09 December 2022
Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, health workers at a children's hospital in southern Ukraine started secretly planning how to save their babies.
Russians were suspected of seizing young children without parents and sending them to Russia. Knowing this, the workers at the children's hospital in Kherson began to make up information on the medical records of orphan patients. The health workers wanted to make it appear that the children were too sick to go anywhere else.
"We were scared that (the Russians) would find out," said Dr. Olga Pilyarska, the head of intensive care. "(But) we decided that we would save the children at any cost."
Throughout the war, Russia has been accused of sending Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held areas to raise them as their own. At least 1,000 children were taken from schools and orphanages in Kherson during Russia's eight-month occupation of the area, local officials say. The officials still do not know where those children are.
Kherson residents say even more children would have gone missing if community members had not risked their lives to protect and hide as many children as they could.
Volodymyr Sahaidak is director of a social and mental services center in a village just outside of Kherson city. He falsified paperwork to hide 52 orphans and at-risk children. The 61-year-old placed some of the children with seven of his employees. Others were taken to distant family members. Some of the older ones, he said, remained with him. "It seemed that if I did not hide my children they would simply be taken away from me," Sahaidak said.
Moving them was not easy. Russia seized Kherson and much of the area in March. The Russians started separating orphans at checkpoints along roads. Sahaidak was forced to get creative about how to transport the children. One time, he made up records that claimed a group of children had received treatment in the hospital and were being taken by their aunt to be reunited with their very pregnant mother. The story worked.
Not all children were as lucky. At the orphanage in Kherson, about 50 children were removed in October and reportedly taken to Russia-controlled Crimea. Reporters with The Associated Press confirmed the story with a security guard at the orphanage and people who live near the area.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press (AP) reported that Russia is trying to give thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian families, either temporarily or permanently. The AP reported that officials have sent Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held areas against their will. The officials lied to children and told them their parents did not want them.
The AP reporters found that Russian officials used the Ukrainian children for propaganda and gave them Russian families and Russian citizenship.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based group, says Russian officials are carrying out a depopulation campaign in occupied parts of Ukraine. The group says Russia is sending Ukrainian children to Russia under false claims of medical needs and adoption programs.
Russian officials have repeatedly said that moving children to Russia is meant to protect them from hostilities. The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected claims that the country is seizing and deporting the children. It has noted that the officials are searching for the family members of parentless children left in Ukraine in order to send them home when possible.
Russian children's rights representative Maria Lvova-Belova personally oversaw moving hundreds of orphans from Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine for adoption by Russian families. She has claimed that some of the children were offered the chance to return to Ukraine but refused to do so. Her statement could not be independently confirmed.
Galina Lugova is head of Kherson's military administration. She said local and national security and law officials are looking for the children who were moved. But they still do not know what happened to them.
"We do not know the fate of these children ... we do not know where the children from orphanages or from our educational institutions are, and this is a problem," Lugova said.
For now, Kherson locals are leading the effort to find the children and bring them home.
I'm Gregory Stachel. And I'm Jill Robbins.
Sam Mednick reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
orphan – n. a child whose parents are dead
orphanage – n. a place where children whose parents have died can live and be cared for
resident – n. someone who lives in a particular place
adopt – v. to take a child of other parents legally as your own child
deport – v. to force (a person who is not a citizen) to leave a country
fate – n. the things that will happen to a person or thing
institution – n. an established organization