian officials and their collaborators spirit away Ukraine’s children

Early last year, teachers at a school in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine announced the arrival of a very special guest from Moscow.


Many of the pupils at the Henichesk Number 27 Vocational School were orphans or separated from their families. Among them were Liza Batsura and Zorik Ibrian, both 16 and from Kherson, one of the first cities to fall when Russia invaded a year earlier.


The teenagers had spent the past several months in seaside camps in Russia-annexed Crimea, where campworkers forbade them from wearing the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine and made them learn the Russian anthem by heart. More recently pro-Russian officials had moved them to Henichesk, a Russian-held port city on the Sea of Azov.


Liza says she listened as the guest, a blonde woman, presented her and other pupils with options. The woman told one girl she could study at any Russian university, even in Moscow. Liza, who had lived in a children’s home because she had a difficult relationship with her mother, could become part of a Russian family.


The woman, Liza learned later from photographs, truly was a special visitor.


Liza Batsura and her mother Oksana in Kyiv in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

She was Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights. A second witness, a teen named Nastia, also identified Lvova-Belova as the visitor on that day in the early weeks of last year. Details of Lvova-Belova’s visit to the school in Henichesk and her conversation with Liza and others are reported here for the first time. The school and Lvova-Belova posted briefly about the visit on social media early last year.


“I’ve got my mother, but as far as they were concerned, I was an orphan,” Liza told Reuters several months later. “They wanted to issue a Russian passport for me and find me a family, a Russian family.”


Last March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Lvova-Belova and her boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on charges of illegally deporting children from Ukraine. The court said in a statement it has “reasonable grounds” to believe both bear individual criminal responsibility for acting “directly, jointly with others and/or through others” and that Putin, as president, also has command responsibility.


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova are pictured together in February 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS

The ICC’s chief prosecutor said Russia transferred “at least hundreds” of children from orphanages and care homes in occupied regions of Ukraine, and “many” have been given up for adoption. Ukrainian authorities say Russia has removed more than 4,000 children who are orphaned or not in parental care.


The Kremlin and Lvova-Belova say Russia has moved children to protect them from war and that wherever possible did so with the consent of parents or guardians. A Putin spokesman denounced the ICC charges as “ outrageous and unacceptable.”


Some of the missing children have been recovered. Among them is Liza, now safely back in Ukraine thanks to her mother, Oksana Halkina, who traced her to Henichesk and brought her home last May. Most accounts that have emerged of Russia’s mass movement of Ukrainian children have come from returnees like Liza.


Other children from Kherson who were living at the college in Henichesk, however, remain in Russian hands. They include Liza’s schoolmate Zorik, and Zorik’s brother Danylo, who were orphaned in 2021.


Reuters reporters have spent six months investigating the fates of missing Ukrainian children who have no relatives to advocate for them because they are orphans or are otherwise separated from their families. The stories of these children have remained largely hidden.


The Kremlin and Lvova-Belova did not respond to questions for this article.



The Children’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation on the outskirts of Kherson. Liza Batsura was living here at the time of Russia’s invasion. Photo taken in September 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

The ICC prosecutor’s office told Reuters it is continuing to "develop multiple, interconnected lines” of investigation into the abduction of Ukrainian children. It said it cannot provide detailed comments because confidentiality is crucial to its work.


Ukrainian prosecutors told Reuters they are conducting pre-trial investigations into the illegal transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children in occupied territories and their adoption by Russian families. Further information about suspects is confidential, they said.


By interviewing dozens of witnesses to their deportations and reviewing social media and Russian news reports, Reuters has identified Zorik, Danylo and three other teens who were removed from Kherson together with Liza. All five -- whose parents are dead or unable to care for them -- are still in Russian-held territory with the support of the Russian state, with little prospect of returning to Ukraine.


Reuters also traced the journeys of 48 much younger orphans from Kherson, aged five years or less at the time of their removal. This group is at the heart of separate abduction charges brought by Ukrainian prosecutors against three unnamed individuals – a Russian and two Ukrainians.


