‘We had to hide them’: how Ukraine’s ‘kidnapped’ children led to Vladimir Putin’s arrest warrant
The Guardian: Sipping his tea at one of the few cafes still open in the battered Ukrainian frontline city of Kherson, Volodymyr Sagaydak shows a video of the day four thugs from the Russian FSB security services arrived at the city’s main orphanage, where he is a staff member. Kherson was liberated in November after eight months of occupation, but is pounded every day and night by Russian artillery from the visible left bank across a narrow stretch of the Dnieper River.
We meet just a few days before the international criminal court issued warrants for the arrest of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his commissioner for children’s rights, for directly supervising the atrocity of kidnapping Ukrainian children for “adoption” and “re-education” in Russia.
The armed Russians who arrived at the orphanage – two masked in camouflage, two in black – were captured on CCTV; once inside, the camera shows one keeping guard outside the room where records are kept, while the others go inside to search through files. This was 4 June 2022, and the orphanage was by now empty – thanks to a mixture of courage and ingenuity by the staff. But that was not the end of the story. This is more than just a military frontline: this orphanage is one of many stories in this outrage – among the many in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and now an unprecedented matter at international law, reaching to a head of state. According to the Ukrainian government, 16,226 children have been deported to Russia, of whom 10,513 have been located, and 308 have returned. A report last October by Yale University Human Rights Lab, citing a vast range of open sources in Russia and Ukraine, traces many reasons for their abduction: including so-called “evacuation” from state institutions such as that at Kherson, transfer of children to camps – often in Crimea – sometimes with parental consent, whether coerced or not.
Interviewed by the Observer in Kyiv, the government ombudswoman for abducted children, Daria Gerasimchuk, adds further “scenarios”: “They kill the parents, for whatever reason, and kidnap the child. In other cases, they just grab the child directly from the family, perhaps to punish that family.
Others go through the appallingly named ‘filtration camps’ – collected, indoctrinated and prepared for ‘adoption’ of the kind that commissioner Lvova-Belova has herself boasted.” When Kherson was occupied in February 2022, says Sagaydak, “we had 52 children here – 17 actual orphans, and others here for different reasons – troubled families or some such. “We knew the Russians were taking children, and had to hide them, like conspirators running a clandestine operation. Even some of the neighbours didn’t know they were here.”