KHERSON, Ukraine — Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, medical staff at a children’s hospital in the south began secretly planning how to save the babies.
The Russians were suspected of capturing orphans and sending them to Russia, so staff at a children’s regional hospital in Kherson City began to forge the orphans’ medical records to make them available. seems too weak to move.
“We intentionally wrote false information that the children were sick and could not be transported,” said Dr. Olga Pilyarska, head of the intensive care unit. “We were afraid that (the Russians) would find out… (but) we decided that we would save the children at any cost.”
During the war Russians are accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories to raise them as their own. Local authorities say at least 1,000 children were detained from schools and orphanages in the Kherson region during the eight-month Russian occupation of the region. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
But residents say more children would go missing without the efforts of some in the community, who risked their lives to hide as many children as possible.
At the hospital in Kherson, the staff invented the disease for 11 abandoned babies in their care, so that they didn’t have to take them to an orphanage, where they knew they would be provided with Russian documents and potentially taken away. Pilyarska said one baby had “bleeding in the lungs”, another had “uncontrollable convulsions” and another needed “artificial ventilation”.
On the outskirts of Kherson in the village of Stepanivka, Volodymyr Sahaidak, director of a social and psychological rehabilitation center, is also forging documents to hide 52 orphaned and vulnerable children. He said the 61-year-old had given some of the children to his seven employees, others were given to distant relatives and some older people remained with him. “It seemed like if I didn’t hide my children they would be taken away from me,” he said.
But moving them around isn’t easy. 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 forged records stating that a group of children had been treated in a hospital and taken by their aunt to their mother, who was nine months pregnant and was waiting for them across the river, he says. .
While Sahaidak tried to stop the Russians, not every kid was so lucky. In the Kherson orphanage – where the hospital will send 11 babies – about 50 children were evacuated in October and allegedly taken to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, an employee Security at the facility and neighbors told the Associated Press.
Anastasiia Kovalenko, who lives nearby, said: “A bus with the letter Z (painted on Russian vehicles) came and they were taken away.
At the beginning of the invasion, a local aid group tried to hide the children in a church but the Russians found them a few months later, took them back to the orphanage and then evacuated them. , said the locals.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that Russia was trying to hand over thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian families for care or adoption. AP found that officials deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that their parents didn’t want them, used them for propaganda and gave them family and Russian citizenship.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Russian officials were waging a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied regions of Ukraine and deporting children under cover of medical rehabilitation programs and adoption programs.
Russian authorities have repeatedly said that the transfer of children to Russia is to protect them from hostile acts. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied that the country was detaining and deporting the children. It noted that authorities were searching for the relatives of the orphans left behind in Ukraine for an opportunity to bring them home when possible.
Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova personally oversaw the transfer of hundreds of orphans from Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russian families for adoption. She has stated that some children have been offered the opportunity to return to Ukraine but have refused to do so. Her statement could not be independently verified.
Until the fate of the parents or other relatives of the child is verified, every separated child is considered, said UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Child Protection Advisor, Aaron Greenberg. is to have a living relative and an assessment must be carried out by the competent authorities in the area. countries where children live.
“Local and national security and law enforcement are looking for the children who have been moved but they still don’t know what happened to them,” said Galina Lugova, head of Kherson’s military administration. they. “We don’t know the fate of these children… we don’t know where the children from our orphanages or our educational institutions are, and this is a problem,” she said.
Currently, much of the burden is on the local people in finding and bringing them home.
In July, the Russians brought 15 children from the front lines in the nearby Mykolaiv region to Sahaidak’s rehabilitation center and then to Russia, he said. He said with the help of expats and volunteers, he tracked them down and brought them to Georgia. Sahaidak did not provide further details about the operation for fear of jeopardizing it, but said the children are expected to return to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
For some, Russia’s threat to deport children has had unexpected results. In October, when there were signs that the Russians were retreating, Tetiana Pavelko, a nurse at a children’s hospital, worried that they would bring the children with them. Unable to bear children of her own, the 43-year-old woman rushed to the ward and adopted a 10-month-old baby girl.
Wiping tears of joy from her cheeks, Pavelko said she named the baby Kira after a Christian martyr. “She helped people, healed and performed many miracles,” she said.