The abomination of Ukraine’s 19,000 stolen children
The 15-year-old Ukrainian schoolgirl was taken one warm morning last October.
Like everyone else in Kherson, a city on the estuary of the Dnipro river in southern Ukraine, Yevheniia’s family were still adjusting to life under Russian control. Putin‘s tanks and troops had poured into the city seven months earlier, soon after the invasion of Ukraine began.
Now there were checkpoints, military police, rumours of Russian brutality; of women being raped. Ukraine was fighting to get the city back and there was a constant risk of shelling. Few people went out after 5pm.
In the apartment where the teenager lived with her mother Maryna, 37, a sales assistant in a clothes shop; her father Oleskii, 36, a sailor; and her seven-year-old sister, the atmosphere was tense. So when her teacher invited Yevheniia and her classmates on a two-week holiday in Crimea, on the Black Sea, she leapt at the chance.
‘I was going far away from the war with my friends,’ she tells me now.
Like everyone else in Kherson, a city on the estuary of the Dnipro river in southern Ukraine, Yevheniia’s family were still adjusting to life under Russian control. Pictured: Yevhenila (left) and mother Maryna Kondratieva (right)
When her teacher invited Yevheniia (pictured) and her classmates on a two-week holiday in Crimea, on the Black Sea, she leapt at the chance
Although Crimea had been under Russian control since 2014, it was safer than Kherson. It was warm, even in autumn. All her friends were going — and the trip was free. Yevheniia’s teacher told her parents it was safe, the best thing they could do for their daughter. They agreed: she should go and have fun.
On the morning of October 7, Maryna, Yevheniia and other teenagers and their families gathered at the port in Kherson. Parents waved goodbye as their children boarded a ferry across the Dnipro. On the far side, they were met by a bus which drove them to the camp in Yevpatoria, western Crimea.
Yevheniia arrived at a building that looked like a hotel. ‘Really smart,’ she says. She shared a bedroom with three friends and settled into the holiday routine: morning exercises, then team games such as volleyball or football, followed by art — ‘I did sculpture!’ — and an evening of dance and songs. ‘It was really good,’ she says.
After two weeks, Yevheniia was almost sad to go home. But then something unexpected happened. Her teacher said they weren’t going home yet. The holiday would be extended by a week or so, she said. ‘She did that a few times, again and again,’ Yevheniia recalls.
She then learnt the truth. A Russian assistant secretly gathered the children in small groups. He told them to forget any idea of an extended holiday. ‘You are here,’ he told them, ‘because you can’t leave this place.’
Yevhaniia is one of more than 6,000 Ukrainian children abducted since the beginning of the war and sent to camps in Russia or Russian-held territory. For the past three months I have been working, with the help of Kyiv-based charity Save Ukraine, to track down families affected by this little-publicised atrocity.
Yevhaniia (left) is one of more than 6,000 Ukrainian children abducted since the beginning of the war and sent to camps in Russia or Russian-held territory
The estimate of 6,000 comes from a report by Yale University, which acknowledges that it is a conservative figure and likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
The National Information Bureau, set up by the Ukrainian government in 2022 to collect data on prisoners of war, the dead and missing, including civilians, states that 19,000 Ukrainian children have been illegally deported to Russia and only 364 have been rescued, as of the start of this month.
Yale researchers uncovered a network of 43 facilities, including a psychiatric hospital, to which Ukrainian children have been moved, mostly in Crimea and southern Russia, though some are farther afield — for example, in Magadan, in the far east, nearly 2,500 miles from Ukraine.
The youngest child abducted, the report found, was four months old; the oldest 17.
In March, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, for their alleged complicity in the mass abduction of Ukrainian children, which the court has recognised as a war crime.
Evidence suggests that Putin empowered Lvova-Belova to set up a vast and far-reaching child-deportation programme, and that all levels of Russia’s government are involved in the operation.
In March, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin (left) and Maria Lvova-Belova (right), the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, for their alleged complicity in the mass abduction of Ukrainian children
Evidence suggests that Putin empowered Lvova-Belova (pictured) to set up a vast and far-reaching child-deportation programme
Part one of the strategy is ‘child transfer’ — effectively a pipeline through which children are moved from Ukraine to Russia. They are abducted from orphanages and children’s homes; separated from parents at ‘filtration camps’ — places where Ukrainians are detained and interrogated in areas under Russian occupation — or, as in Yevheniia’s case, sent to what parents believe are holiday camps but are actually facilities funded by the Russian state.