Reuters tracked 46 of the cohort to two orphanages and a sanatorium in Russian-held Crimea and confirmed the group’s presence there with people involved in their care.


Two other children are now in Russia. One is Illia Vashchenko, who turns four this month. Illia was issued with a new Russian birth certificate on Sept. 26 last year by a Russian state registry office in Podolsk, near Moscow. The registry documents, which Reuters reviewed, do not reveal his precise location or whether he has been adopted.


Another is two-year-old Marharyta Prokopenko. Marharyta was adopted by Sergei Mironov, leader of a pro-Kremlin political party, and his wife Inna Varlamova, who has worked as a parliamentary aide, according to adoption papers reviewed by Reuters. Marharyta’s name has been changed to Marina Mironova, the papers show. The adoption was first reported by the BBC and Russian outlet IStories.


Destination Crimea

A spokeswoman for Mironov referred Reuters to a Telegram post in which Mironov said the report about the adoption was “fake” and part of a campaign by Ukrainian intelligence to discredit patriotic Russians.


The removals of Ukraine’s children are supported by a vast machinery to deport, house and re-educate. Reuters found that a network of pro-Kremlin actors and helpers was involved in taking the two groups of orphans from Kherson: Lvova-Belova, members of the Russian parliament, officials in Russian-occupied Crimea and Ukrainian doctors and teachers who chose to collaborate with Russian authorities.


In some cases, the children are being exploited in TV shows and in online videos for their propaganda value.


The deportations have come at an enormous human cost: siblings have been divided, vulnerable youths have been turned against each other, and preschool children – with no blood relatives to claim them – have been hidden from view in Russian-held territory. Returning these children is an arduous task, volunteers and officials in Ukraine say, and the job gets harder with every day that passes, as the children get older, and are more exposed to Russian influence.


Almost all have been “brainwashed,” said Mykola Kuleba, head of Save Ukraine, a nonprofit organisation that helps to retrieve Ukrainian children from Russian-controlled territory. “And we will never be able to take them back. Because they hate, hate Ukraine now,” he said.



Children play at a centre in Kyiv run by Save Ukraine, a non-profit organisation that helps to retrieve Ukrainian kids from Russian-controlled territory. Photo taken in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Reuters also sought comment from dozens of lower-ranking Russian and Ukrainian individuals who, according to witnesses or photographic evidence, participated in the removal of children. Many of these people are in Russian-occupied Ukraine or in Russia. Most did not respond.


It’s unclear what kind of future awaits the children from Kherson. There may be some clues in the experiences of children from Ukraine’s Donetsk region that has been under Russian control since 2014.


Of the thousands of children who passed through social care facilities in the Donetsk region in this period, more than 250 have been moved to children’s institutions, foster homes or guardians in Russia and Crimea, according to a Reuters review of files obtained from the regional administrative database by a Ukrainian hacking group, Kiborg. The files contain the personal details of each child in care and cover the years 2014 to the end of 2022.


Most of the children were moved in 2022, some as far away as Murmansk, near Finland, and Noyabrsk, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District of Siberia. Reuters verified the Donetsk data by matching a sample of children from the data to Russian media reports and local government announcements about children who had been placed in foster care.


The invasion begins

In the days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Liza was among a group of children celebrating Valentine’s Day in the Children’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation, an orphanage on the outskirts of Kherson. In photographs, a group of teens can be seen holding red and purple flowers out of crepe paper and cards decorated with hearts.


The group included Zorik Ibrian and his older brother Danylo, two lanky teens who were pictured wolfing down a plate of snacks in a room decorated with flags, including those of Ukraine and the United States. Their two younger siblings, also living in the orphanage, played with their caregivers in another room.



A Valentine’s Day celebration in February 2022 at the Children’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation on the outskirts of Kherson. The group includes brothers Zorik (third from left) and Danylo (second from left). Photo from the Facebook page of the Children’s Centre

Ten days later, Volodymyr Sahaidak, the director of the orphanage, saw a dark plume of smoke rising in the distance.


“My daughter called me and said, I think the war’s begun,” he said.


Russian tanks rolled down the streets of Kherson a few days later.


