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NYT journalists expose large-scale scheme of abduction of Ukrainian orphans from Kherson Region by Russians

Almost fifty Ukrainian children were taken to the territory of Russia. At least two of them have already been placed in Russian families.

NYT journalists expose large-scale scheme of abduction of Ukrainian orphans from Kherson Region by Russians

Journalists from The New York Times have exposed a Russian scheme to abduct orphans who were in the Kherson orphanage at the time of the occupation of Kherson Region, according to a NYT investigation.

The Russian authorities have launched a large-scale campaign to abduct and deport Ukrainian children from the occupied territories of Kherson Region.

In particular, we are talking about 46 children from the Kherson orphanage. At the time of the invasion, the institution housed infants and children under five years of age, some of whom had serious disabilities, such as cerebral palsy. 

The children were not orphans, some of their parents had restricted parental rights, and some had been removed from dysfunctional families or abandoned.

On 24 February 2022, during an active Russian offensive in the Kherson Region, the orphanage's doctor, Nataliya Lukina, came to her children to protect them. A few weeks before the Russians brought in their troops, the children had prepared emergency bags in case of invasion.
However, the orphanage did not have a strong shelter to protect the children from enemy shelling. Using a map of bomb shelters, Natalia found a concrete basement that could accommodate 46 children and, together with other staff, moved the children, their wheelchairs and mattresses there. They also brought food, medicine, electric pumps and gastronomic tubes for the sick children.

On the same day, the pastor of the local Golgotha church visited the basement and convinced the staff to move the children to better conditions. That's how the children ended up in the church basement. The orphanage staff covered the windows with boxes of nappies so that no one could see inside.

In April 2022, the Ukrainian Ombudsman wrote a post on Telegram asking for help to save the children from Kherson. She made their whereabouts public.

The Russians were quick to respond. On the same day, armed men arrived at the church demanding that the children be returned to the orphanage. The Russian military were accompanied by representatives of the propaganda media, who accused the Ukrainian authorities of attempting to abduct the children.
Russian officials transported them almost 300 kilometres from their homes, all the while using the children for their propaganda videos. The evidence gathered indicates that the deportation of the most vulnerable victims of the war was part of a consistent campaign by Vladimir Putin and his supporters to erase the children's Ukrainian identity. 

‘The New York Times analysed posts on Russian social media, accessed photos, videos, text messages and documents, and conducted more than 110 interviews with lawyers and Russian and Ukrainian officials.

According to legal experts, what happened to the children afterwards may constitute war crimes,’ the authors of the investigation write.

Among the officials mentioned in the text are the then so-called ‘Minister of Health’ of Crimea, Ihor Kastyukevich (call sign ‘Navigator’) and the Russian Ombudsman for Children's Rights, Mariya Lvova-Belova.

In Moscow, two days after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine (26 February), a series of meetings of the highest ranking officials took place.
Russian Children's Ombudsman Mariya Lvova-Belova asked Vladimir Putin to help relocate children from Ukrainian children's institutions who were in the war zone. The ‘president’ promised to eliminate any ‘bureaucratic red tape’ on the way to placing children in Russian families.

The new ‘director’ of the orphanage was paediatrician Tetyana Zavalska, who worked night shifts and weekends. She did not hide her pro-Russian views. A tricolour was hung on the facade, and Russian politicians began bringing ‘gifts’ and humanitarian aid.

Already in May 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree simplifying the requirements for obtaining citizenship. In a number of occupied regions, guardians had the right to apply for Russian citizenship on behalf of Ukrainian foster children and orphans.

On the eve of the Ukrainian counter-offensive against Kherson in October 2022, Russians took 46 children from the orphanage out of the city. The children were taken to Simferopol and divided between two orphanages.

No details were provided to the Ukrainian side. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Office of Global Criminal Justice Steven Rapp called the hidden fact of the children's removal a ‘forced transfer’ rather than an evacuation.
‘What Russia considers a humanitarian mission is an outright war crime,’ he added.

Later, Mariya Lvova-Belova stated that her office would facilitate the placement of these children in Russian foster families only if their blood parents were not found in Ukraine.

This was another lie, as the Russians were ‘assigning’ citizenship to Ukrainian children, translating their documents and doing everything to deprive them of their identity, which is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and a war crime.

In December 2022, Vladimir Putin signed another decree allowing guardians in the occupied territories to renounce Ukrainian citizenship on behalf of children under their care.

The decree also accelerated the procedure. Previously, it could take up to five years to obtain citizenship, but now children could become Russian citizens in 90 days or less.

In her Telegram channel, Mariya Lvova-Belova reported that she had also become the foster mother of a Ukrainian teenager who later received Russian citizenship.

In response, the Prosecutor General of the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and his Ombudsperson for Children's Rights, accusing them of ‘illegally’ removing ‘at least hundreds of children’ from orphanages across Ukraine.
It has been 19 months since the Ukrainian children were forcibly removed from the orphanage in Kherson. Over these almost two years, the children have grown up, and now their carers hardly recognise their wards. At least two of them have already been adopted by Russian families.

Only seven children from the Kherson orphanage were returned to Ukraine. Unfortunately, one child died of an epileptic seizure.

The rest of the Kherson children are still under Russian rule.

The profiles of 22 more children have appeared in the Russian federal database of orphans. The profiles indicate that they are from Crimea, but there is no information about their place of birth. 

It has been 19 months since the children were taken from the orphanage in Kherson. Their photographs show how the children have changed throughout this time, so that now Ukrainian carers can barely recognise them.

This could also complicate the work of Ukrainian investigators who are trying to find and return the children and have already opened criminal cases against Ihor Kastiukevych and Tatiana Zavalska, the director of the orphanage.

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