Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, health workers at a battered children’s hospital in the south began secretly planning how to save the babies. It began to be suspected that the Russians seized orphaned children and sent them to Russiaso the staff of the regional children’s hospital in the city of Kherson began to falsifying orphans’ medical records to make it look like they were too sick to move.
“We deliberately wrote false information that the children were sick and could not be transported,” said Dr. Olga Pilyarska, head of intensive care. “We were afraid that (the Russians) would find out… (but) we decided that we would save the children at all costs.”
But residents say even more children would have gone missing had it not been for the efforts of some community members who risked their lives to hide as many little ones as they could.
At the Kherson hospital, staff made up illnesses for 11 abandoned babies in their care, so they wouldn’t have to hand them over to the orphanage where they knew they would be given Russian documents and possibly taken away. One baby had “pulmonary bleeding,” another “uncontrollable seizures” and another needed “artificial ventilation,” Pilyarska said of the false records.
On the outskirts of Kherson, in the village of Stepanivka, Volodymyr Sahaidak, director of a social and psychological rehabilitation center, also falsified documents to hide 52 orphaned and vulnerable children. The 61-year-old placed some of the children with seven of his staff, others were taken with distant relatives and some of the older ones stayed with him, he said. “It seemed like if I didn’t hide my children, they would just be taken from me,” she said.
After Russia occupied Kherson and much of the region in March, they began separating orphans at checkpoints, forcing Sahaidak to get creative about how to transport them. In one case, he falsified records saying that a group of children had received treatment at the hospital and his aunt was taking them to meet his mother, who was nine months pregnant and waiting for them on the other side of the river.
While Sahaidak managed to avoid the Russians, not all the children were as lucky. At the Kherson orphanage, where the hospital reportedly sent the 11 babies, about 50 children were evacuated in October and allegedly taken to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, a security guard at the orphanage and neighbors told The Associated Press. .
“A bus with the inscription Z (a symbol painted on Russian vehicles) arrived and they were taken away,” said Anastasiia Kovalenko, who lives nearby.
At the start of the invasion, a local aid group tried to hide the children in a church, but the Russians found them several months later, returned them to the orphanage and then evacuated them, locals said.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that Russia is trying to give thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian families for fostering or adoption. Officials were found to have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled territories without consent, They lied to them that their parents didn’t want them, used them for propaganda, and gave them Russian families and citizenship.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, says Russian officials are waging a campaign deliberate depopulation in the occupied parts of Ukraine and deporting children under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes and adoption programs.
Russian authorities have repeatedly said that transferring children to Russia is aimed at protecting them from hostilities. The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected claims that the country is confiscating and deporting children. He has noted that authorities are looking for relatives of parentless children who stayed in Ukraine to find opportunities to send them home where possible.
Russian children’s rights advocate Maria Lvova-Belova personally oversaw the transfer of hundreds of orphans from Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine for adoption by Russian families. He confirmed that some of the children were offered the opportunity to return to Ukraine, but they refused to do so.. His statement could not be independently verified.
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Child Protection Adviser Aaron Greenberg said that until the fate of a child’s parents or other close relatives can be verified, it is considered that each separated child has close living relatives, and authorities must conduct an assessment.
Local and national security and law enforcement are searching for the children who were taken but do not yet know what happened to them, said Galina Lugova, head of Kherson’s military administration. “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,” said.
For now, much of the burden falls on the locals to find them and bring them home.
In July, the Russians brought 15 children from the front lines in the nearby Mykolaiv region to the Sahaidak rehabilitation center and then to Russia, he said. With the help of foreigners and volunteers, he managed to track them down and bring them to Georgia. Sahaidak did not provide further details about the operation for fear of endangering it, but said the children are expected to return to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
For some, Russia’s threat to deport children has brought unexpected results. In October, when there were signs that the Russians were withdrawing, Tetiana Pavelko, a nurse at the children’s hospital, feared they would take the babies with them. Unable to have children of her own, the 43-year-old ran into the living room and adopted a 10-month-old girl.
Pavelko wiped tears of joy from her cheeks and said she named the baby Kira after a Christian martyr. “He helped people, healed and performed many miracles.” said.
With information from AP
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