Sahaidak began looking for ways to shield the 52 children in his care, who ranged in age from 3 to 18. He told his staff children could play outside for 15 minutes a day, under strict rules not to scream or laugh loudly so Russian soldiers wouldn’t suspect that so many were living on site. The staff packed small backpacks for each child so they could quickly evacuate them to Ukrainian territory at the earliest opportunity.


When it became clear that Ukrainian forces were far from retaking Kherson, Sahaidak began contacting relatives of the children, begging them to take them in.


“We looked at all the documents of the children, all of whom had relatives, even those who had distant relatives. I called them myself and asked them to take the child immediately, otherwise they would be taken to Russia,” he said.


Among those who were claimed by their relatives were the two younger siblings of Zorik and Danylo. Their mother had died suddenly a year earlier and the four children had been waiting for their adult half-brother to adopt them.



Volodymyr Sahaidak, the director of the children’s home where Liza and the other teens lived at the time of Russia’s invasion. Photo taken in September 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko


An exterior shot of the Children’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation where Liza lived. Picture taken in September 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko


An abandoned games room in the Children’s Centre for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation on the outskirts of Kherson. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

In April 2022, the mother’s cousin, Oleksandr Ponomarchuk, and his wife Alla, received an urgent call from Sahaidak about the children.


“Sahaidak called us and said the situation is dire. They (Russian soldiers) are taking children from Kherson,” Oleksandr said. He and his wife, who have two children of their own, decided to take in the two younger siblings, Danyila and Imir, but told the director they couldn’t take the older boys. Russian soldiers were stopping and questioning young men in occupied Kherson, and Oleksandr told Sahaidak he was not sure if he could keep the older boys safe.


Zorik and Danylo agreed to the separation. Oleksandr assumed it would be temporary.



Oleksandr and Alla Ponomarchuk are pictured in Uman, central Ukraine in October 2023. The couple have taken in two children from the Kherson orphanage. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

“We really thought our army would get rid of the occupiers faster,” he said. A few months later, Oleksandr and his wife managed to flee Kherson, taking Danyila and Imir with them to Uman in central Ukraine.


Pro-Russian officials took over the Kherson region and key posts in its schools and hospitals. A former Kherson mayor, Vladimir Saldo, was appointed governor in April. His deputy in charge of displaced people was Tetiana Kuzmich, a former teacher of Russian literature who in 2020 was detained by Ukrainian law enforcement on suspicion of spying for Russia. Ukrainian prosecutors said the case was suspended due to the full-scale invasion.


Russian soldiers began visiting the orphanage in June. One of their visits was captured on the orphanage’s CCTV camera system: Soldiers in masks carrying automatic weapons are seen walking through the corridors, accompanied by a man with a bushy beard. That man, orphanage director Sahaidak said, was Georgy Tambovtsev, newly-appointed by the Russian occupation as the deputy head of youth, family and sports. According to his social media, Tambovtsev coaches freestyle wrestling.



Tambovtsev began regularly dropping into the centre to check on the children. So did several Russian officers, their faces always covered. Sahaidak concluded the officers were from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) because they always wore masks and kept their identities hidden. Reuters could not verify whether the men were from the FSB, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.


By October 2022, Ukrainian forces were advancing steadily toward Kherson and Russian officials told thousands of residents to evacuate. Sahaidak had managed to re-home most of the orphanage’s 52 children, but not some of the teens.


Liza, Zorik, Danylo and three other teens from the orphanage, ranging in age from 15 to 17 at the time, could not be placed with relatives. They were studying at the Kherson No. 2 Vocational School when they were told by a member of the school staff they would be travelling to the seaside for two weeks of rest, Liza recalled. Employees of the school didn’t comment when approached by a Reuters reporter.


Liza, always soft-spoken and shy in large groups, believed the teachers at the school when they told her it would be a late summer vacation. “You know, I thought it was going to be summertime, guitar, singing by the beach, that sort of thing,” she said.


