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Inside the operation to rescue Ukraine’s abducted children  – POLITICO

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In the yard of a local church in Kyiv, a gray minivan arrives, brandishing the sign “Evacuation. Children.” The doors are flung open and out jumps a fiery-haired woman in her 40s: Oksana Galkina. 

“I got her! I finally brought my Liza back,” she screams happily as she spots the volunteers of Save Ukraine, the NGO that assisted her in carrying out the most formidable mission she’s ever embarked upon: rescuing her 16-year-old daughter, Liza, from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. 

In the company of a dozen other parents and legal guardians of kidnapped children, Galkina journeyed through the European Union, to Russia, and then into the Russian-occupied southern territories of Ukraine, finally returning back home. Their goal? Reclaiming the children Russia had wrenched from their arms. 

Galkina’s story offers a glimpse at one of the horrors of the Ukrainian war: The forced transfer of thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia or Russian-occupied territories. While the exact numbers involved remain uncertain, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Ukrainian government has identified more than 19,000 children it says were deported to Russia. Liza is one of just 371 children that organizations like Save Ukraine and Ukraine’s Ombudsman’s Office have managed to rescue. 

Russia acknowledges it has transferred children from Ukraine, arguing it is saving them from the horrors of war or facilitating the adoption or fostering of orphans. But the OSCE has documented nonconsensual evacuations it says amount to war crimes, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for their role in what the court says is an ongoing war crime. 

“Whatever the form of placement, Ukrainian children find themselves in an entirely Russian environment, including language, customs and religion and are exposed to [a] pro-Russian information campaign often amounting to targeted re-education as well as being involved in military education,” the OSCE said in a recent report. “The Russian Federation does not take any steps to actively promote the return of Ukrainian children. Rather, it creates various obstacles for families seeking to get their children back.” 

Which is exactly what Galkina discovered after her daughter was abducted from the Ukrainian city of Kherson.  

‘They proclaimed her an orphan’ 

Liza’s odyssey began in the fall last year after her mother agreed to allow her to live in the dorm of the local college where she had started studying to be a pastry chef. Kherson and the surrounding region were then under Russian occupation. 

A week after the start of classes, Galkina decided to visit her daughter. To her despair, she discovered that Liza, along with dozens of other children, was missing. “Through a social service, I discovered that they all have been taken to Crimea for vacation,” she recalled. “But I did not give my permission for it.”  

The so-called vacation, initially meant to last two weeks, stretched into three months. Liza was then relocated to Genichesk, a city in the occupied Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia, to resume her studies. “They threatened her that if she didn’t go, they would confine her in the basement,” Galkina said. 

Through the help of her daughter’s friends and classmates who had smartphones, Galkina was able to find Liza on social media. Liza now had a Russian cell phone operator and had been offered Russian citizenship, which she refused. After spending another eight months in Genichesk, far from her mother and her home in Kherson, the unthinkable happened: “They proclaimed her an orphan,” Galkina recalled.

Liza’s experience matches a pattern mapped out by human rights watchdogs and organizations like the OSCE and the ICC. Since the international arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova were issued in March, Lvova-Belova has denied that Russia attempts to deprive children of the Ukrainian language and citizenship and said that the country tries to reunite children with their family members.

16-year-old Liza hugs a Save Ukraine volunteer after arriving in Kiev | Veronika Melkozerova/POLITICO

But watchdog groups have documented how Moscow deported children from occupied regions of Ukraine to “re-education” camps in Crimea and Russia, where they were sometimes held for months and subjected to “pro-Russia patriotic and military-related education,” including in some cases training in the use of firearms. Other children, separated from their parents in filtration camps, have been provided with Russian spelling of their names and new dates of birth to make it harder for volunteers in Ukraine and Russia to locate and return them to their parents, according to Kateryna Rashevska, a legal expert at the Regional Center for Human Rights, an NGO working to retrieve children from Russia. 

Liza spent her eight months in Genichesk living in the dormitory of local college No. 27, where she befriended Nastya Shevelyova, a 15-year-old also from Kherson. The girls forged a bond, bolstered by their shared experience in Russian captivity. Liza recalled the chilling atmosphere in Genichesk. “It was so cold in that old dorm,” Liza said. “We were surrounded by Russian soldiers. Not allowed to close the doors in our rooms. The soldiers could have come with a check even at night.”  

One night, one of the girls in their dorm fell out of the fifth-floor window. After that, they were no longer allowed to open the windows to let in fresh air. Liza and Nastya never discovered how the girl fell or what happened to her afterward.  

The girls lived alongside dozens of other Ukrainian children. Their time was strictly regulated, and they were expected to adhere to a Russian school curriculum. They refused to listen to the history lessons, as nothing favorable was uttered about Ukraine, Nastya recalled. The soldiers, she added, would buy things and spend money on those children who demonstrated affection for Russia. Some kids said that they would give their allegiance to whoever prevailed in the war. 

“The Russians presented themselves as liberators,” Nastya said. “But at the same time, they threaten to send you to Chechnya for re-education if you won’t do what they tell you to do.” Both Liza and Nastya said they repeatedly asked to be sent home, but it was only after their mothers located them, gathered enough documents to force their release and traveled to find them that they were finally allowed to leave. They arrived in Kyiv on May 22.  

