More than 14,000 Ukrainian children have been forcefully deported to Russia or its territories in a deliberate ploy to “destroy Ukrainian ethnicity”, a charity warned last night.
Some have been so “manipulated and brainwashed” by their time in Russia that they have even returned to Ukraine to fight on behalf of Russian forces.
Only half of Ukraine’s 6.5 million children still live with their parents in their homeland following nine years of Russian territorial gains, while 30 percent have been forced to flee to safer countries abroad.
But one in every five now live under the yolk of Russian control either in annexed parts of the country or in Russia itself, leaving them vulnerable to forceful adoption.
The practice was first brought to public attention last year after the fall of Mariupol, but it has been going on since 2014.
Children are taken to camps, from which they are then allocated Russian foster parents. A recently-introduced simplified naturalisation process means that the children are given Russian passports soon after formal adoption, making tracing them again extremely difficult.
One ploy is to offer the promise of a safe-haven from war by inviting some Ukrainian parents to send their children for a Russian vacation.
In many cases, those Ukrainian parents who track down their children in camps and present correct documentation are informed that they have been “liberated” and told to wait for the day when Russia controls the whole country.
Save Ukraine claims to have rescued more than 80,000 children from combat zones where they risked falling into Russian clutches.
Russia does not deny the practice of “adoption”, claiming with patriotic fanfare that it is part of a humanitarian effort to save the children from so-called “Nazi” influences.
State-run television displays the children receiving teddy bears as they are ushered to a new home and a new life.
Of the 14,000 identified as having been formally adopted, only 125 have been brought back home.
Once returned, those who have spent time in Russian camps or with Russian parents are taken to health centres where they receive trauma therapy before being reunited with their parents. Some are said to have suffered from sexual abuse during their enforced adoption.
Speaking last night, Save Ukraine ceo Mykola Kuleba said: “Around 20 percent of Ukrainian children now live in Russia or Russian-occupied territories. It’s a horrible number.
“When we started our rescue mission after liberating Kherson and Kharkiv, we tried to understand what was happening – what was Russia’s goal?
“But we understand it now. They are trying to compensate for their losses on the battlefield.
“We know Ukrainians, who were just children when they were taken from Donetsk in 2014, are now returning to fight on behalf of Russian forces.
“Assimilation begins with guardianship, adoption and then citizenship. The process of adoption is now so simplified that it is difficult to get a true picture of the scale of the problem because these children are given Russian citizenship so quickly.
“This is the destruction of Ukrainian ethnicity through manipulation and brainwashing. Essentially it is genocide.”
He said camp conditions were generally good, with children treated well and fed while consistently being told how better their lives will be in Russia.
He added: “When one mother tracked down her son, the director of the camp told her ‘why do you call this a camp? We have liberated your child from danger, We don’t want to give him back, get out and wait until we take over all of Ukraine.”
Save Ukraine runs a series of recovery centres where children are given residential trauma counselling. The charity also provides accommodation where reunited families can spend up to a year rebuilding their lives.
A further 13 community centres funded by US Aid offer a range of wellness courses including art therapy.
Last night Ukrainian MP Lesya Zaburanna said Ukrainian authorities were making preparations to prosecute Russia for war crimes.
“These children have been deported since 2014 and have suffered brainwashing and manipulation. This has been directed by the highest political level in Russia and directly contravenes Article 7 of International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute. It is a war crime.
“We need help from the international community to find these children and return them. And we need justice.
“Ukraine is fighting not only for our territories but all democratic values and all children in the democratic world.”