Instead, Liza said that she and the boys were taken by one of their teachers and other school staff 250 kilometres away to a large camp in Crimea called “Druzhba,” friendship in Russian, where they were forced to follow a strict schedule of meals and physical exercise. Any child who disobeyed or showed any allegiance to Ukraine would be threatened with a beating, Liza said.



Kherson orphan Zorik Ibrian (left) and other teenagers attended a summer camp in Crimea last June. Photo from the VK social media account of camp organisers "Poslezavtra" Youth Project

Zorik Ibrian is pictured on the right. The camp was co-organised by the office of Russian children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova. Photo from the VK social media account of camp organisers “Poslezavtra” Youth Project

“One thing that they taught us was that our parents won’t come to pick us up from there,” she said, reciting the message drilled into them by the camp’s directors and staff. “They won’t be able to because we’re not their children anymore.” The kids now belonged to the Russians, “and our parents don’t need us.”


Liza’s description of the Crimea camp is in line with testimonies from other repatriated children who passed through similar facilities, according to Save Ukraine.


Before retreating from Kherson, Russian soldiers ransacked Sahaidak’s office, according to Sahaidak and another member of the orphanage staff, taking with them boxes of documents for all of his children. Sahaidak is now left with a stack of hand-written note cards with basic biographical details about the children who are still in occupied territory. Drawing out a card for Zorik and Danylo, Sahaidak described their difficult upbringing in Moldova and Ukraine, and how much progress the brothers had made during their short stay at the orphanage.


“We did everything we could,” Sahaidak said, as he thumbed through his box of notes.


The darkened corridors of the orphanage are quiet now, except for the occasional boom of nearby artillery strikes. The children are long gone, and most of the staff have also fled.


Left behind in an upstairs common room was a craft project: a tree made of cardboard, with photos of the shelter’s young residents hanging like Christmas ornaments.



This Baptist church in Kherson sheltered dozens of young Ukrainian orphans in early 2022. Photo taken in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko


The orphans - all aged 5 or under - stayed in a basement beneath the church. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Children’s shoes are strewn across the floor in the church basement. Photo taken in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Five kilometres south of the orphanage, tucked behind the main thoroughfare that leads to the centre of Kherson, Ukrainians were trying to hide another group of children from the conflict.


From late February until the end of April 2022, Pastor Pavlo Smoliakov sheltered 58 toddlers and infants in the basement of his local Baptist church. The children came from the Kherson Regional Children’s Home that lies close to the Dnipro River.


Among the children in the home’s care were twin girls Diana and Svitlana Berenzon. They had been in care since birth because social workers were concerned that their family home did not have proper heating or adequate furnishing.


A few weeks before Russia invaded, social workers were finalising paperwork to return the nine-month-old sisters to their mother. She was buying clothing and other supplies in preparation. A Ukrainian social worker who was involved in the case said a local committee was due to decide on the sisters’ return on the last Thursday of February - the day Russia invaded. The meeting didn't happen and the girls remained in care.


Soon after, Russian forces occupied Kherson.


 
“They didn't understand what was happening, where they were. They were screaming all the time.”

A person working at an orphanage in Simferopol, Crimea, at the time


 

Russian soldiers found out about the children in the church basement and began stopping by to check on them. The Russians claimed they were suspicious about what the Ukrainians intended to do with the toddlers, Pastor Smoliakov said.


At one point, a camera crew arrived to film a propaganda video about how Russian officers had thwarted a plot to traffic the children to the West. Soon afterwards, TV channel Crimea 24 aired an item that alleged there was a Ukrainian scheme to sell the children’s internal organs.


“They generally weren’t interested in the children, to tell you the truth,” Smoliakov said. “They were interested in their propaganda that these children were going to be transported to the United States for black market sales to harvest their organs.”


At the end of April, a man who called himself the “Navigator,” flanked by armed soldiers, ordered Smoliakov to transfer the children back to the Kherson Regional Children’s Home. Smoliakov complied.

The Russian authorities then fired the director of the home because she refused to cooperate with the occupiers. They appointed a local paediatrician named Tetiana Zavalska in her place. Zavalska later took part in a Russian state TV documentary that sought to portray Moscow’s rule in Kherson as benign.


