'My mother was killed, I was kidnapped': Ukrainian children spoke in The Hague about Russian crimes
Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the Russians have kidnapped and taken tens of thousands of children from Ukraine. An information campaign called BringKidsBackUA has been launched in The Hague to draw attention to child abductions. Six children from Ukraine, who were taken by the Russian military, were later returned home. They came to the Netherlands and told their stories, reports with the BBC.
“It flew into a neighboring house. Mom was wounded in the head. Me - in the leg. The next day she died. A neighbor buried her in our yard. And the Russians came for me,” said Ilya.
When Ilya was nine years old, his mother died before his eyes in Mariupol, surrounded by Russians, in the spring of 2022. The boy was taken to a hospital in Donetsk.
Now Ilya is eleven. He sits opposite the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands in The Hague and tells his story - what he experienced in Mariupol, how he was treated, how he was not allowed to communicate with his grandmother and was promised to find a new family in Russia.
According to the Children of War portal, it was possible to identify the names and circumstances of the abduction of about 20 thousand Ukrainian children. These are children who were deported to Russia.
Vladimir Putin calls the story of child abductions “exaggerated.” “We explain that there was simply no kidnapping, there was an attempt and specific actions aimed at rescuing children from the combat zone,” he said in July.
According to the Ukrainian authorities, of these almost 20 thousand deported, only 400 were returned.
Ilya is one of them.
Six children from Mariupol and the Kharkov region told what they experienced. They are from 11 to 17 years old. Everyone has their own terrible story. In The Hague they have a big program - interviews with foreign media, filming talk shows, communicating with politicians, speaking at a press conference.
“I’m here to bring back other children too”
“When you hear these numbers - 20 thousand abducted children... These numbers are children. These are living people, here are their stories. You can now see them,” Mariam Lambert, co-founder of the Dutch charity Orphans Feeding Foundation, said at a press conference in The Hague.
For more than a year, Mariam helped evacuate families with children from the front-line territories. She went to pick up people in Soledar, Bakhmut, Kupyansk and Kherson. Over the past few months, her organization has been working on the issue of child abduction. They, together with the Ukrainian Embassy and ombudsmen, brought the abducted children to The Hague.
“Russia is forcibly removing Ukrainian children. Our goal is to convey the words of these children to the world, to find people and organizations that can help bring the children home. We want people to imagine themselves in the place of the parents, in the place of these families whose children were taken away. How would you feel if this happened to your children?” says Mariam Lambert.
She invites six children to the hall, and asks journalists to be careful with questions so as not to traumatize them even more.
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Journalists ask the children if they understand why they are here. 12-year-old Sasha, wearing an embroidered shirt, nervously replies: “We are here to tell you that there is a war in Ukraine, and not that we made it all up.”
Sasha told his story several times to journalists and politicians that day. Like in the spring of 2022, he was separated from his mother in Mariupol. How during the shelling he was wounded in the eyes.
Trying to leave surrounded Mariupol, Sasha and his mother ended up in a filtration camp. Mom was taken away for interrogation. People who introduced themselves as the Novoazovsk Children's Services came to pick Sasha up at the camp. The boy was promised that he would see his mother a little later.
But they haven't seen each other for a year and a half.
From Mariupol, Sasha was sent to a hospital in Donetsk. There he asked the boy in the ward for a phone and called his grandmother. An elderly woman overcame many obstacles to take her grandson away from Donetsk.
“When I returned to Ukraine, I began to appreciate food and water, because we had little food in Mariupol. There was no bread, nothing. But most of all I valued silence,” Sasha recalls the war.
After the press conference and a series of interviews, the children’s schedule included a trip to the interactive children’s book museum to meet with the head of the Dutch Foreign Ministry, Ganke Bruins Slot.
In a room filled with books, they drink compote while waiting for the minister and play on their phones. When will they be allowed to go out? Grandmother asks Ilya not to put his elbows on the table and to behave politely. The atmosphere immediately changes when the meeting begins. The minister shook hands with everyone and asked them to tell about themselves. One after another, terrible stories are heard about shelling, kidnapping and death of relatives.
Ilya remembers how he was promised in Donetsk to find a new family in Russia, but his grandmother was able to find him and take him away.
12-year-old Sasha told a story about separation from his mother. At the end of the story, as if asking for help, he says: “I’m trying to find my mother, her name is Kozlova Snezhana Mikhailovna.”
After listening to the guys, 14-year-old Veronica from the Kharkov region, when it was her turn, told the head of the Foreign Ministry that she had nothing to tell: “I didn’t have anything as bad as others. Well, I was under occupation and slept in the basement. It was scary when a helicopter flew nearby and shot.”
“What you went through is shocking. Dutch children don't experience this. You are courageous. You are brave and have the right to talk about it. This should not happen to children,” the minister answered her.
And Veronica tells. When the invasion began, she found herself in occupation with her aunt. Subsequently, Veronica was taken to Russia and placed in a boarding school in Lipetsk. For 11 months, the girl’s mother, Nina Vlasova, who is a military member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, tried to return the child, but he was not released from the Russian Federation.
“They took me for interrogations because my mother is in the military. They interrogated me, although my legal representative was not there,” says the girl.
“The children there called me “Bandera” and made fun of me. They accused that their parents were mobilized because of me. They said that I was stupid because I was Ukrainian,” Veronica said.
Only in May 2023 was she able to leave Russia. Now Veronica lives with her mother in Kyiv.
Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets, who was also at the meeting in The Hague, says that it was thanks to international pressure that Veronica was saved. Ukraine prepared a special meeting of the UN Security Council, where Veronica’s mother spoke.
