An abandoned playground in Kherson, Ukraine

An abandoned playground in Kherson, Ukraine

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

Kidnapping as a Weapon of War The Abducted Children of Ukraine

The Kremlin has made a habit of seizing Ukrainian boys and girls, with the intention of transforming them into Russian citizens. Families are fighting to get their children back.

It's a gray day at the end of March, and Natalia Zhornyh and her son Artem have just returned to their home country across the Belarusian border. The mother drags a suitcase past men in uniform, rusty tank barriers and concrete pyramids to the Ukrainian village of Domanove. Then, she bursts into tears.

Her journey took her hundreds of kilometers - through Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Russia into the occupied region of Luhansk. And back. But she made it. The 32-year-old, a woman with bright red hair and high tops, managed to get her 15-year-old son back.


INIMAGES / Westend61

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2023 (April 8th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The Russian occupiers had kidnapped the boy, and mother and son were separated for six months. At the border crossing, Zhornyh describes her desperate search for her son while smoking one cigarette after the other. Artem, his cap pulled down deep over his face, stands next to her making jokes. It's been a long time since Zhornyh and her son have been able to laugh together.

Nineteen children recently returned home with the help of a non-profit organization. According to Ukrainian authorities, thousands of children and youth have been abducted to Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Nineteen children recently returned home with the help of a non-profit organization. According to Ukrainian authorities, thousands of children and youth have been abducted to Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

According to Ukraine, at least 19,500 children have been taken to Russian boarding schools or foster families since the beginning of the war. Most of the time, parents don't even know where their children have disappeared to. Kyiv says it has thus far only been able to retrieve 328 of the abducted boys and girls.

Natalia Zhornyh and her son Artem: Six months of separation and an odyssey through many countries before they were reunited

Natalia Zhornyh and her son Artem: Six months of separation and an odyssey through many countries before they were reunited

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

There is a sad tradition of using children as weapons in war. During World War II, the Nazis stole Polish children to "Germanize" them; in conflicts like the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, children were kidnapped to be used as soldiers. Often, the tactic is used as a means of coercing parents to talk or to demoralize them. Most of all, though, the goal is to rob a country of its future.

Now, it is Russia that is abducting children in full view of the global public on a scale not seen in Europe in years.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, believes that the Kremlin wants to "permanently remove these children from their own country" and recently issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his commissioner for children's rights. The court has accused both of carrying personal responsibility for the abduction of Ukrainian children.

Invader Posing as a Helper

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, such accusations are groundless. Since the beginning of the war, he has been claiming there is a need to protect Ukraine's "oppressed" Russian-speaking population. Russian soldiers, he insists, are "evacuating" Ukrainian civilians – and the purported rescue of Ukrainian children has been celebrated in the Russian media. The invader posing as the helper.

Nor is the Kremlin hiding the fact that it intends to make Russian citizens out of Ukrainian children. Indeed, Putin signed a decree at the end of May 2022 making it possible to fast-track the naturalization of children from Ukraine who are wards of the state. Foster parents and even directors of orphanages, homes or social service agencies can apply on behalf of the children.

In doing so, Putin is taking advantage of the fact that, relative to the country's population, there are more children in orphanage or foster care in Ukraine than in any other European country. Many of these children aren't even orphans. Instead, they might have parents who are addicted to alcohol or drugs or are simply too poor to take proper care of their children. UNICEF has criticized conditions in Ukrainian homes in the past, and the war has only served to exacerbate the problem. In the turmoil of the fighting, the responsible government agencies lost track of thousands of children.

Including Artem, who - as his mother explains on this afternoon at the border crossing - had spent the last few years at a boarding school in Kupyansk, a small town in the eastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv.

She was only 17 years old when her son was born. She says that she and her husband worked on a farm until late at night. "We weren't able to take care of him," says Natalia. She says Artem liked the boarding school where he lived. He rode a BMX bike and won medals in swimming, and he was able to visit his parents, who lived in a nearby town, on the weekends.

Reunited: Two mothers and a helper hug each other at the border.

Reunited: Two mothers and a helper hug each other at the border.

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

But then came the war, and the area around Kupyansk quickly fell under Russian occupation. First the invaders took Natalia's husband Maksym, holding him in a cell at the police station for 32 days. She suspects that locals who sympathized with the Russians turned him in for his pro-Ukrainian stance.