“I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years,” she said in the documentary.


In August, two Russian women arrived in Kherson and paid a visit to the Regional Children’s Home. Reuters has identified the pair as Yana Lantratova, a member of the Russian parliament, and Inna Varlamova, a member of parliament staff, according to records dated 2021.



An image posted on Aug. 21, 2022 on the Instagram account of Russian member of parliament Yana Lantratova, showing her visiting the Kherson Regional Children's Home.

At the home, Lantratova and Varlamova were photographed alongside the Russian-appointed health minister at the time, Vadym Ilmiiev, and Zavalska, the home’s new director. None of them responded to requests for comment for this article.


Varlamova also visited Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital, according to staff there who identified her from a photo shown to them by a Reuters reporter. Varlamova and another unidentified Russian woman, accompanied by Russian soldiers, had come to see two baby patients from the children’s home, Illia Vashchenko and Marharyta Prokopenko. Reuters couldn’t determine why they wanted to see the two children.


The infants were being treated for a cough – and medical staff told the visiting Russians they were too sick to be discharged because they had a fever. The Russian women spoke to the hospital director, Viktor Burdovitsyn, newly appointed by the occupiers, and the two infants were duly discharged back to the children’s home. Burdovitsyn didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.


By fall of 2022, Ukraine’s armed forces were steadily advancing towards Kherson. Tens of thousands of Russian troops began retreating to the left bank of the Dnipro River. Russian-installed officials made preparations to evacuate some of the civilian population.


There were now 48 children in the Regional Children’s Home.


Two of them - babies Illia and Marharyta - were split from the rest and taken to Moscow. There, Marharyta would later be adopted by Sergei Mironov, the pro-Kremlin politician. And Illia would be issued with a new Russian birth certificate.


In late October 2022, the 46 remaining youngsters were taken by the Russians from the Regional Children’s Home. The moment is captured in a video posted on Telegram.


The clip, from Oct. 21, 2022, shows Igor Kastyukevich, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, holding a child named Ivan Batyhin in a lilac puffer jacket. Ivan and other infants and toddlers, bundled up in colourful outfits, are seen being carried onto a bus marked with the Russian war symbol Z. The buses were sent in by the Russian occupation authorities in Crimea, according to a volunteer from Crimea who accompanied the children.



A resident of an apartment block next to the orphanage recalled how Russian soldiers blocked the street when the children were taken. “They didn’t let us through, for us to not see or hear anything,” said the resident, named Vira. “They loaded the children onto the buses and took them away.”


The buses drove 280 kilometres away to the district of Simferopol, Crimea. Most of the children were placed in a specialised orphanage for youngsters with psychological and nervous disorders. Its name, “Yolochka,” means Christmas tree in Russian. Around a dozen of the pre-schoolers are now housed in a Crimea sanatorium or a second orphanage for older children.


Kastyukevich – the member of Russia’s upper house seen holding baby Ivan in the video – was later identified by Ukrainian media: He is the Russian in camouflage fatigues who called himself the Navigator and forced the Baptist pastor to hand the children over to the orphanage. Reuters confirmed this in interviews with people who encountered the Navigator.


Kastyukevich has publicly mentioned several other officials who were involved in removing the children. In a post on the website of the Russian ruling party United Russia, he expressed gratitude to Anna Kuznetsova, deputy speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament; Andrei Turchak, deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament and a member of United Russia’s leadership; and Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed head of Crimea. Kastyukevich didn’t detail their roles, and none of them responded to requests for comment.


Diana and Svitlana Berenzon were among the toddlers taken from the Kherson Regional Children’s Home.


In December 2022, the girls’ mother and her partner were killed in a village near Kherson when they stepped on an anti-personnel mine.


Moved to Crimea

One year on, in late September last year, the playground of the children’s home was eerily quiet, the ground covered with shin-high weeds and fallen leaves. A local man was still guarding the premises, walking aimlessly around the rusted swings even as nearby shelling occasionally shook the ground.