“For many months they tried to bring Veronica back, but it was all in vain. They didn’t want to give the child away because his mother was in the military. The day after her mother spoke at the UN, a signal was received that the Russians were ready to give up the child without any conditions. Grandma went for Veronica and took her from Russia,” he says.
Veronica says she’s a little tired of telling her story: “I didn’t regret coming. I hope that we will help many children.”
Russian officials have consistently denied preventing children from leaving Russia, saying that everyone can leave without any problems.
“This is not human,” responded the Netherlands.
The head of the Dutch Foreign Ministry was shocked by what she heard. And during the meeting, you could feel how painful it was for her to listen to this. Ganke Bruins Slot thanked everyone for the courage to come and talk about themselves.
The effect of the meeting was strong. After all, it was not adults or politicians who spoke about the problem, but an 11-year-old boy, looking into his eyes, who spoke about his abduction and the death of his mother.
“I hope that thanks to your stories we can help other children in Ukraine, we can make sure that this never happens again,” said the Dutch official.
“It’s not humane what the Russians did to them. These children are very strong because they tell this,” she told reporters.
The Foreign Minister promised that the Netherlands would help investigate the abductions, maintain international publicity and seek sanctions for the Russians involved.
The Netherlands will also donate DNA testing kits to Ukraine to help identify the smuggled children.
Children's stories were also heard in the Dutch Parliament. The Ukrainian delegation met with the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Russia is deporting hundreds of thousands of children from Ukraine. These are horrific crimes on an unprecedented scale,” VVD MP Ruben Brekelmans commented on the meeting. The politician called for continued pressure on Russia with sanctions in response to these war crimes, as Kh. wrote about on the social network.
However, among the reactions to this post by the politician in X there were those who called the removal of children not abduction, but rescue. Which generally repeats Russia’s narratives that children are taken from Ukraine precisely for this purpose.
Also, users X under the post of the Dutch politician wrote that sanctions are a shot in the foot, because they harm their own economy, they called for stopping the war and starting peace negotiations.
The BringKidsBackUA tour in The Hague received a muted reaction from the Dutch media. Only a few media outlets in the country reported on this event. Among them is the liberal daily NRC Handelsblad, which interviewed Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets.
When asked by NRC Handelsblad how BringKidsBackUA differs from Russian propaganda showing children taken from the war zone, Lubinets replied that the difference is that on the Ukrainian tour “no one forces them, no one explains to them what to say” and that “These are children voluntarily expressing an opinion.”
Three Ukrainian children appeared on the popular Dutch talk show Op1, which has an audience of more than half a million viewers. There, Veronica told how she came up with ways to escape from Russia.
The presenter quoted Putin to the children, saying that the Russians were saving them.
“If salvation means leaving children without their relatives, then they succeeded in this,” Veronica answered ironically.
The presenter asked the children: “Do you think Putin will ever appear in court?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Despite the support for Ukraine in many countries, we see that in some governments, in some parliaments there are people who still do not believe that Russians are abducting children. They want to find some arguments, to somehow explain Russia’s actions,” says Daria Gerasimchuk, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights.
According to her, starting with the Netherlands, Ukraine hopes to motivate other countries to increase sanctions and political pressure on Russia.
“They must constantly demand the return of the children. The issue of kidnapping should be on the news feed of the world all the time. Simply condemning Russia's actions is not enough. Action is needed. International organizations must act decisively,” says Gerasimchuk.
She reminds that 400 returned children is very little compared to the number of those taken away.
At a meeting with the Foreign Minister, Gerasimchuk says that the four children sitting in front of her lost their parents, but had other relatives in Ukraine who were waiting for them. “They had someone to return to. But they were not released,” says the official.
Mariam Lambert of the Orphans Feeding Foundation says this is just the beginning of the advocacy campaign. Next there will be performances by children in other cities.
What's up with the investigation?
In March 2023, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for two individuals: Vladimir Putin and the Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. The warrants were issued precisely because of the deportation of children from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
“This is just the beginning. Many more people should get arrest warrants. All those who organize the removal, all those who accept these children into their families. The world has never seen such large-scale crimes of child abduction,” says Gerasimchuk.
Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmitry Lubinets speaks of the need to put pressure on Russia through the courts, because only this can force it to return the children. According to him, after the International Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvovo-Belova in March, the process moved forward, and the Russians began to hand over more children.
“If you want to return the children, give us the following warrants, because there are many more than two Russian officials involved in the abduction of children,” Lubinets said in The Hague.
He says that the Russians simply catch children in the occupied territories, transport them to Russia, throwing away their Ukrainian documents.
Recently, an office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was opened in Kyiv, the largest representative office of the court outside The Hague. The Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine says that this way the cooperation of Ukrainian and international prosecutors will be more effective.
According to Daria Gerasimchuk, according to the algorithm, upon the return of children from Russia, after medical and psychological assistance, investigators work with them.
“Children are interrogated by prosecutors in special rooms, and all information is transferred to the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine. Next, Ukraine transfers these cases to the ICC,” says the commissioner.
The Ukrainian delegation met with representatives of the ICC on September 15. “New evidence was handed over to the court in the case of the abduction of children and war crimes by Russians,” said a source in the court.
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“The most important result of this trip is that everyone confirms their readiness to help return the children. Sometimes they don’t know how, but they are ready,” Lubinets tells the Ukrainian Air Force.
After all the performances and interviews, the children went to the miniature park in The Hague to eat ice cream, take selfies and play.
The Ukrainian delegation and Mariam Lambert from the Orphans Feeding Foundation went to New York to talk about abducted children at the UN.
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