Then, in early September, an offensive mounted by the Ukrainian army took the occupiers by surprise in Kupyansk, and they hastily withdrew, taking 15-year-old Artem and a dozen of his classmates with them. They brought the boy to an orphanage located deep inside Russian-occupied Luhansk, a region that Vladimir Putin declared to be Russian territory just before the offensive. Artem would spend half a year there.

It was cold in the home in Luhansk, the boy now says on the street, trying hard not to show any signs of weakness. He says the food was bad and that the teachers had taught a lot more Russian in school than they had back home in Kupyansk. He claims his classmates bullied him when he spoke Ukrainian. Others who have returned have reported that they were physically attacked. A security guard at a summer camp in Crimea, for example, allegedly beat teenagers with a metal rod who shouted, "Glory to Ukraine."

Russian Propaganda Videos

In October, says Artem, the head of the orphanage in Luhansk allowed him to contact his mother, a call that meant Natalia Zhornyh now knew where her son was. But the direct route was far too dangerous, since it would have led across the front. Other parents who had already brought their children back referred them to the Kyiv-based organization "Save Ukraine." With its help, she got to Belarus via Poland, flew from Minsk to Moscow and then drove across western Russia to Luhansk, where she picked up Artem. During her trip, Zhornyh recounts, she consistently pretended at checkpoints that she wanted to stay in Russia.

Parents and helpers alike are keeping quiet about just how they bring their children back and which routes they use within Russia in order to avoid endangering future missions to repatriate children. In addition to the aid organizations and government agencies in Ukraine, church groups and Russian volunteers are also reportedly active. Save Ukraine usually brings several children back to the country at the same time, from different places in Russia or in the occupied territories. On the afternoon of his arrival, Artem was part of a group of 19 children.

But other kidnapped children appear only in Russian propaganda videos. Moscow began using orphanage children for such videos during the 2014 war in the Donbas.

In the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, doctors and educators were aware of the fates of children who had been in foster care in the Donbas region. So when Russian soldiers entered the city in the early days of the war, officials in hospitals and homes tried to hide the children in their care. Where possible, they returned them to their parents, while others were placed with care facility employees.

At the regional children's home in the municipality of Dniprowskyy, however, that approach failed. Today, the playground in the courtyard is empty: No one is sliding down the slide; no one is bouncing on the trampoline. Just a few meters away, on the other side of the street, a projectile has torn a gaping hole in the wall of a warehouse. Even though they withdrew from the city in November after eight months of occupation, the Russians aren't far away and have continued shelling Kherson from the other side of the Dnieper River.

The doors to the home are locked, and the 48 children between the ages of one and five who lived here until recently have disappeared. The occupiers kidnapped them just before they withdrew, probably taking them to Crimea. Both Ukrainian and international investigators are currently looking into the case.

This was once a lively place: The playground at the children's home in Kherson stands abandoned today. The whereabouts of the 48 children who lived here are currently unknown.

This was once a lively place: The playground at the children's home in Kherson stands abandoned today. The whereabouts of the 48 children who lived here are currently unknown.

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

"Of course, we miss the children, we were like their mothers," says Viktoriya Zhirokya, 51. Together with her colleague Kateryna Zirodzhuk, 53, the nurse provided care for nearly a dozen severely disabled children, most with central nervous system disorders. Zhirokya says she often thinks of five-year-old Stasik, who would hold her hand and dance. Or of three-year-old Nastya, who she always hugged so tightly.

Zhirokya, Zirodzhuk and their colleagues had taken the children from the home on the second day of the war to the Holhofa Baptist Church, a brick building on the other side of town, its spacious basement providing shelter for the boys and girls. The caregivers organized food with the help of volunteers and members of the community. Zhirokya says they were even planning on taking the children via secret routes to Ukrainian-controlled territory in April.

Caretakers Zirodzhuk and Zhirokya: "We were like their mothers."

Caretakers Zirodzhuk and Zhirokya: "We were like their mothers."

Foto: Fedir Petrov / DER SPIEGEL

But the Russians discovered their hiding place. Black-clad members of the Russian secret service agency FSB showed up at the church, alone at first, but later accompanied by soldiers wielding assault rifles. They ordered the caregivers to take the children back to the home. Zhirokya and Zirodzhuk remained with them. Children in care homes have already been abandoned once, says Zhirokya. "We couldn't leave them a second time."