Zavalska, the collaborator installed by the occupation as home director, fled when Russian forces withdrew, according to the home's pre-war head.


The toddlers mostly vanished from view after they were removed from Kherson.



An exterior shot of Kherson Regional Children’s Home. Dozens of infants from this home are now in Russian-held Crimea. Photo taken in September 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Two toddlers from the Kherson Regional Children’s Home, above, are now in Russia. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

An empty playground at the Kherson Regional Children’s Home in late September 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Ukrainian officials declined to reveal the names of the children taken, saying the information is confidential and part of an ongoing investigation. But Russian officials left clues behind.


Staff loading children into buses could be heard in the video posted on Telegram referring to one of the children as “Batyhin.” Some names were left next to children’s artworks on the walls of the empty orphanage. And a handful of the children appeared in a public appeal run by the Moscow regional government, where children describe what presents they want Santa to bring them, and members of the public donate the gifts. The “letters to Santa,” reported by Russian media outlet Verstka, only gave first names. The letters said the children had come from Kherson.


Reuters cross-referenced those few details against Ukrainian databases of hundreds of missing children and documents about family court hearings to establish which of them were taken from the orphanage. The agency also interviewed relatives and social workers.



A Russian government adoption website published letters from children in an orphanage detailing what gifts they want from Santa. Reuters identified this child as Artem Poberezkyi, who went missing from Kherson in October 2022. Photo from Verstka media

The adoption website also published a "letter to Santa" from this child. Reuters identified her as Svitlana Berenzon, who with her twin sister was taken from the Kherson Regional Children's Home. Photo from Verstka media

Reports in Ukrainian and independent Russian media have indicated that some of the 48 toddlers may have been taken to the Yolochka home. In interviews with six current and former Yolochka staff, Reuters has established that around 30 remained there as of November 2023.


Two staff members said they worked with the infants Svitlana and Diana Berenzon. Another said she came across baby Ivan Batyhin. And a fourth remembered the Ukrainian children crying with confusion when they first arrived.


“They didn't understand what was happening, where they were. They were screaming all the time,” said the worker. She described how the children’s first and last names were scribbled on their hands by orphanage staff so they would not be misidentified or lost.


“These children were very stressed. I felt sorry for them,” she said.


Around a dozen of the children from Kherson were placed in Opushki Children’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium, according to three people with direct knowledge. The sanatorium sits in a village 24 km east of Simferopol and cares for children sent from Russia to convalesce in Crimea’s dry air.


Reuters could not determine why the Kherson children were moved to a tuberculosis hospital. One of the sources said they do not have tuberculosis.


In 2016, the government of Crimea conducted unscheduled checks on the tuberculosis facility after receiving reports from unnamed sources about unspecified rule violations, according to a record of the checks seen by Reuters. The record did not state what the outcome was. On an online bulletin board, four people identifying themselves as parents of Opushki patients have alleged in the past three years that staff physically abused their children, without providing evidence. The sanatorium didn’t respond to a request for comment.


In late 2023, at least two of the children who had been at Opushki were moved to a third facility - an orphanage in the Crimean village of Strohonivka that looks after children aged between 3 and 7, according to a person involved in the care of the two children. Staff at the orphanage did not respond to a request for comment sent by Reuters.


None of the people Reuters spoke to at Yolochka, Opushki and the Strohonivka orphanage was able to say what was planned in the long term for the Kherson toddlers in their care.


When Reuters telephoned the deputy director of Yolochka, Vitaly Utkin, he complained that Reuters had been calling his staff. “Tomorrow I’m going to the police to file a complaint to stop this,” he said.

A Crimean official said information about the Ukrainian orphans is strictly confidential, by order of Aksyonov, Crimea’s Moscow-backed head. Any inquiries about the children by Western media had to be immediately reported to the Crimean government, the official said. He said that the issue had been put under the control of Lvova-Belova’s office.



The entrance to the Kherson Regional Children’s Home, seen in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

Myroslava Kharchenko, chief legal officer at Save Ukraine, said Russia threw a veil of secrecy over all of the Ukrainian children forcibly transferred to Russia after the ICC issued its arrest warrants last March. “Every child is another piece of evidence for that case, and they understand that,” she said, referring to Russian officials.


