The stories told to Svitlana Popova’s 15-year-old daughter, Alina, while she lived under Russian occupation in Ukraine’s southern Kherson province, were designed to terrify her. Yvgenia, the pro-Russian mother of Alina’s best friend, spun her a web of lies. Alina and her family, the woman insisted, had taken food aid from the Russian-imposed administration. When the fast-approaching Ukrainian forces came into Kherson, she added, they would hurt anyone who had been in contact with the Russians.
Alina told the Guardian that she had felt Yvgenia was her friend. When the woman suggested fleeing to Russia for “safety”, the scared girl agreed.
The reality was darker. Yvgenia saw caring for Alina as a way to get money and a better apartment from social services in Russia. Once across the border, she became abusive.
Thousands of children have been kidnapped and taken to Russia since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Alina is one of the lucky few hundred who have been returned after her mother, helped by volunteers, made the frightening and circuitous journey to Russia to plead her case before the country’s social services.
According to the Ukrainian government, 16,226 children have been deported to Russia, of whom 10,513 have been located, and more than 300 have returned. Some fear the numbers of missing could be an underestimate.
The experience of the Popova family, and others who spoke to the Guardian, sheds light on another aspect of the removal of Ukrainian children to Russia: how friends and even relatives took children, sometimes for mercenary reasons.
“This woman lied to Alina,” said Svitlana. “She told her: ‘Because you talked to Russian soldiers during the occupation and took food and water after the liberation, the Ukrainian soldiers will torture and kill you. We need to escape because we are in danger.’
“I told Alina it was all a lie, but she believed it and stole her birth certificate and went with her last October [a few weeks before the city of Kherson was liberated].”
Tracking her daughter down via social media, she found Alina had been taken to a village 1,500km (930 miles) inside Russia.
When Svitlana reached Alina on the messaging app Vibr, Alina was crying. When Yvgenia got wind of the contact, she took Alina’s phone away from her.
“I was so scared,” said Alina. “Yvgenia was so friendly when I was in Ukraine but she tricked me. When she knew I was talking to my mother she became angry and hit me. She was obsessed with money and what she could get from the authorities for looking after me.”
In order to get her daughter back, there was only one option for Svitlana: to travel to Russia via a “terrifying” route through Poland and Belarus to appeal to the social services in an enemy country.
Reaching the region to where her daughter had been taken, she made a formal statement that Alina was her daughter, only to discover that the woman who had taken her had sent the girl to a “rehabilitation centre” 80km away in an effort to hide her while she organised adoption papers.
“It sounds strange, but the authorities were on my side. They were angry she had taken Alina to Russian territory,” Svitlana said.
“But they also said that if I had come four days later the woman would have organised a Russian ID for Alina. Then she would have been Russian and there was nothing they could do.”
If Alina and Svitlana were lucky in being reunited, they represent a tiny minority of separated families whose children have been able to return to Ukraine. Most relatives of kidnapped children are unwilling to talk about the issue for fear it might complicate efforts to retrieve them. In a particularly notorious case a group of abducted Ukrainian children from Mariupol were paraded at a rally in Moscow in February.
“We’re not sure how many children are involved,” said the former children’s ombudsman Mykola Kuleba, who now runs the Save Ukraine rescue network that has been helping parents like Svitlana.
“It’s not only unaccompanied children who have been sent to camps in Russia, and kids kidnapped from boarding schools and orphanages. We’re not sure how many we are talking about. In some cases we are talking about children who were in occupied areas while the rest of their family stayed in Ukrainian-controlled areas, and those families have lost connection with their children.
“Now they are afraid they will never see them again. Then we need to talk about the children who are now in Russia who we know nothing about. Children whose parents have been imprisoned after being separated at the filtration camps or whose parents have been killed, in particular during the siege of Mariupol.
“We are most concerned for those children who have been missing for six months and more where Russian authorities have prepared birth certificates and passports and sent them to foster families.”
As in Alina’s case, Kuleba said he had heard of other Ukrainian children being taken for financial benefit.
“One boy we rescued from a Russian school said he had been with another boy from Mariupol who had been placed with a very poor family of alcoholics. He was ignored and hungry every day. To me that suggests they fostered him for money to buy alcohol.”
Despite the successes of his group in repatriating Ukrainian children, Kuleba had detected “a change for the worse” in the attitude of the Russian authorities.
“They understand each of these cases is a war crime and they are increasingly trying to block returns. They are making it harder and harder. And time works against these children. Some come from very vulnerable backgrounds and what we are recognising is that it is easy to influence them, more so after six months.
“We had the case of a boy who after two weeks with a foster family didn’t want be returned. He had been persuaded that Ukrainians would hurt him.”
Source : TheGuardian