How the Russians 're-educate' young Ukrainians

24 February, 12:10 PM
A bus with children leaves from the occupied city of Oleshka, Kherson Oblast, to Crimea, October 2022 (Photo:Alexander Ermochenko / REUTERS)

A bus with children leaves from the occupied city of Oleshka, Kherson Oblast, to Crimea, October 2022 (Photo:Alexander Ermochenko / REUTERS)

The aggressor state has built an entire system of institutions to re-educate thousands of Ukrainian children who were separated from their parents by the invaders or stolen from orphanages. The longer they stay abroad, the more difficult is to return them, experts warn.

At the end of August 2022, 15-year-old Roman Tarasov from the then-occupied Kupyansk district of Kharkiv Oblast, along with a group of other children, went to a summer camp in Anapa, Russia. The children were supposed to stay there for 20 days, but September passed, Kupyansk was liberated from the invaders, and the young Ukrainians were never returned home.

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Roma's mother decided to pick up her son personally. She appealed to the Save Ukraine charity fund, which organizes the return of children back to Ukraine, and in December, together with a group of other mothers, she was supposed to go to Anapa, but she did not have time to obtain documents for departure. Due to poor communication, the woman was not able to inform her son about that.

So when a group of Ukrainian mothers arrivedatto the camp, Roma with his friends and packed luggage, went out to meet the bus. The news that his mother did not come shocked the boy. The group was kept in the camp for half a day, but despite having all the documents for the teenager, Roma and the other children were not released.

"It's hard to imagine the condition of this child," says Myroslava Kharchenko, a lawyer at the Save Ukraine charity fund. A little over a month passed before Roma's mother managed to come and take her son home.

"It was a very poignant meeting," Kharchenko recalls.

"They're finally together."

In total, thanks to the efforts of Save Ukraine, 44 children were reunited with their parents, and the fund plans to take another 16 home in the near future. The Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, together with a number of charitable and volunteer organizations, are working on the return of abducted children. However, thousands of Ukrainian minors remain in Russian youth institutions. Among them are orphans and those whose parents sent them to summer camps in an attempt to protect them from hostilities, or who were forced to do so.

Over the year of war, the invaders have abducted at least six thousand young Ukrainians to Russia, specialists from the American Laboratory of Humanitarian Studies at the Yale School of Public Health estimate in their report. Researchers have established 43 institutions — mostly summer camps — on the territory of occupied Crimea and Russia, where children from Ukraine between the ages of four months and 17 years are kept. And this is only part of a large-scale network of institutions whose main goal is "political re-education", which are centrally managed by the Russian government, in particular the Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, Maria Lvova-Belova, the authors of the report state.

The camps that American researchers managed to identify are located in Crimea, on the Black Sea coast of the Russian Federation, around Moscow, Kazan and Yekaterinburg, as well as in Siberia and the Far East. "The wide geography of these institutions is impressive," commented Nathaniel Raymond, co-author of the report.

"Some of them are closer to Japan than to Ukraine."

Abduction of children: how it happened

Raymond and his colleagues learned about the first cases of kidnapping in March-April 2022, but scientists  only had enough data for their research in the fall. Then they began to compare the statements of Russian officials and the testimonies of the parents of the abducted children on social networks, to study satellite images and, to combine all this information, to determine the locations of institutions where young Ukrainians are held.

According to their data, some of the deported minors have parents, others are orphans who were stolen from Ukrainian orphanages, and some have been recognized as orphans by Russia. Children from the first category were often given away "for recovery" by the parents themselves: some, under pressure, while others believed that this would ensure the child's safety and that they would have full nutrition and safe living conditions — amenities unavailable during an occupation.

"These reasons, which are a direct result of the Russian invasion, are an indirect form of coercion that calls into question the validity of any consent [to relocate the minors]," the researchers emphasize.

Local teachers and officials lobbied for sending children to the Russian camps, which added determination to the parents, because they were people they trusted, says Raymond. In addition, many parents signed blank forms from the Russian side before sending them.

“This is not meaningful consent, because the signatory does not know to whom he is giving this consent," the researcher highlights.

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Usually, the children were promised to be returned within a specific period, but this return was postponed or canceled altogether. In some cases, minors were detained in camps for weeks or even months after the agreed term, and in others they were refused to be returned at all.

"There is a war going on there," the director of one of these institutions argued in favor of his refusal to return the child to their mother in liberated territory.

In two camps - Artek, in occupied Crimea, and Medvezhonok [Baby Bear in Russian — ed.], in Krasnodar Krai — the return of children was postponed firstly until the end of the summer 2022, and then for an indefinite period, the parents report. Hundreds of children from two other camps — Luchystiy and Orlenok — also did not return on the promised date.

Some parents report losing contact with their children. Some were forbidden from bringing phones with them to the camp, while others were not provided with the contacts of responsible educators. There are known cases when children were moved between camps without the knowledge of their parents, and their illnesses and hospitalizations were not reported.

Thus, one mother found out that her daughter, from the Medvezhonok camp, was admitted to a hospital due to a "nervous breakdown" only thanks to the story of another Ukrainian woman who went to the same facility to pick up her own child. According to the mother, the girl's health problems began due to her inability to get home. The mother was not able to get more information about her daughter's whereabouts or health.