Next come ‘re-education’ and ‘indoctrination’, where children are brainwashed into adopting a pro-Russian worldview. This involves classes based on the Russian curriculum, talks from veterans, even military training.
Finally, in some cases, there is forced adoption. Laws fast-tracked by the Russian government since the start of the war, have made it easier for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children — and there is a financial reward of up to £160 a month for families who do so.
‘Not one of the decrees issued by Putin contains a paragraph or a rule that says the child’s consent or opinion is required,’ according to Oksana Filipishina, a representative for the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
‘These are essentially acts of unilateral violence intended to transfer children from one ethnic group to another. And that’s a sign of genocide.’
Yevheniia says she had to sing the Russian anthem every morning during exercises (in some camps, the Russian anthem is played on a loop for hours). But, she says, the mood really changed when she was moved to a second camp, smaller and less swish, in a converted nursery school.
Yevheniia (left) says she had to sing the Russian anthem every morning during exercises (in some camps, the Russian anthem is played on a loop for hours)
There, she was brainwashed with the Russian narrative that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that Russian-speakers are being oppressed.
‘I was told: “You have no opinion of your own, you are Nazi, fascist. We are here to save you. We share our bread, our water with you. You should be grateful. And you are not grateful,” ‘ she says.
Camp leaders wore T-shirts emblazoned with the letter ‘Z’, a pro-war propaganda motif. Some camps had isolation rooms to which children were sent as punishment if their views were deemed too pro-Ukrainian. Camps also subdued and drugged ‘difficult’ children in order to control them.
Olga Zaporozhchenko and her husband Denis, a builder, from Kherson, sent three of their four children to a camp in Crimea on October 6.
‘Their school had been destroyed by shelling,’ their mother explains. ‘They only had online lessons and their teacher said it would be chance for them to have a good time with their friends.’
They were told the children would return after two weeks, but they didn’t come home.
Camp leaders wore T-shirts emblazoned with the letter ‘Z’ (pictured), a pro-war propaganda motif
Diana, 14, and Yana, 11, say they were treated well and locals even gave them sweets at Christmas. But in early February their brother Nikita, a boisterous ten-year-old, got into a fight with some older boys who were helpers at the camp and presumably pro-Russian. Nikita was taken to hospital.
‘Nurses came into the room and gave me a little plastic cup with a pill in and some water and told me to take it,’ he says. The pill — probably Valium, a tranquilliser — made him ‘sleepy’. He was in hospital for a month. Two other children from the camp were in the same hospital, also being sedated.
The family are now in Kyiv, reunited with their children who were away for a full six months. During that time, Olga and Denis were kept updated with regular phone messages from ‘helpers’ and knew Nikita had been drugged.
They have no desire to criticise the treatment of their son because they worry about reprisals, but we can try to imagine the overwhelming fear, confusion and anger they must have felt when their children did not come home.
‘We didn’t know what to do,’ says Olga. ‘My [fourth child] is only five and I couldn’t leave him in Kherson — and we worried that if Denis went [in search of them], he wouldn’t be allowed back.’ In the end, they granted power of attorney to a friend, who found and collected their children for them.
When Yevheniia’s return was delayed, Maryna called her teacher. ‘She said she knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be two weeks. It would be for several months, but she kept it a secret.’
Olga Zaporozhchenko (back centre) and her husband Denis (back left), a builder, from Kherson, sent three of their four children to a camp in Crimea on October 6
When Yevheniia’s return was delayed, Maryna (pictured) called her teacher. ‘She said she knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be two weeks. It would be for several months, but she kept it a secret’
Maryna says it was hard to know who was pro-Russian in occupied Kherson; whom to trust, whom to believe. She was both frightened and furious. ‘I cried a lot. I couldn’t sleep,’ she says.
She contacted a camp official. ‘When is my daughter going to come home?’ she asked. The official told Maryna her daughter would not be returned to Kherson.
She was welcome to collect Yevheniia, he said, but the journey would be one-way. ‘We were offered a residence permit and financial reward if we abandoned everything we had in Ukraine and stayed in Crimea,’ she says. ‘Many parents agreed to do that.’
Parents face an incredible struggle not only to be reunited with their children but even to find out where they are, according to the Yale report. They are moved around between camps, often without their parents’ knowledge. One child was moved from a camp in Crimea to the Republic of Adygea, several hours away.
