“A doctor came to me and said now I should not say ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ but ‘Glory to Ukraine as part of Russia’,” 11-year-old Illia said, recalling his time in a Donetsk hospital after he was injured during the shelling of Mariupol.
Illia’s mother died in the attack and a neighbor buried her in the yard. Russian soldiers then took him to occupied Donetsk. “I had operations, procedures. There was an operation to remove the fragment, but it was not easy – it was done without anesthesia,” he said in a video in which he showed the scars on his deformed leg.
His grandmother Olena said she only discovered her grandson was taken to Donetsk, and was alone in the hospital, through a report on television. “I realized that I couldn’t take back my daughter, but I could take back Illia,” she said.
10 year old Illia Matviienko from #Mariupol and his mom were hit by 🇷🇺 bomb. Mom dragged Ilia to safety and died hugging him. 🇷🇺 troops kidnapped the boy to #Donetsk, but his grandma crossed four borders and saved him. #Kyiv 🏥 was able to save his leg, he will walk again. pic.twitter.com/htWoZUKeAO— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) May 15, 2022
On April 26, 2022, almost two months after he was taken, she was able to return with him to Ukrainian-controlled territory with the help of government and non-governmental organizations. He had another operation, and doctors said he might walk again.
His story is one of many on the Ukrainian government’s Children of the War website, where young people describe war crimes committed by Russian forces.
Ukrainian authorities have established the names and dates of deportation of almost 20,000 children, but say the number could be as high as 200,000. It’s difficult to verify information from the occupied territories. Moscow says more than 700,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia.
Only 386 have been returned to Ukrainian-held territory.
The story of Illia is one way that Russian soldiers took Ukrainian children. Their parents were killed in the full-scale invasion, and, according to Moscow, they were “evacuated.”
Russian forces also visited institutions like orphanages, boarding schools, and family homes to take children while hostilities were still ongoing or territory was being occupied.
Serhii, a 16-year-old orphan from Mariupol who was taken to Donetsk and orphanages in Russia before being adopted by a religious family in the Moscow suburbs, is an example of this.
His Ukrainian documents and passport were “lost” and he was given a Russian passport. His new “parents” limited his communications and monitored and controlled his movements, including installing a geolocation app on his phone. He only managed to escape from Russia because he was well-versed in the online world and able to bypass the restrictions imposed by his foster family and reach out to Ukrainian journalists.
Orphanages and boarding schools in many Russian regions are now overcrowded, according to research by Systema, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Investigation Unit. As a result, the Russian authorities are trying to place Ukrainian children in new families as quickly as possible.
One Russian woman who adopted a Ukrainian child said children were hastily placed in families to save on the cost of keeping them in orphanages. A family gets a federal payment of about 23,000 rubles, which is less than $300.
Authorities in the occupied part of the Donetsk region consider children to be “left without care” if the location of their parents or legal guardians is unknown. This status formally allows the authorities to assign them to families in Russia.
Moscow’s third tactic is to channel children to “filtration camps” during forced evacuations or when people try to flee the fighting. Children and their parents are separated and often don’t see each other again.
Vladyslav, a 16-year-old boy, was detained after Ukrainian news reports were found on his phone and held in a pre-detention center for 90 days. He witnessed the death of his cellmate, a 24-year-old man who killed himself after being tortured, and the Russians forced Vladyslav to clean the blood-soaked torture chamber.
The fourth method for stealing children is through “recreation camps,” where they are taken from territories with active hostilities. Moscow then makes it very difficult for their families to take them home.
Olena said her cadet son was promised a scholarship for his education, and full housing and food for the duration of his studies. But after it became clear he was being readied to fight for Russia, she crossed several European countries and annexed Crimea to retrieve him from occupied Kherson.
“We spoke with Sashko when he was already in Lazurne [occupied Kherson] and he said some ‘educators’ had told them that soon the training would stop and they would be taught to shoot and stand at a checkpoint against the ‘Nazis’ [a Russian propaganda term for Ukrainians],” Olena said. “Then I decided to take back my son.”
The Russian government has systematically relocated at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to a network of re-education and adoption facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea and mainland Russia. The Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab identified 43 facilities involved in holding children from Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“It is a lottery. Always,” said Daria Herasymchuk, President’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights and Children’s Rehabilitation in an interview with Interfax Ukraine. “There are cases when the Russians say: ‘No, we will not give the child to the parents. It is dangerous in Ukraine and we have decided the child will stay here. If you want to be with the child, get Russian citizenship and stay in Russia’.”
Another challenge for parents is finding their children. “Russia is doing everything to hide them. They immediately give the children Russian citizenship, constantly move them or give them to Russian families, changing their names,” Herasymchuk said. “Even after spending just a few months in Russia, children return with great psychological trauma.”
Mykola Kuleba, CEO of the Save Ukraine Charitable Fund – an organization involved in returning children – said it’s increasingly difficult to rescue them. Interrogations at the border can now last for days rather than hours, he said after a recent trip.
“With every step, we saw the Russians were trying to block any channels of communication and informed all the border agencies,” he said in an interview with the Kyiv Independent. “Their position today is to oppose any return of children because they realize every child returned is a witness to a war crime.”
While the Ukrainian authorities work with international organizations to develop mechanisms for returns, alongside their Bring Kids Back UA action plan, it’s important not to lose time. Children need to be returned and work needs to start immediately with teenagers who are still in the occupied territories and exposed to programs of russification.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the translator’s team of Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s biggest online newspaper.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.