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Ukraine’s children are being deported in full view of the world

The playground of an orphanage in Kherson, Ukraine, from which Russian forces allegedly took 46 children, on Nov. 27, 2022. [Chris McGrath/Getty Images]

The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is crystal clear: “Forcibly transferring children of [a]group to another group,” when committed with intent to destroy a nation in whole or in part, constitutes genocide. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a law degree, so he ought to be aware of the statute. And his intent should by this point not be in doubt.

Even as Russian authorities deported thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia, they did not hide what they were doing. Indeed, they crowed about it, appearing several times a week on Russian state television, often presenting it as a Kremlin-sanctioned campaign for the adoption of Ukrainian children.

The International Criminal Court recently announced that arrest warrants were issued for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his commissioner for children’s rights. The ICC explained that this unprecedented public announcement of the warrants was made to prevent “the further commission of crimes.”

Speed is of the utmost importance. The kidnapped children are growing up, their features are changing, and facial recognition techniques might prove inadequate. Small children might forget their biological parents, their hometowns (often destroyed by Russian shelling), and the phone numbers of their loved ones.

Putin and Lvova-Belova are the most prominent perpetrators. But there are also many willing collaborators who have boasted on Facebook and Telegram, posted on Instagram, and written on the Russian social network VKontakte about the transfer and Russification of Ukrainian children.

Russian state television, the Kremlin’s own announcements, and social media posts always present the crime as a compassionate rescue mission. In September, Lvova-Belova spoke of “a group of 30 children from Mariupol who we found in basements”: they “at first said nasty things about President [Putin], defiantly sang the Ukrainian national anthem and chanted ‘Slava Ukraini.’” But after some work on the child, she proudly announced, it is possible to “make sure that everybody supports our strong country.”

She knows. She adopted one such teenager, who is now a happy bearer of “a passport of the Russian Federation.”

While the abducted children might not all be subject to systematic reeducation, just by living in any Russian-controlled territory, they are exposed to virulent propaganda whose imperialist-tinted militaristic patriotism is based largely on hatred of Ukraine and its allies. This amounts to cruel brainwashing of victims of Russia’s own aggression.

The public record has allowed Ukrainian authorities, local and foreign journalists, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health, to document cases of deportations of children. Perhaps the most comprehensive study was done by the EBU Investigative Journalism Network. But even this report admits that “it is impossible to determine the exact number” of victims.

Ukrainian authorities claim that they have identified at least 19,544 children who have thus far been deported. The Ukrainian commissioner for children’s rights stated in one interview that in these cases, the name, surname and date of birth of the child are known. The commissioner also noted that 328 children have been “returned.” However, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine established by the United Nations said in its March 15 report that it has not been able to verify any of these figures.

The number of deported or displaced children might include those who fled into Russia proper from territory Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. Some of the deportees were or became orphans, such as the 46 toddlers taken from the then-Russian-occupied Kherson. Others were institutionalized against their will because of the war. Some were doubtless turned back at checkpoints when trying to flee to Ukraine. None was given a choice.

More mechanisms need to be established to track this ongoing monstrosity. Thus far, ordinary Russians who want to report these crimes have been an underutilized resource. In Putin’s Russia, speaking out is not an easy proposition. Volunteers acting alone or in informal groups are in great danger. Meanwhile, formal groups of human rights defenders within Russia have long been outlawed, with their leaders jailed or forced into exile.

Some efforts are bearing fruit. For the anniversary of the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, the exiled Russian station TV Dozhd, also known as TV Rain and now based in Amsterdam, produced an hour-long documentary on the kidnapped children, watched by more than half a million viewers. Without help from the Ukrainian authorities — who are so far reluctant to engage with Russian media, even opposition ones — the journalists managed to trace several cases, identify some faces and establish where some children were held.

Additionally, in January, Dozhd — whose audience is mainly in Russia — urged Russians to anonymously report sightings of deported children to an email address and a Telegram channel (@tvrainalert_bot). So far, Dozhd’s database has a number of cases. This is a very imperfect initiative, but some of these tipoffs might lead to stopping or even reversing the crimes that are being committed.

The ICC is leveraging international law. The effort initiated by Dozhd is based on Russian citizens’ anonymous reports. Every lead must be followed, and every effort must be made to bring justice — a very rare commodity in this awful war.


(c) 2023, The Washington Post


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