Over 30 children who were taken from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia during the ongoing conflict have been reunited with their families in Ukraine, according to humanitarian group Save Ukraine. The organization estimates that nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia since Moscow invaded in February 2022, which Ukraine has condemned as illegal deportations. Moscow has denied the allegations of child abduction, instead saying that the children were transported away for their own safety.
Save Ukraine helped with the logistics, transport, and planning needed to bring the children back to Ukraine. Mykola Kuleba, the founder of Save Ukraine, said that all the children who were returned said that no one in Russia was trying to find their parents in Ukraine. The children were taken to summer camps in Russia from occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson regions.
Kuleba revealed that some children had been moved to five different locations in five months, and some had been living with rats and cockroaches. The children were separated from their parents, who were pressured by Russian authorities to send them to summer camps for what was billed as a two-week stay.
Three children, two boys and a girl, were present at the media briefing in Kyiv. Save Ukraine said they were returned to Ukraine on a previous rescue mission last month that returned 18 children in total. The children said they had been forced to remain at the summer camps for four to six months and were moved from one place to another during their stay. One child, Vitaly, said they were treated like animals and were locked in a separate building.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine. However, Moscow has rejected the allegations and called the warrant against Putin and Lvova-Belova null and void.
Lvova-Belova stated that her commission acted on humanitarian grounds to protect the interests of children in an area where military action was taking place and had not moved anyone against their will or that of their parents or legal guardians.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian NGO called Regional Centre for Human Rights is gathering evidence to build a case that Russian officials deliberately prevented the return of Ukrainian children to their country. The situation remains a contentious issue in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
The reunited children expressed their relief and gratitude for being back with their families in Ukraine. They shared their harrowing experiences at the summer camps, where they were separated from their parents and kept in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
“I missed my family so much, and I’m so happy to be back with them,” said 10-year-old Maria, one of the children who were present at the media briefing. “The camp was horrible. We were living in a room with many other children, and there were rats and cockroaches everywhere. We had to eat stale bread and drink dirty water.”
Vitaly, another child who was reunited with his family, said that he and other children were treated like animals at the summer camps. “We were locked up in a separate building, and the guards treated us very badly,” he said. “We were not allowed to talk to our parents or anyone else. We were not allowed to leave the building, not even to go outside for fresh air.”
The reunion of these children with their families is a rare good news story in the midst of the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The war, which started in 2014, has claimed over 13,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million people. The situation has been particularly dire for children, who have been caught in the crossfire and have been subjected to various forms of abuse, including abduction, forced conscription, and sexual exploitation.
The abduction of children by Russian forces and their proxies in Ukraine has been a subject of international concern for several years. Human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of children being taken from their families and transported to Russia, where they are often placed in state-run institutions or sent to live with Russian families.
Many of these children have been separated from their parents for months or even years, and some have been denied contact with their families altogether.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly condemned Russia’s actions as illegal deportations and violations of international law. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, in March 2022, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine. Moscow has rejected the allegations and called the warrant against Putin and Lvova-Belova null and void.
Despite the obstacles, organizations like Save Ukraine and the Regional Centre for Human Rights have been working tirelessly to reunite abducted children with their families. Save Ukraine, founded by Mykola Kuleba, has played a crucial role in coordinating the logistics, transport, and planning needed to bring the children back to Ukraine.
Kuleba said that the process of reuniting the children with their families was often challenging and emotional, but it was worth it to see the joy on the faces of the children and their families. “These children have been through so much, and it’s a miracle that they are still alive and able to return to their families,” he said.
The Regional Centre for Human Rights, meanwhile, has been collecting evidence to build a case that Russian officials deliberately prevented the return of Ukrainian children to their country. The organization has documented cases of Ukrainian children being denied access to consular services and legal representation in Russia, as well as cases of Russian authorities pressuring parents to sign documents allowing their children to be taken to Russia.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on the country’s children, who have been subjected to unimaginable suffering and trauma. The reunion of more than 30 abducted children with their families is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation, and it is a testament to the resilience and determination of those working to protect the rights and welfare of children in the region.