"We can assume that one and a half million Ukrainian children can remain both in the occupied territories and in the territory of the Russian Federation" - Mykola Kuleba

"We can assume that one and a half million Ukrainian children can remain both in the occupied territories and in the territory of the Russian Federation" - Mykola Kuleba

Every year on June 1, the world celebrates International Children's Day. It was established in 1949 in Paris. The following year, it was observed in 51 countries. The United Nations supported this initiative and declared protecting children's rights, life and health one of its priorities.

In 2021, another date was added to the list of holidays in Ukraine — June 4, the Day of Remembrance of Children Who Died as a Result of Russia's Armed Aggression Against Ukraine. 

According to the UN, as of June 2021, 152 children died because of the war. According to the National Social Service of Ukraine, as of May 2021, 66,491 children in Ukraine had the status of victims of hostilities and armed conflicts. 

Currently, 482 children have been killed, 981 injured, and tens of thousands of children have been forced to leave their homes and become orphans or semi-orphans due to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. In addition, there are those children who, due to unavoidable circumstances, remain in the occupation or frontline cities. 

And some have been forcibly deported to Russia. In April 2023, the Ministry of Reintegration reported that the number of deported children was over 19,000. However, it is impossible to establish the exact number of such children because of the war. 

Svidomi talked to Mykola Kuleba, former Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights and CEO of Save Ukraine, a charity that helps return abducted children from Russia, about the process of return and what the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant for the Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, means in practice.

You were the Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights from 2014-2021. Did the Russians resort to depopulating children from the temporarily occupied territories before the full-scale invasion?

After the 2014 invasion, Russians deported children from Crimea and the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. We managed to remove some children under state care. But then, the Russians concealed the fact that they had invaded. They said it was an internal Ukrainian conflict. So it was hard even to find out anything about the children. 

At that time, orphans from Crimea were given up for adoption in Russia. But unfortunately, the Russians also concealed this, so we could find the information only from closed sources or through isolated reports from concerned citizens who remained in Crimea. 

After the full-scale invasion, the situation changed. The Russians no longer hid the fact that they had invaded. Maria Lvova-Belova was the first to show the deportation and abduction of children. She came to Mariupol and showed how they were taking children by plane to different regions of Russia. 

She suggested that Putin adopt appropriate legislation to simplify the procedure for granting Russian citizenship and adopting children after receiving Russian citizenship.

It did not happen in 2014. But they were preparing for a full-scale invasion, evidenced by the adopted laws. In particular, the one on a simplified procedure for Ukrainians to obtain Russian citizenship. Such initiatives began to appear in 2018 when Ukrainians could change their citizenship in one year instead of five. One only had to pass a test to prove they spoke Russian.

Russians do not shy away from kidnapping children, making them Russian citizens and transporting them across Russia. But after the decision of the International Criminal Court, they are trying to hide such cases.

The National Resistance Centre and the Special Operations Forces Command have developed a map of the camps where Russians hold deported children. The map includes 45 children's camps and 12 military camps. Do you know what principle the Russians use to place children there? 

No, we don't. The Russians determine the places and regions that will receive children. Therefore, they prepare sites for them. Then, services at the location provide children with statuses and Russian citizenship. Then Russian families can apply to take the child into their families.

How many Ukrainian children have Russians taken to Russia? Do you have any data?

If we count the number of children who ended up in the occupied territories of Crimea, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, then moved to Russia, and have been forced to flee with their families since 2014, plus the number who ended up in Russia after the full-scale invasion and in the newly occupied territories, then, according to my calculations, this is at least one and a half million Ukrainian children.

We can say that in 2014, about a million children were under occupation. No one knows how many of them moved to Russia and how many were deported unaccompanied by their parents. After the full-scale invasion, the Russians announced they had registered 730,000 children displaced to Russia.

How do Russians manage to abduct children who have parents? Do you have any stories of children taken away for "rehabilitation", and do you record other reasons?

Children become orphans in the occupied territories for various reasons. For example, the Foundation is currently helping to return a child whose father was killed and whose mother died under unknown circumstances. This child has relatives in Ukraine. Unless returned, the child will disappear in Russia. 

How many thousands of such children have disappeared in Russia over the past nine years? Now they are Russian citizens or are placed in orphanages or Russian families. How many of them fight in the Russian army after becoming citizens? 

I've seen many videos of former Ukrainian schoolchildren from the Donetsk region, now 18-20 years old, fighting against Ukraine. The teenagers we brought back said the Russians were preparing them for service in the Armed Forces. (Earlier, Svidomi told how the Russians prepared children for military service through the military-patriotic youth organisation Yunarmiya — ed.)

What are Ukrainian children going through in Russia? 