‘Ukrainian children are a resource’  

Rescue operations like the one that liberated Liza start the moment Russian and Ukrainian volunteers — operating clandestinely due to the security risks — ascertain the whereabouts of an abducted child. NGOs like Save Ukraine and the Regional Center for Human Rights assist parents in assembling documents demonstrating their legal guardianship. They’re aware that the clock is ticking, said Rashevska, as Russian authorities attempt to convince the children of Russian superiority, bribe them with toys and clothes and claim their parents don’t want them back.  

“At the same time, Russia indeed returns a small percentage of the kidnapped kids to legitimize itself as a savior,” said Rashevska. “Those parents who manage to get to their kids can go home only after they thank the Russian Federation for saving their kids in front of Russian propagandists waiting for them in a special room.” For some parents, the journey to their children’s arms involves up to 12 hours of intense interrogation by the FSB intelligence services. Some are questioned to uncover the identities of those aiding them in their quest to retrieve their children, only to be dispatched back to Ukraine empty-handed. 

“For Russia, Ukrainian children are a resource,” Mariia Sulialina, head of the Center for Civic Education “Almenda,” an NGO that seeks to document violations against children. “They want to raise a new generation that will spread Russian values … They need a new generation of soldiers to throw them into war.” 

The mass abductions are part of an attempt to eradicate Ukraine’s existence, she added. “Even if we reclaim our territories, they have planted a time bomb that can explode,” Sulialina said. “Because young people are beginning to identify themselves with Russia. They will not destroy us physically, but they are killing Ukrainians in our children.” 

Her assertion draws from a bitter historical precedent. According to Almenda, dozens of young Crimeans who were children when Russia occupied and illegally annexed Ukraine’s peninsula in 2014 have been either conscripted or even voluntarily joined the Russian invading army in 2022. “Some of them died at war,” Sulialina said. 

According to Rashevska, Russia is targeting Ukrainian children to reverse its population decline. Over the past three years, the country has lost around 2 million more people than it would ordinarily have done, as a result of war, disease and exodus, the Economist reported in March. 

“Putin has repeatedly emphasized the demographic problem,” Rashevska said, adding that recent government reports note a rise in population in the regions where Ukrainians are being sent. “Ukrainian children are welcomed in Russia,” she said. “They are white, they share the same religion, and similar culture and speak Russian. Russian families adopt them happily, motivated by the benefits the Russian system offers for that.” 

‘Please, come home’ 

Liza and Nastya were among 20 children brought back from Russian-occupied territories by Save Ukraine, as part of the group’s seventh rescue mission. But the happy endings to their stories remain the exception.  

Ahead of an expected counteroffensive by Ukraine, Russian authorities in the occupied part of the southern Zaporizhzhia region are again abducting children, according to Ukrainian officials. Ivan Fedorov, the exiled mayor of the city of Melitopol, said Russians are taking Ukrainian kids to education camps. “This is another attempt to ‘brainwash them’ and on occasion to turn the little ones into human shields and bargaining chips,” Fedorov said in a Telegram statement.

As Liza and the other rescued children enthusiastically snapped pictures in front of the evacuation bus, eagerly awaiting a pizza meal, one woman Olga, a slim blonde in her 30s from Kherson, stood alone, wiping away her tears, unable to share the other parents’ joy. Her 17-year-old godson Denys remains stranded in Russia. 

As part of Save Ukraine’s rescue operation, Olga had traveled from Germany to Russia, with the intent of bringing Denys back to reunite him with his grandmother, aunt and older brother. She had compiled the necessary documents and was ready to adopt him to get him out. But as soon as she landed in Moscow, she was arrested and detained for two days by the FSB. “They took away my phone and documents, threatened me with a lie detector, wanted to know who helped me to locate Denys,” she recalled.  

Rather than facilitate Denys’ release, the Russians simply deported Olga to Belarus. There, she endured another day of interrogation by the Belarusian KGB before being unceremoniously expelled and left to fend for herself in Minsk. She was forced to appeal to a local Red Cross branch for assistance to reach Ukraine. 

“I was so desperate,” she said. “As soon as I got back to Ukraine, I called his aunt to tell her I failed. But she said she already knew. While I was traveling, Denys, who previously asked to get him back home, sent a very strange voice message, saying he does not want to go back to Ukraine, as the Ukrainian [security service] will interrogate him and then he will be sent to war.”  

Rescued children pose for a group photo with their parents and Save Ukraine volunteers in front of the van that brought them to Kyiv | Veronika Melkozerova/POLITICO

In a bid to keep Denys in Russia, the Russians offered him citizenship, along with a certificate for an apartment and an education in Moscow. “They offered him a prospect of a better life,” Olga said. “But I am afraid they lied to him, and instead of education, he will be summoned to the Russian army. Denys turns 18 only in three months.”  

“Please, Denys, come home,” she said, speaking to journalists who had gathered to see the children’s arrival. “Your granny, your brother, your aunt, your nephews are waiting for you. Nobody will torture you here.” 

Regrettably, Denys’ experience is far more common than Liza’s. In 2022 alone, more than 400 Ukrainian children were adopted by Russian families, according to Rashevska. “Only some 300 children were returned in 2022,” she said. 

At this rate, she added, it will take 50 years before Ukraine is able to retrieve all its kidnapped children.