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Russification of Ukrainian children during invasion triggers war crimes allegations

When news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine spread on February 24, 2022, Dr. Natalia Lukina was waiting for a taxi outside her house.

It was 6 a.m. and she couldn't wait to go to work at the Kherson Children's Home, a state-run foster home for children with special needs, where she worked as a doctor.

When she arrived, the halls were already filled with the roar of artillery fire from Russian troops advancing on Kherson, the region's capital. The doctor and her colleagues were faced with a terrible problem: how to protect the dozens of children at risk?

They were all infants and young children, and some had severe disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Some had living parents who had limited custody of them, while others had been taken from broken homes or abandoned.

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“Who else would have stayed behind to take care of them?” Lukina said of her decision to stay with the children. “Imagine if we all left and turned our backs on them?”

Olena Korniyenko, the director of the nursing home and legal guardian of the children, had packed emergency bags for the children two weeks earlier and stocked the home with boxes full of food, water and diapers.

However, the building was not equipped to withstand gunfire or artillery fire, and the police had already fled the city.

Korniyenko searched the Internet for a map of the surrounding air raid shelters and found one within walking distance.

Amid gunfire, staff carried the children and their mattresses on foot and in strollers into a concrete basement, taking food, medicine, electric pumps and feeding tubes for the most seriously ill children.

A local pastor learned of the children's plight that same day and asked the nursing home staff to bring the children to his church.

So the staff relocated the children and hid them in the basement of the Holhofa Church.

A nurse, Kateryna Sydorchuk, said they were afraid that Russian forces would take the children away.

And their fears soon came true: On April 25, 2022, Russian officials found the children, took them under their supervision and eventually took them 300 kilometers away from home.

There is evidence that the relocation was part of a broader, systematic campaign by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political allies to deprive the war's most vulnerable victims of their Ukrainian identity.

The New York Times They reviewed Russian social media posts, obtained photos, videos, text messages and documents, and interviewed more than 110 caregivers, legal experts, and Russian and Ukrainian officials to track the children's lives and movements when they were taken into Russian care.

What happened to them then could, according to legal experts, amount to a war crime.

Two weeks after the start of the invasion

Russian Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova sat across from Putin in a televised meeting and asked him for help.

She wanted to relocate young Ukrainian children from childcare facilities caught in the crossfire of the war. He promised to remove all legal “bureaucratic hurdles” so that they could be placed permanently with Russian families.

For weeks, Ukrainian officials and police had tried to find a way to evacuate the children from the Holhofa church, which had now become an occupied territory.

In April, a Ukrainian commissioner contacted Telegram asking for help in rescuing them.

Hours later, armed men led by a Russian official calling himself the Navigator arrived at the church and demanded that the children be returned to the Kherson Children's Home. Cameras from a Crimean propaganda channel filmed their arrival, and the ensuing story accused Ukrainian authorities of kidnapping the children.

The priest protested, claiming the children would be safer in his basement, but the caregivers had little choice but to follow orders and return the children to the foster home in the city of Kherson, where the occupying forces had a tighter grip.

Until spring 2022 The occupation of Kherson had become a textbook example of the forced assimilation of a Ukrainian city and its inhabitants: a new occupation government was installed in Kherson and a Russian flag was raised in front of the nursing home.

In the months that followed, Russian officials documented their efforts to help the children on their popular Telegram channels.

Navigator, the man who ordered the children's removal from the church, visited the nursing home repeatedly. He was later identified as Igor Kastyukevich, a Russian deputy from Putin's United Russia party.

In May of this year, Putin fulfilled his promise to Lvova-Belova by issuing a presidential decree relaxing naturalization requirements: in Kherson and other occupied territories, Ukrainian caregivers could now apply for Russian citizenship on behalf of Ukrainian foster children and orphans.

The decree also accelerated the process so that children could obtain Russian citizenship in 90 days or less.

The following month, Korniyenko was summoned to the Health Ministry in Kherson, now under occupation authorities, and a Russian-backed official asked her to stay on as director, but under his supervision.

But Korniyenko refused. Lukina also resigned.

In search of a new director, the occupation authorities turned to Dr. Tetiana Zavalska, a pediatrician at the nursing home. She sympathized with the new occupation administration and made her pro-Russian views clear.

Zavalska called on the occupation authorities to officially register the nursing home.

It was registered this month.

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In August of this year, Russian state television channel RT broadcast a report celebrating the occupation of Kherson and also focusing on the nursing home, which the channel now considers to be a legal entity.

When Putin illegally annexed In Kherson and three other regions, Ukrainian forces began a military campaign to recapture the city of Kherson.

Russian officials have drawn up a plan for the children in the nursing home. In a private online chat for medical students, health officials in Russian-occupied Crimea recruited volunteers to help with the move.

Nurse Natalia Kibkalo had just put nearly a dozen children, all suffering from Covid-19, to bed when she heard the news: the children would be taken away in the morning.

The next morning, October 21, she changed diapers and fed the children. But she couldn't bear the thought of helping with the farewell, so she took a taxi home.

At around 8 a.m., ambulances and white buses arrived at the nursing home.

In addition to Kastyukevich, also known as the Navigator, the group included the then Minister of Health of Crimea, his deputy, the student volunteers and several employees of the administration of another nursing home, who eventually became the children's new caregivers.

Zavalska collected the children's personal legal documents and medical records.

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Outside the home, Kastyukevich held a child in his arms and kissed it before passing it on as the names of the 46 children were called one by one and then carried into waiting buses and ambulances.

The convoy left the nursing home that same morning and reached their destination that evening.

At least one set of parents said they did not learn of their children's stay in Crimea until six months later, when Times journalists visited them in Kherson – even though documents showed that Russian officials had their names and addresses.

Their children, Mykola, who is autistic, and Anastasiya Volodin, who has cerebral palsy, were placed in state care years ago after the couple were deemed incapable of caring for them. Ukrainian courts have not yet ruled on their parental rights.

“I will not allow anyone to adopt her,” said her father Roman Volodin.

In winter 2022

The new carers, together with Zavislaks, the appointed legal guardian, took steps to officially integrate the children into Russian society, even though some of them had biological parents in Ukraine who still had legal rights or were known to the Russian authorities.

First, the carers applied for Russian birth certificates for the children and translated their names into Russian.

The carers made sure that the children received Russian social security numbers and said that this was a prerequisite for the children to receive medical care.

The new documents were accidentally published in a Telegram message by Russian-appointed officials.

Eventually, the children were granted Russian citizenship, the final step necessary to make them eligible for adoption and permanent placement with Russian families.

According to legal experts, the new documents reveal the intention of the Russian authorities to deprive the children of their Ukrainian identity. This is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It could also amount to a war crime.

The anniversary of the war brought the two Crimean officials who organized the transfer of the children from Kherson state awards from Putin's president.

But the very next day, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and his children's rights commissioner, accusing them of illegally removing “at least hundreds of children” from children's homes across Ukraine.

Seven of the children from the Kherson children's home have returned to Ukraine with the support of the Ukrainian authorities and Qatari mediators. Among them are Anastasiya and Mykola Volodin, whose mother traveled to Moscow to pick them up in February.

Anastasiya died in a Ukrainian hospital a few weeks after her sixth birthday. A doctor attributed her death to an epileptic seizure. Ukrainian authorities have resumed care for Mykola while a court decides whether his parents can be his legal guardians.

The remaining children from Kherson are still in Russian care for the time being.