18 October 2022
Olga Lopatkina is a Ukrainian mother of six children. She had adopted the children, orphans who had lost their parents, legally taking them into her family as her own. A few months ago, the children were in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and unable to leave. She was worried about them.
The children had spent their vacation in the port city. But then the war with Russia began. Her adopted children were suddenly alone and afraid in a city at war. All they had now was her oldest son, Timofey, who was 17 years old. He promised to take care of his younger siblings.
There was no clear choice for Olga. Trying to rescue the children herself would be dangerous. Getting others to help the children might put them in danger. That was the beginning of her battle against Russia.
Associated Press reporters said that Russia is openly working to take Ukrainian children and bring them up as Russians. They found thousands of children separated from their parents in shelters in Mariupol and other cities and at homes for orphans in the Russian-supported separatist territories of Donbas. They include those whose parents were killed by Russian bombing and others in the care of government organizations.
Russia claims that the children do not have parents or guardians to look after them, or the parents are not available. But the AP reported that officials have sent Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without getting their approval. They lied to the children, saying that their parents did not want them. AP said Russia used the children for propaganda and gave them Russian families and citizenship.
AP said its investigation is the largest to date on the taking of Ukrainian children. It is the first to follow the process all the way to those already growing up in Russia. The AP spoke to many parents, children and officials in both Ukraine and Russia. It used emails, letters, Russian documents and Russian state media.
Sign of genocide
Whether or not the children have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a sign of genocide. That is, it is an attempt to remove the identity of an enemy nation. Lawyers say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the policy. He has openly supported adoptions.
Stephen Rapp is a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. He is helping Ukraine bring legal charges against Russia over the children. Even when parents are dead, Rapp said, their children must be sheltered, cared for, or adopted in Ukraine rather than sent to Russia.
Russian law bars the adoption of foreign children. But in May, Putin signed an order making it easier for Russia to permit adoptions and give citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care. The law also makes it harder for Ukraine and surviving family members to win them back.
Russia also has prepared a list of Russian families for Ukrainian children and pays them for each child who gets citizenship — up to $1,000 for those with disabilities.
Petro Andryushchenko is an adviser to the Mariupol mayor. He said, "It is absolutely a terrible story." He claimed hundreds of children were taken from Mariupol. "We don't know if our children have an official parent or (stepparents) or something else because they are forcibly disappeared by Russian troops."
The situation is complex because many children in Ukraine's orphanages are not orphans at all. Ukraine's government said that most children of the state "are not orphans, have no serious illness or disease and are in an institution because their families are in difficult circumstances."
It is difficult to find the exact number of Ukrainian children sent to Russia. Ukrainian officials claim it is nearly 8,000. Russia has not given a number, but officials regularly announce the arrival of Ukrainian orphans in Russian military planes.
Olga Lopatkina's teenage son Timofey had become like a father to all his stepbrothers and stepsisters. Three had long-term illnesses or disabilities, and the youngest was just seven years old. They suffered through the intense bombing. They tried to leave Mariupol but pro-Russia forces at a checkpoint would not accept the children's documents.
Instead, the officials took the children to a hospital in the Donetsk People's Republic, or DPR, a separatist Russian-controlled area in Ukraine. The Donetsk officials told Lopatkina she could have her children back — if she came through Russia to Donetsk to get them in person.
Lopatkina feared a trap. If she went to Russia, she might never be able to leave. She and her husband had moved to France where she took a job at a factory.
The children asked when they could go home to their mother. They were badly fed, hit and mistreated, Timofey said.
After two months of negotiation, DPR officials finally agreed to let a volunteer, with permission from Lopatkina, collect the children. They asked Timofey if he and Olga's other children wanted to go back to his foster family or stay in Donetsk.
"Now that I have a chance, I will, of course, go home to my parents," he told them.
Timofey met his father in Berlin. They drove to France, where Timofey went to meet his mother at the factory as a surprise.
When Timofey arrived, she was in shock. For him, the happiness was intense, like nothing he had ever experienced before.
Back at the house, the other children were waiting. They ran toward their mother and jumped into her arms. "Let me see you!" she screamed. The two dogs joined the party, barking.
It took Timofey several days before he could believe he was really back with his parents. He no longer had to act like a father to his siblings. "I kept my promise," he said. "I'm a child now."
I'm Dan Novak
And I'm Jill Robbins.
Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English.
Words in This Story
adopt –v. to take a child of other parents legally as your own
orphan – n. a child whose parents are dead.
sibling – n. your brothers and sisters.
absolutely –adv. completely or totally
institution – n. a building where certain people are looked after
circumstance –n. (often pl.) a condition or fact that affects a situation
foster –adj. describing a situation in which a child lives and is cared for by people who are not their parents