On the morning of October 21, less than three weeks before their departure from the city, the Russians loaded the children into buses and ambulances. They even touted the operation publicly, posting videos on the messenger service Telegram showing buses with large orange "Z" stickers on them, along with children getting ready for the trip. Three staff members accompanied the boys and girls, the two caregivers say: a doctor and a nurse who collaborated with the Russians, as well as a kindergarten teacher who had family in Russia.

It was from this teacher that a colleague of Zhirokya's and Zirodzhuk's received the most recent message about the children's whereabouts. The woman wrote on January 3 that they were in Simferopol in Crimea and that they would soon be provided with Russian identification papers.

The face of the campaign portraying the Russian leadership as the savior of Ukrainian children is Mariya Lvova-Belova. The Russian children's rights commissioner reports directly to the president, chosen by Putin to embody the family spirit, faith and patriotism. The 38-year-old is married to an Orthodox priest, has five biological children and is the guardian of several others.

Lvova-Belova has never made a secret of the abduction of Ukrainian children. On the contrary: Her Telegram channel provides a rich source for investigators in The Hague. Business trips to the occupied territories and meetings with Ukrainian children in holiday camps are well documented there. Back in July, the first 14 children who had been placed with Moscow foster families received their Russian identity papers in the presence of Lvova-Belova. It isn't known how many more children have been provided with new passports since then.

In mid-February, Lvova-Belova provided the president with a detailed report during a partly televised event. Lvova-Belova also spoke at the time about 15-year-old Filipp from Mariupol, who she has taken into her own family.

Russian President Putin and his Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova have been accused of trying to "permanently remove" children from their home country.

Russian President Putin and his Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova have been accused of trying to "permanently remove" children from their home country.

Foto: Mikhail Klimentyev / Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

If she could have it her way, she said, the children would not only be Russian on paper, but also in their minds. At a conference in September, Lvova-Belova reported that a group of children from Mariupol had initially been unruly in singing the Ukrainian national anthem. But their antipathy soon "turned into love for Russia," she said.

In one of her first public appearances after the issuing of the arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, Lvova-Belova rejected the accusation that Russian was holding Ukrainian children and young people against their will. If the parents of evacuated children came forward, she insisted, they would of course be reunited with their children. As an example, she cited a father or three children who had been taken to the Moscow region. Lvova-Belova said her office had organized the father's travel, assisted him financially and provided him with everything else he needed.

The father Lvova-Belova spoke of is Yevhen Meshevoi, and his recollection of the incident is rather different. DER SPIEGEL reached out to the 40-year-old single parent on the phone in the Latvian capital Riga, where he has been living with his children since June. At the beginning of the war, he was living in Mariupol with 13-year-old Matvy, nine-year-old Svyatolslava and Oleksandra, now seven. Meshevoi earned his living as a crane operator and had just opened up a café when Russian troops surrounded his hometown and gradually reduced it to rubble.

For a while, he and the children made their way from cellar to cellar, he reports, always on the hunt for food, water and electricity to charge his mobile phone. But in March, he was arrested at a checkpoint. Meshevoi, who had spent three years serving in the Ukrainian army, says the Russian soldiers found his military papers on him. At the last moment though, he says, he was able to give his son a mobile phone and ask a woman to put the children on an evacuation bus.

The soldiers then took him to a camp, detaining him for 45 days. He describes the interrogations, abuse and how he received no messages from his children. "When they released me again, without explanation, they told me that my children had been taken to Moscow." Ultimately, he was able to reach his son on the mobile phone, and his son told him he was going to be placed in a Russian foster home in just five days' time.

Meshevoi panicked. He says he borrowed 3,000 hryvna, the equivalent of 75 euros, from his brother. That was far from enough for the trip to Moscow, though, so he had to sell his valuables as well. In the end, Meshevoi was given a tip and turned to Russian volunteers who help Ukrainians in need under the strictest of secrecy. Two days later, he found himself standing in front of the accommodations where his children were staying.

Lvova-Belova's claims that the Russian government provided him with assistance and financial support make him furious. "That's nonsense from a lunatic," he says. "They gave the girls worn-out dresses that were far too big. And they showed my frightened children movies about World War II."

The family has since found a bit of peace and quiet in Riga, and the children are now attending school. But the fear remains. Meshevoi says that even the smallest piece of information relating to the war is enough to bring the three to tears. His voice sounds tired and he says he'd rather not talk about it any more. The only thing that matters now, he says, is that he and his children are back together.

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