Of course, just like in Soviet times, Russians take children [from the occupied territories] to camps to show how much they 'care' about them. As a rule, children are subjected to pressure from the Russians, and Russian textbooks are brought in en masse. It is a deliberate action to Russify Ukrainian children and assimilate them.

Russians have been using various methods to destroy Ukrainian identity for nine years. Their task is to knock out everything that reminds children of Ukraine. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the occupied territories, they immediately introduced Russian curricula, involved children in military camps, and held lessons telling a distorted story that Ukraine is part of the Russian Empire, that Lenin annexed "native Russian lands" to the Soviet Union. The entire Russian propaganda and system worked to Russify the Ukrainian population, especially children. 

When the Russians heard about Ukraine's counter-offensive, what did they do? They started taking children away.

How does deportation affect children?

It all depends on many factors: how the child was deported, in what condition, what the child experienced before deportation, what they experienced while in Russia or Crimea, their age, and the time they spent in deportation. 

All children experienced some intimidation and threats that they would never return to their country, to their parents, and that they would live in Russia. Obviously, this is stressful. Imagine being taken away and told that you will never see your mum and dad again, that you will live with another family. 

If any children showed resistance, they would say: "Don't forget which hand is feeding you; we saved you from the Nazis, so you should be grateful."

Is the attitude of Russians towards children generally the same, or does it depend on the child? What is this attitude?

There are different camps. Some small children did not understand what was happening at all. But then, there were camps where Russians reassured the children and said: "Don't worry, everything is fine; we will take care of you". And after a few months, the children accepted this as usual. 

I am often asked to talk about cases where deported children were oppressed, not realising what deportation was and what Russians aimed at. They do not intend to treat them like animals. They aim at Russification. 

Russians give deported families houses, payments, and financial assistance because they are confident that Russian propaganda will do its job. Six months, a year goes by — and you are vatnyi (a political pejorative used in Russia and other post-Soviet states for steadfast jingoistic followers of propaganda from the Russian Government – TN]; they can do anything with you. No need to kill you. 

They believe that if a person is placed in their environment, they will be poisoned by propaganda, and in a year, they will become different personalities — Russian people who thank Putin for their life. 

It is a simple yet effective strategy. The Russian leadership has seen that propaganda works for 99% of the population. The other 1% can be intimidated, killed or imprisoned.

Recently it became known that Russian special services prevented a minor boy from returning to Ukraine. What actions are taken to prevent children from returning to Ukraine?

The FSS imprisons relatives and friends who go to pick up children. In addition, there are cases of deportation [of adults]. 

Their task is to stop people at the border. Those who have broken through [to the territory of the Russian Federation] are not allowed in. They are being " manipulated" by the FSS to stay in Russia. They resort to any manipulation to prevent the child from returning because any deported child is a witness to war crimes.

What is the process of returning children to Ukraine like? What agencies do you cooperate with?

We cooperate with the Security Service, which documents Russian crimes, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the Prosecutor General.

How is the child returned?

Relatives or friends of the child go there and pick them up. As a foundation, we prepare them, help them, and finance all this. That's all I can tell you.

How many children has the charitable foundation managed to return so far?

So far, we have returned 97 children. We expect to return another 20 children soon.

You have already partially spoken about this, but I will ask you again. Why do the Russians want to appropriate Ukrainian children while destroying Ukrainians because of their nationality? 

There are several factors. It is the destruction of identity. The Russians don't care if they kill a child or if the child flees with their family somewhere abroad from Ukraine. The goal is to destroy Ukraine and appropriate the territory.

The second is to improve their demographic situation. 

And the third is to "re-educate" teenagers, especially boys, to attract them to the Armed Forces. It is essentially what the Ottoman Empire did when it formed janissaries from abducted children. Then these children converted to Islam and were made into professional soldiers. 

The Russians are doing the same thing. They kidnap Ukrainian children, and many, especially teenagers, are sent to Chechnya (cases of deportation of Ukrainian children to Chechnya were reported by the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, Ombudsman Lubinets, and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. The Union stressed that the camp for Ukrainian children was located near Grozny — ed.) We do not know how many of them became military personnel.

Are there any mechanisms to return children who have already been adopted?

There is no mechanism for returning adopted children because, according to Russian law, these children are granted Russian citizenship and adopted. According to Russian law, there is a secret of adoption, and disclosing it is a criminal offence. Therefore, we cannot find any information about a child who was granted Russian citizenship and subsequently adopted.

What does the arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova mean in practice? 

Speaking of Belolova, the fact that she made the information public and showed the world how she was taking children out of Mariupol whose parents had been killed was the reason to bring her to justice. She essentially confessed to committing a war crime.

But in practice, what does this mean? They can be arrested on the territory of a country that has ratified the Rome Statute, but they may not leave the territory of Russia. So how can a person be prosecuted here?

There is no way. We have to win this war and punish all the criminals. It is the only way.