"This shows an extreme lack of information and a real impact on the mental health of both children and parents," concludes Raymond.

Another mother from Kherson Oblast went to pick up her daughter in a camp in occupied Crimea, but there she learned that her child had been transferred to the Republic of Adygea, and no one had informed her about it.

Separating children from their parents for an indefinite period of time, even if initial consent to their temporary resettlement was obtained during armed conflict, may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the American researchers conclude. And the documented actions of Russian officials and officials, such as unnecessarily speeding up the adoption of children from Ukraine and the establishment of guardianship over them, can be considered as potential war crimes and, in some cases, as a crime against humanity, they add.

"Integration" and de-Ukrainization

In institutions where Ukrainian children are held, they are involved in so-called "integration programs”. That is, they are instilled with the Kremlin's view of national culture, history, and society. In other words, they are de-Ukrainized, or Russified, says Kharchenko.

Children there are constantly in a closed space. They are not allowed to go out into the city, they constantly listen to Russian propaganda, Russian music, learn the Russian anthem, language, history and literature.

"Children are instilled with [the Russians] own view of what is happening in Ukraine, and they do not have the opportunity to receive any information from the outside, and they rarely communicate with their parents," says Kharchenko.

“And after three or four months of living in such conditions, they forget that they are Ukrainians, and they begin to hate everything. The longer they are there, the more difficult it is to work with them afterwards, so we try to get the children back as soon as possible."

According to the Yale School of Public Health, the invaders apply various forms of re-education to Ukrainian children: they teach them according to the Russian curriculum, organize trips to patriotic monuments of the Russian Federation and lectures by Russian veterans and historians, and some are also involved in military training. Such training, in particular, is carried out in camps in Chechnya and occupied Crimea, the authors of the report note.

For example, about 50 children deported from Ukraine visited a Sevastopol camp called the School of Future Commanders, founded by the youth "military-patriotic" movement Yunarmiya. There they studied firearms and military equipment, and learned to drive trucks. All this is for “the education of patriotism and love for the [Russian] motherland," said the local head of the Yunarmy, Volodymyr Kovalenko.

Being away from their parents in Russia or in the occupied territories, children often do not understand what is happening to them, Kharchenko states. In the Save Ukraine fund, families who managed to return their children are helped not only with the restoration of documents and the educational process, but also with psychological assistance.

"After a while, children calm down — just like mothers — and begin to feel safe, and only then they begin realizing what had happened in general," says the lawyer.

She recalls the words of a mother, who admitted some time after her family’s reunion that she only now understood: she could have lost her child forever. And such a risk is quite real, because the invaders transport Ukrainian children from one camp to another, and it becomes increasingly difficult to discover their whereabouts. Often, parents do not ask for help in returning their children precisely because they are not aware of all the dangers, Kharchenko emphasizes.

Helping parents and providing them with all the information available, was one of the goals of the Yale School of Public Health study, Raymond says. In addition, the data collected by the Americans on the abducted of Ukrainian children should become evidence that can be submitted to court and used to corroborate the testimony of witnesses. And in the meantime, it should create international pressure on Russia to start registering the abducted children, the researcher explains.

The Save Ukraine fund is also making its contribution to the future trials of the invaders.

"We are working with law enforcement agencies — the Prosecutor General and the Security Service of Ukraine, and are selecting evidence for a criminal case that will be heard in The Hague," Kharchenko shares.

The main purpose is to get everyone back

Currently, scientists from the Yale School of Public Health are continuing to verify the Russian institutions and Ukrainian children taken there, because they admit that there are many more of them now than was confirmed at the time of the publication of the report. Thus, according to the latest data of the National Information Bureau, 16,200 children were abducted from Ukraine, while only 307 have been returned.

"We will try to return all the children," Kharchenko insists. According to her, the Russian side has recently become more willing to make contact, perhaps because of the publicity the issue has gained. Or maybe because of the fear of a Hague tribunal, for which Lvova-Belova will be one of the first to receive a summons.

However, returning children back to Ukraine is becoming more difficult, the lawyer admits. If the first trips of mothers to Russian camps were organized by Save Ukraine through Belarus, then after a recent incident, when the border guards of the Russian Federation refused to let a group of children out of the country, the fund is forced to build more complicated routes — through EU countries.

The comeback will take time, Raymond admits. But Russia must already fulfill a number of specific requirements of the Geneva Convention, he emphasizes. Firstly, it is required to register these children through internationally recognized systems, such as those run by the Red Cross and UNICEF. Secondly, international observers should be immediately be allowed into the camps to see the children and report on their well-being. Thirdly, children should be given the opportunity to contact their parents, because currently they are often deprived of it. And one last thing: according to the Geneva Convention, children have a special protected status and are prevented from being used as hostages or bargaining chips during war or peace negotiations – they must be transferred to a neutral third country.

We cannot stop calling on Russia to implement the Geneva Convention, Raymond highlights. This week, he will present a report on the abduction of Ukrainian children at a UN meeting to raise international awareness of the issue.

"I know that in Ukraine they want to return these children immediately," says the researcher.

"But it will be a process, and it has already begun."

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