Tanya Lokshina, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said whatever Russian authorities have planned for the orphans in Crimea, it constituted a breach of international law to deport and hold them in Russian-controlled territory.


“The transfers and deportations of children are only possible under international law if there is a direct risk to their safety, if there’s a direct risk to their life and health, and only if it’s a temporary measure,” she said. “Russia has demonstrated no signs of willingness to return those kids except in individual cases where parents and guardians physically come to pick the children up.”


Domestic law in Russia and Ukraine states a minor can be moved across a border only by a parent or legal guardian, or by someone with a document proving they have the consent of a parent or guardian.


According to the Ukrainian Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement to Reuters, 386 children were returned as of the start of October 2023. The office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy referred Reuters to the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights. Neither responded to detailed questions.


Different paths

In November 2022, Ukrainian forces retook Kherson. By then, Liza, Zorik, and Danylo were being transferred to yet another camp called “Luchistyi” in Crimea. There were fewer children at Luchistyi.


“They forced us to sing Russian songs,” Liza said. Pro-Russian camp supervisors and directors wanted the children to memorise the lyrics of patriotic tunes, she said, in case they had important visitors from Russia.


Rumours of beatings and isolation ran rampant among the children. Some of them were especially scared of one former Ukrainian security officer called Valeriy Astakhov who now worked as a guard at the camp. Reuters reached Astakhov by phone and asked him about the camp. “Sometimes children deceive,” he said, then ended the call.


At the end of 2022, officials decided to move the Kherson teenagers again, this time to Henichesk in the occupied Kherson region to continue their schooling, Liza said.


Last January, the children moved into a shabby dormitory next to Henichesk No. 27 Vocational School, where they were assigned to share rooms and sleep under thin blankets on hard, uncomfortable beds. Some mornings, the children assembled and listened to the Russian national anthem. At night Russian soldiers patrolled the dorms, entering the teenagers’ rooms to check for alcohol and other contraband.


Officials from Kherson’s occupational administration regularly visited the school, and the children were often filmed receiving aid and other assistance from them. Kuzmich, the Russian-installed deputy governor of Kherson, was also a frequent visitor. She was seen sharing tea and snacks with Liza and other teens from Kherson in a TV segment filmed last year. The director of the college, Olena Anikeeva, told the children to take part in these events, Liza said. Contacted by Reuters, Anikeeva said accounts from the teens about conditions at the college were “gossip” and declined to comment further.

Ukrainian prosecutors filed an indictment for collaboration against Kuzmich in 2022. She is now in Russian-occupied territory and didn’t respond to requests for comment.



A screenshot from a news item broadcast by Russia's RT on Feb. 24 last year showing Olena Anikeeva, director of Henichesk No. 27 Vocational School.

A screenshot from a news item broadcast on Feb. 27 last year by the Tavria TV station shows Tetiana Kuzmich, deputy governor of the Russian-installed Kherson regional administration.

By the time the teens met with Lvova-Belova early last year, many of them had already started believing that Ukraine would ultimately lose the war. The teens from Kherson were divided. One group was holding onto hopes of returning to Ukraine, while others saw their future in Russia and espoused pro-Russian rhetoric, Liza said. At times, some of the children oscillated between the two positions, which led to bitter arguments among them.


Nastia, a 16-year-old girl who spent several months at the school in Henichesk, recalled how the police were summoned after she sang the Ukrainian anthem and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!”

“The police came, and they threatened to sew our mouths shut,” Nastia said.


She was in the room with Liza when Lvova-Belova, the special guest, offered the students Russian passports. “She was like, select any college you’d like to go to in Moscow,” Nastia said.


Lvova-Belova told all the teens they would get 100,000 rubles (about $1,100) and an apartment when they turn 18 if they stayed in Russian-occupied territory, Nastia and Liza said.


“It was all pressure, and it worked,” Liza said.


Officials from Lvova-Belova’s office also offered boys in the group places at a prestigious Russian military academy, another student from Kherson who was at the Henichesk college said. Several of the boys have now received Russian passports, Liza said.


