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How Ukrainians bring back their abducted children


Thousands of Ukrainian children are said to have been abducted to Russia. In order to bring her back, her parents have to pick her up in person. But not everyone succeeds.

By Tobias Dammers, WDR, currently Kiev

The offer Ihor later made the victim of an alleged war crime was too tempting to refuse: a holiday camp in the Russian city of Anapa, far from the combat zone in his native Ukraine – offered by the Russian occupation authorities. The first holiday in the 16-year-old’s life was to last several weeks and be free. But things turned out differently.

Because the holiday became a kidnapping and probably even part of a war crime. What the slender, pale boy could not have foreseen: He will not return from the holiday camp in Russia for more than four months.

According to Ukrainian sources, Ihor is one of more than 16,000 children and young people who were abducted by Russia during the war. Ihor has only been back in Ukraine for about two weeks. “Coming back is a big step,” says Ihor. “Many never come back.”

War against Ukraine: The Fate of the Kidnapped Children

Tobias Dammers, ARD Kiev, Weltspiegel 6:30 p.m., March 26, 2023

Reconquest of the homeland prevents homecoming

Ihor and his mother Natalja Lysevych originally came from the village of Antonivka in the Cherson region in southern Ukraine. In the very first days of the invasion, Russian troops conquer their homeland. Eight months of Russian occupation followed, and with it the consumption of exclusively Russian media.

Lysevych says they didn’t notice anything about war atrocities like in Bucha or Irpin. Occupation became the new normal. They agree to the Russian occupiers’ offer – and Ihor travels to the holiday camp in Anapa.

Ihor says coming back is a big step – many never went back home.

Image: ARD

Shortly before the planned end of his stay in the camp, however, the military situation changed when the Ukrainian army surprisingly recaptured large parts of the Cherson region and Ihor’s home village in November. His return from the holiday camp is then repeatedly postponed by the Russian authorities. He was held there, he says.

From holiday camp to adoptive families

Ihor estimates that more than 1,000 Ukrainian children were with him in Russia. The treatment at the holiday camp was “good,” says Ihor. There was no violence and no attempts at re-education.

But a companion announced that she and others would be sent to Russian adoptive families or nursing homes. In addition, there were rumors at the camp that money would be given to those who wanted to stay in Russia.

Mother Natalya Lysevych was afraid that she would never see her son again. In order to bring him home, she had to personally travel to Russia.

Image: ARD

Thousands of kilometers to save Ihor

The contact between Ihor and his mother broke off in the meantime. She says she was afraid she would never see her son again. It was “a shock” for her to have sent her own child on this vacation “without knowing how it would end”.

She finally found out from the aid organization SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine how she could bring her son home. To do this, she must personally travel to Russia and pick him up. The aid organization takes over the planning and travel costs. Lysevych’s route leads through Poland and Belarus to the Russian border. From there she has to go on to Moscow and then to southern Russia, to Anapa, to Ihor. It’s thousands of kilometers, a two-week journey.

On the way she meets helpers and drivers of the organization. Lysevych does not want to go into detail about this. After every meeting with helpers, she deletes photos and chat histories on her cell phone, she says. Other mothers report that they were taught to only speak of “visiting” their children at checkpoints, not “picking them up.”

Arriving in Anapa, Natalya Lysevych was asked by the supervisors of Ihor if she wanted to stay in Russia. Other mothers who have been to Russia also confirm such offers. But after she signed some documents, she was able to take Ihor with her without any problems, Lysevych said.

“Return action without Russia’s consent”

A total of 323 kidnapped children have been brought back to Ukraine so far, says Ukrainian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Daria Herasymchuk. These return operations took place without Russia’s consent, without ransom and without anything in return: “It’s not an exchange,” says Herasymchuk.

She is convinced that there is a “clear and well-planned” strategy behind the kidnappings of children. Their analyzes showed that Ukrainian children quickly received Russian citizenship and that adoption processes had been shortened.

“Patriotic Education Programs”

But Ukrainian parents and NGOs do not always succeed in saving children. Daria Kasyanova from SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine reports that there have already been “refusals” by Russian camps or adoptive families, even though the Ukrainian relatives had all the necessary documents with them.

She also shares the stories of children who have been saved. Teenagers in particular would report threats that they would have to join the Russian army. According to her observations, many of the kidnapped Ukrainian children have to go through a “patriotic education program” in which anti-Ukrainian propaganda is spread.

Russia: “Rescue” from the chaos of war

The kidnapping of the children is portrayed differently on Russian television. There it is said that the children would be saved from the turmoil of war in the Ukraine and given a secure future through adoptive parents. “380 children” have already been taken to 20 regions of the country, says Russian children’s rights officer Maria Lwowa-Belova in an interview with the Kremlin-affiliated TV station Zargrad.

She herself adopted a fifteen-year-old boy from Donetsk, she said in a conversation with Russian President Putin. An arrest warrant has now been issued by the International Criminal Court against both Lvowa-Belowa and Putin because of their alleged responsibility for the kidnapping of the Ukrainian children. According to the Kremlin, the arrest warrant is “legally void”. Russia does not recognize the Criminal Court.

You can see the report on the subject in Weltspiegel – on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in the first.