Yevheniia was fortunate. Although she was sent to three camps, they were all in the same city. She also had her mobile phone. She and her mother kept in touch on the Telegram app.
‘The reception wasn’t always good so I’d have to move around to find a signal, ‘ she says.
She contacted a camp official. ‘When is my daughter going to come home?’ she asked. The official told Maryna her daughter would not be returned to Kherson
A turning point came in February when one of Yevheniia’s room-mates was reunited with her mother thanks to Save Ukraine, which helps Ukrainians with evacuations, humanitarian aid and housing for refugees. Yevheniia asked her mother to find out more about it.
Save Ukraine has a hotline for parents to report missing children. It also has a network of informers in Russia.
‘Just today, one man from Russia contacted me on Facebook to tell me about a Ukrainian child deported to Dagestan, in the southernmost tip of Russia,’ says Mykola Kuleba, CEO of Save Ukraine. ‘He asked me, ‘How can I help this child?’
The charity organised a rescue mission for Maryna and 12 parents and guardians of other missing children. In early March, they set off. The camp in Yevpatoria was only about 250 miles from Kherson but it was too dangerous for her to travel directly, because the route was near the front line.
Instead, Maryna took a train to Kyiv, where she was briefed by Ukrainian security services. The testimonies of parents are submitted to the International Criminal Court. Then, she boarded a train for Poland and continued on to Belarus. She flew from Minsk to Moscow, then went by bus from Moscow to Crimea.
The journey of more than 2,600 miles took ten days.
Instead, Maryna took a train to Kyiv, where she was briefed by Ukrainian security services
Finally, on March 17, she reached the Zdravnitsa (Russian for ‘health resort’) camp in Yevpatoria. After proving who she was and showing documents such as birth certificates, Maryna was reunited with her daughter. They had been apart for almost six months.
‘When I was on the bus, I was crying, imagining how it would be when we met,’ she says. ‘But when I saw Yevheniia, it was pure happiness and joy. No more tears.’
‘I was scared I would never see Mum again,’ says Yevheniia. ‘They said that if children weren’t collected by a certain date, we would be sent to an orphanage.’
When children are taken ‘we have to act immediately,’ says Mykola Kuleba. If they are sent to an orphanage, a Russian family can quickly adopt them. Their names can be changed, making them impossible to find. And if children are given Russian passports, they can’t leave the country.
‘We don’t know how many thousands have been adopted already,’ he says.
On March 22, after five days of travelling, Maryna and her daughter arrived back in Kyiv.
On March 22, after five days of travelling, Maryna and her daughter arrived back in Kyiv
Save Ukraine has rescued 96 children to date, and recently launched its seventh mission: ten mothers left Kyiv on May 13 to rescue 23 children from camps in Crimea.
Each mission is expensive but Save Ukraine secures documents and covers all travel expenses. It is also dangerous. Maryna was questioned by the Federal Security Service (FSB) for nine hours at Moscow airport. ‘They checked my phone, documents, asked why I was in Russia.’
Save Ukraine briefs each parent before they leave. ‘Each mum has her different story, her cover,’ says Olga Yerokhina, assistant to Mykola Kuleba. ‘Like, I came to visit my sister, or I came to visit my relative and take my child back home.’ The key thing is not to mention Save Ukraine, she says. ‘It’s easier for the mothers if they don’t talk about us.’
The charity has recently opened a Hope and Healing Centre in Kyiv, where families can stay for three months. It offers food, play rooms and trauma therapy. The impact on the children is huge, says Olga.
‘They don’t want to talk to anybody at first. They are like little hedgehogs, very closed inside. It takes two or three months for them to feel really safe again.’
One teenage girl arrived with cuts on her hands and arms, evidence of self-harm, Olga continues. She’d worn a T-shirt with a Ukrainian flag in the camp.
‘One of the helpers demanded she cut it to pieces. She refused. He said, ‘You have three options. You cut it to pieces. You go back home to Kherson, where your mum will have big problems,’ — by that he meant Russian soldiers could come to her house and do anything they wanted because there are no laws. ‘And third, you go to a separate room to be punished.’ She was scared he would rape her. She was so afraid.’
Maryna and her family have decided to settle in Kyiv. Kherson city was recaptured by Ukraine ‘but it’s not safe,’ she says.
‘It’s not over,’ she continues. ‘There are many anxieties — finding a job, accommodation, a school.’ On top of this, Kyiv has been hit by Russian airstrikes many times this month. ‘But we are a family again,’ she says, ‘and we are unbreakable.’