In May last year, Batsura’s mother travelled to Russia, with other women, to retrieve their children. Among them was a godmother of another of the teens from Kherson, named Denys Kostev. The boy's godmother was detained for three days and eventually deported, according to volunteers from Save Ukraine who helped organise the trip. Nastia and Liza’s mothers, who travelled as far as Moscow with Denys’s godmother, managed to bring their two girls back to Ukrainian-controlled territory.


Zorik and at least three other teens from the group spent part of last June in Russia-occupied Crimea, at a summer camp organised by Lvova-Belova’s office. In a social media post, she said the camp was for young people from the “new regions,” the term Russian officials use to describe occupied Ukraine.


A slick promotional video posted online showed the teens in Zorik’s group visiting historic sites, playing on the beach and watching concerts. Photos published by organisers show them listening to a lecture by Lvova-Belova’s husband, a Russian Orthodox priest.


Zorik Ibrian, now 17, is still in Henichesk today. Denys Kostev, 18, is in Moscow region, according to his social media. Before his move, Kostev had become a regular feature of Russian propaganda programs. Organisations that work to bring home Ukrainian children say they are often coerced to appear in such videos.


Sahaidak, the orphanage director in Kherson, still keeps tabs on his old students by watching their Russian TV appearances that are later reposted on social media. He believes that children like Zorik and Denys, who he remembers as one of his most promising students, are doing what they need to do to survive.


In a Russian television program shot in Henichesk last spring, Denys talks about his ambition of joining the Russian army. The blue, white, and red Russian flag is draped over his shoulders as he speaks to the camera. Zorik is seen standing mutely next to him.



A screenshot from a news item broadcast on Feb. 24 last year on Russia's RT, showing Denys Kostev and Zorik Ibrian in Russian-occupied Henichesk.

Danylo, Zorik’s older brother, is now 19 and recently moved into his own apartment in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. He is planning to marry his girlfriend, another orphan from Kherson. As promised, he received 100,000 rubles from the Russian state, said Oleksandr Ponomarchuk, guardian of Zorik’s two youngest siblings.


The Ponomarchuks no longer let the older boys talk directly with their younger siblings. They limited their contact after Danylo called and blamed Ukraine for the destruction in June last year of the Kakhovka Dam in Kherson, which flooded settlements and killed more than 50 people. Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian military and NATO have said Russians destroyed the dam. Russia says it was an act of sabotage by the Ukrainian side.


“He was saying, ‘it’s all Ukraine bombarding people, it’s all Ukraine’s fault, Russia is cool and great,” Alla Ponomarchuk said, describing the call.


When Alla overheard what Danylo was telling his younger siblings, she took the phone away and addressed him directly.


“I said to him, ‘Danya, have you forgotten who your mother was? She was Ukrainian. Where were you born? You were born in Ukraine.”



Liza Batsura and her mother Oksana in Kyiv in October 2023. REUTERS/Alina Smutko

After months of bouncing between camps and schools in occupied territory, Liza now lives with her mother in a hotel in Kyiv, which Save Ukraine has set up as temporary accommodation for families and children displaced by war. The building is crowded, and the constant wails of babies keep her up at night, Liza says. Sitting in a tranquil park near the hotel with her mother last October, Liza said she hopes they can move into a place of their own soon.


“First I have to buy her a coat now that winter is coming,” her mother says, pointing to Liza shivering on the park bench next to her.


Ignoring her mother, Liza picks up her phone and plays back the videos Zorik sent her on Telegram after she returned to Ukraine.


In one of the videos, Zorik points to the Russian flag on the arm of his T-shirt, then directs a stream of obscenities at Liza for supporting Ukraine.


“You see? Russia. Glory to Russia,” Zorik says, looking into his phone camera to directly address Liza.

Shuddering in the cold wind, Liza tucks her phone away.


“I’m scared of them,” she says.


“‘I hope I never see any of them again.”


 

(c) Reuters 2024

*to view the report with its original format and with additional photos and notes, see the following link


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