Russia abducts Ukrainian children: AP investigation

Olga Lopatkina paced her basement like a trapped animal. She hadn’t heard from her six adopted children stranded in Mariupol for over a week, and she didn’t know what to do.

The family would eventually become caught up in one of the most explosive issues of the war: Russia’s overt effort to take in Ukrainian orphans and raise them as Russians.

An Associated Press investigation shows that Russia’s strategy is well underway. Thousands of children have been abducted from the basements of bombed-out cities like Mariupol and from orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donbass. These are those whose parents were killed by Russian bombing, others in institutions or foster families.

Russia claims that many of these children have no parents or guardians, or are unreachable. But the AP found officials deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without their consent, lied to them they weren’t wanted by their parents, and gave them families and citizenship Russians.

The investigation is the most thorough to date into the kidnapping of Ukrainian orphans, and the first to trace the process to those already growing up in Russia. It was based on dozens of interviews with parents, children and officials in Ukraine and Russia; emails and letters; Russian documents and Russian state media.

Raising the children of war in another country or another culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase the very identity of a people. Prosecutors link the policy directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

« It’s not something that happens on the spur of the moment on the battlefield, » said Stephen Rapp, a former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, who advises Ukraine on lawsuits.

Russian law prohibits the adoption of foreign children. But in May, Putin signed a decree accelerating the granting of Russian citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care.

Russia has prepared a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children and offers substantial financial support. He portrays adoptions as an act of generosity. Russian state television broadcasts ceremonies where officials present passports to Ukrainian children.

How much is hard to say. Ukrainian officials say nearly 8,000 children have been deported to Russia.

Russia did not give an overall figure. In March, the Russian Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Maria Lvova-Belova, said that 1,000 Ukrainian children were in Russia. Many more have come since, including more than 230 in early October.

Lvova-Belova herself took in a teenager from Mariupol and was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department, the European Union, Canada and Australia. His office referred the AP to his response in a state-run news agency that Russia was « helping children preserve their right to live under peaceful skies and be happy. »

The AP visited a leafy seaside camp near Taganrog where hundreds of Ukrainian orphans were housed.

A professional foster mother from the Moscow region said that local social services called her to take in children from Ukraine. Having already welcomed six Russian children, she chose three in Mariupol. After a guardianship case in now-occupied Mariupol, she won custody of the children, who are now Russian citizens.

The children said that after their adoptive mother dropped them off in a bunker in Mariupol, the Russian military took them out. They had to choose between adoption by a Russian family and life in a Russian orphanage.

In the house with yard and inflatable swimming pool, the 15-year-old girl said she was eager to start a new life in Russia, partly because her school in Ukraine was bombed, that one of her classmates passed away and almost everyone is gone.

Russia has also been accused of stealing children from Ukraine in 2014, after annexing the Crimean peninsula. Then Ukraine reported to the European Court of Human Rights that more than 80 children from Luhansk had been abducted from a checkpoint and taken to Russia. Separately, Russian families have adopted at least 30 children from Crimea.

This time, at least 96 children have been returned to Ukraine since March following negotiations, including some at the highest levels of government.

In Mariupol, the children of Lopatkina curled up for days in a basement at the resort where they were vacationing. Adopted 17-year-old son Timofey cared for his younger siblings – three with chronic illnesses or disabilities.

They lost contact with their mother when the current passed through town. Then a doctor from Mariupol managed to evacuate them, but was turned back by pro-Russian forces at a checkpoint. They ended up in a hospital in the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, under Russian control.

When Timofey messaged his mother, she was already out of the country. He was livid.

It took a few calls to Olga Lopatkina to explain to Timofey what had happened.

For the music and arts teacher who lost her mother as a teenager and her home in the fighting in 2014, the nightmare with her children was the hardest thing she had ever experienced. When that war broke out, it quickly became deadly to travel from his home in Vuhledar, now a front line, to Mariupol, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. Her 18-year-old biological daughter, Rada, was stranded with her uncle near Kharkiv, another frontline city.

As the bombardment approached, Lopatkina decided to head for the borders, picking up her daughter along the way. They went to France.

She campaigned with Russian and Ukrainian officials and reached out to activists. Authorities in Donetsk eventually told her she could get her children back if she went through Russia to pick them up. She feared a trap and refused.

In the DPR, officials told Timofey that a court would strip Lopatkina and her husband of their guardianship and that her younger siblings would be reunited with new families in Russia.

Finally, a breakthrough. The DPR authorities agreed to allow a volunteer with a power of attorney from Lopatkina to pick up the children.

After a three-day bus trip through Russia, the children met their father in Berlin and traveled to France. « The burden of responsibility was gone, » Timofey said. « I said, ‘Mother, take the reins, that’s all…I’m a kid now.’


Lori Hinnant, Cara Anna and Erika Kinetz contributed to this report.


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