In Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, an estimated 19,000 children have been abducted and put in so-called "filtration camps," Soviet-era-like facilities where they are being "re-educated" in brutal conditions. Exclusive testimony from several victims who managed to escape.
KYIV — "If the whole world could hear me, I would say that we need to win this war as soon as possible so that all children can see their families again..."
Those words come from 12-year-old Sashko from the southeast Ukrainian city of Mariupol, who was separated from his mother by Russians during the so-called "filtration" procedure in the Donetsk region.
Sashko is one of the thousands of children taken to the Russian Federation from the occupied regions of Ukraine under the guise of evacuation and ensuing rehabilitation ,to teach them to "love Russia."
On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights in Russia, Maria Lvova-Belova. They are suspected of facilitating the forced deportation of children from the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories, violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
According to the Office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, at least 19,000 minors have been taken to Russia and annexed Crimea since the beginning of the full-scale war. Only 364 have been returned.
Ukrainska Pravda talked to dozens of children who have managed to get back to Ukraine, testimonies that can now help able to identify the places of their detention, methods of abduction, and the names and positions of Russians who facilitated the crime.
How Russian "filtration" works
Last spring, Sashko was cooking with his mother Snizhana over a fire in partially occupied Mariupol. The shelling started, they did not have time to run to the shelter, and a piece of shrapnel hit the boy in the eye. In search of medical care, his mother took him to the Ilyich steel plant, where Ukrainian military doctors treated the wounded.
The Russian military took the boy's mother for re-interrogation. He never saw her again.
But later, the occupiers took them prisoner and sent them to a filtration camp in Donetsk Oblast. There, Sashko and his mother were met by representatives of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations and registered. After that, the Russian military took the boy's mother, to interrogate her further. He never saw her again.
Sashko was held in the "republican trauma center" for two months until he found a way to call his grandmother, who eventually managed to take him away.
Doctors now say that Sashko won't be able to out of his injured eye. The fate of Sashko's mother, Snizhana, is still unknown.
Curators of abductions
The person in charge of supervising these abductions, and subsequent reeducation of Ukrainian children, is the Commissioner for Children's Rights in Russia, Maria Lvova-Belova. She even boasted about having herself custody of another teenager from Mariupol, named Philip. The boy's mother died, and he lived with his guardians, who are probably still in Mariupol.
Finding such children will be de facto impossible.
As the Ukrainska Pravda's research has shown, the children's services of the Russian-occupied territories, as well as children's ombudspersons, and ministries of education, youth, and sports are also involved in said reeducation" measures.
A foundation belonging to Aimana Nesiyevna Kadyrova, the mother of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, also regularly reports on helping Ukrainian children. With the assistance of Kadyrov and Lvova-Belova, a camp was set up near Grozny to "reeducate children from the new territories of the Russian Federation." Those who actively oppose attempts at Russification are sent there.
Russia even adopted separate legislation specifically for Ukrainian children, with Russian President Vladimir Putin signing two laws: one simplifying the acquisition of Russian citizenship by children and their legal representatives; and one streamlining the procedure for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children. The adoption process in Russia is secretive, meaning finding such children will be de facto impossible.
Rhetorics such as "your parents don't need you" and "you don't have a future in Ukraine" is one of the propaganda methods used by Russians with Ukrainian children living in Russian-occupied regions, or who have been taken to Russia.
"They say that Ukraine has abandoned you; they teach you to hate your parents, then your country, and then to love Russia," says lawyer Myroslava Kharchenko.
When the Russian anthem was playing, we would put on our headphones and listen to the Ukrainian anthem.
Kateryna, a 13-year-old girl from Kherson, went on a school trip to Yevpatoria in Crimea for two weeks. She ended up not returning to her parents at the agreed time. As the Ukrainian Armed Forces approached Kherson, evacuations to the left bank of the river began.
"The head of security said they would bomb Kyiv and that Kherson would soon be Russian again. They never told us when we would be able to go home. And there were rumors that we might be sent to an orphanage. That was the worst thing," the girl says.
"Whenever they played the Russian anthem, we would put on our headphones and listen to the Ukrainian anthem," says 16-year-old Vitaliy, who was sent to a camp in Crimea last fall.
"On New Year's Eve, we had to watch Putin's address, and some of us left the room and started shouting 'Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!" says Taisiya, 16 too. She says that children who disobeyed their teachers were locked up for several days in an "isolation room."
Teenage children mostly resisted Russian propaganda in the camps. However, children of primary school age were more easily influenced. Those who made it back to Ukraine say that many of their peers started supporting Russia, even wearing T-shirts with the pro-Russian "Z" symbol on them.
Some did not want to come home, talking about how wonderful life was in the camp, as they were "well fed and taken on excursions around Crimea."
"The longer children stay, the more successful the Russification is," believes lawyer Myroslava Kharchenko. "A child there, without their mom, dad, or family, is in a vulnerable state."
"What are their recent memories of Ukraine? Shelling, cold, death ... That's why some of them don't want to return," explains Aksana Filipishyna, a representative of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, who has been working on the issue of abducted children since 2014.
Of course, there is also the question of the parents who consented to send their children to such Russian camps — but volunteers working on this issue are convinced that most were forced to do so.
"We need to understand that parents have lived under occupation; they are intimidated," says Olga, a spokeswoman for the Save Ukraine charity foundation. "This is manipulation by the Russians, who pretend that camps are a mandatory part of the educational program."
They are convinced we are Nazis.
The curriculum in the schools under occupation is based on Russian standards, with Russian history and the Russian language. They have also introduced "Conversations about Important Things": times during which children are told that Russia saved them from the Nazis. In addition, children are told that the occupied territories have always been Russian.
"On some of the Ukrainian territories, children have lived under Russian propaganda for eight years. They are taught to see Ukraine as an enemy," says Aksana Filipishyna. Such measures can contribute to the fact that, in a few years, these children will end up hating their homeland. Like, for example, this 20-year-old soldier I met at one of the checkpoints in occupied Donetsk last fall. He was born there. When the war started in 2014, he was 11 years old, almost like Sashko from Mariupol. Now he is convinced that he is fighting for his homeland and against the Nazis. He grew up on Russian propaganda.
"The children captured in 2014 are now shooting in our direction. And if you ask them, they are convinced that we are the Nazis, imbeciles, and murderers," says lawyer Myroslava Kharchenko. "The Russians have honed their reformatting skills on them, and now they can 'process' children in 3-4 months."