2 years into Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians still fight forcible deportation – National

The most important phone call of Yevhen Mezhevyi’s life came in mid-June of 2022. His anxiety, fear and exhaustion at the time makes him fuzzy about the exact date.

What he does remember is the sound of his son’s voice. Matvii was calling from Russia, where he and his two younger sisters had been forcibly deported nearly a month before — the same morning Mezhevyi, a single father and Ukrainian soldier from Mariupol, had been released without explanation after spending 45 days as a prisoner of war in a Russian penal colony in Donetsk oblast.

Donetsk is part of the disputed Donbas region in Ukraine’s east that Russia quickly occupied after it invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and later illegally annexed. Mezhevyi’s children are among thousands of Ukrainian youth who are the focus of increased international efforts to return them to their families.

Matvii and his sisters, Svyatoslava and Oleksandra, had been separated from their father upon Mezhevyi’s imprisonment in early April 2022. The kids spent time in a so-called “camp” in Donetsk, where they described to their father hearing other children singing the Russian national anthem and other pro-Russia songs.

On May 26, roughly around the time Mezhevyi was released, the trio had been flown to Moscow and then transferred to the Polyany children’s sanitorium on the outskirts of the Russian capital. Mezhevyi, who had just walked 30 kilometres to the city of Donetsk, learned of his kids’ deportation later that day and had been scrambling to get them back ever since.

Over the phone, Mezhevyi says Matvii told him Russian officials had informed the children they might soon be adopted within Russia unless Mezhevyi came to Moscow to claim them.

“I asked my son how much time I had. He said, ‘You have five days,’” Mezhevyi told Global News in an interview, speaking Ukrainian with the help of an interpreter. “I arrived in two.”

Yevhen Mezhevyi and his three children in an undated photo.

Supplied by Yevhen Mezhevyi

Volunteers — who Mezhevyi doesn’t identify so as not to jeopardize their work with other Ukrainians living under Russian occupation — helped secure the funds necessary for a plane trip to Moscow. After days of negotiating with the social services in Donetsk and Russia — including a direct written appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin — Mezhevyi and his children were reunited on June 21, 2022. That date is one Mezhevyi does remember.

Since those horrific few weeks, the family has been living in Riga, Latvia, trying to put the events of 2022 behind them. It’s been difficult, Mezhevyi says, particularly for Svyatoslava, who still hides under a blanket whenever she hears fireworks and other loud noises.

“There can’t be anything like a normal life again,” Mezhevyi said. “We lost everything.”

‘We find new information every day’

The story of Mezhevyi and his children’s ordeal is common, researchers say.

What is relatively unique is that the children were returned.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began two years ago, Kyiv says officials have identified nearly 20,000 Ukrainian children who have been forcibly deported to Russia. Of those, only 388 have been returned to their families.

The Ukrainian government and independent researchers say children are often separated from their parents who are imprisoned for their affiliation with Ukraine’s fighting forces.

Researchers say those parents, like Mezhevyi, are tortured for information and forced to work in prison camps while their children are sent elsewhere — first to occupied territories like Donetsk and Luhansk, and then to Russia or Belarus.

Entire families have also been forcibly deported, Kyiv says, telling the United Nations in December 2022 that more than 2.5 million Ukrainians of all ages were deported in the initial months of Russia’s invasion.

Click to play video: 'Ukraine alleges Russia implementing ‘largest instance of state-sponsored kidnapping of children’ in history'

Ukraine alleges Russia implementing ‘largest instance of state-sponsored kidnapping of children’ in history

Researchers are now trying to track down exactly where those deportees are being taken and held.

“We find new information every day,” said Vladyslav Havrylov, the lead researcher behind the Where Are Our People? project that is focused on identifying these locations, as well as the reunification of deported Ukrainians with their families.

A research fellow at Georgetown University, Havrylov has been documenting the forced removal of Ukrainians to Russia since the war began.

Working with researchers in Ukraine, Russia and the U.S., he scours official Russian documents and social media posts, as well as Ukrainian and Russian media reports, for any information about where people are being deported to. He also interviews survivors like Mezhevyi and his children.

To date, Havrylov and his team have identified more than 80 facilities where Ukrainians have been taken. They range from Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries to hotels, seniors centres and children’s summer camps and span the entire Russian landmass, including as far east as the Sea of Japan.

Locations where Russia has forcibly deported Ukrainians since its invasion of the country on Feb. 24, 2022, according to researchers with the Where Are Our People? project.

Graphic by Global News/Data provided by Where Are Our People?

While many of the facilities located by the research project are in western Russia in close proximity to the frontlines of the war — as well as in Russian-annexed Crimea — Havrylov’s team has also recently uncovered that at least six long-term health facilities, or sanatoriums, in Belarus have temporarily or permanently housed deported Ukrainians, including children.

“We know about at least 3,000 children who are forcibly deported especially to Republic of Belarus,” Havrylov told Global News. He said gathering this information was made difficult by the Belarusian government, which has tried to keep it “closed.”

Havrylov and his team have also documented who they say are the Russian officials responsible for overseeing or supporting the forced deportations.

A master list of the accused compiled by the researchers and provided to Global News includes several people identified and sanctioned by Canada, the U.S. and the European Union, as well as other countries. Others on the list “need to be sanctioned,” it says.

The names include high-ranking officers in the Russian military and Chechen paramilitary forces, as well as members of Russia’s Duma, the Russian education ministry and the office of the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner.

Leaders, priests and employees within the Russian Orthodox Church, including directors and coordinators of the church’s charity and social services, are also implicated.

“These are war criminals,” Havrylov said of the people on the list.

Vladyslav Havrylov, a research fellow with Georgetown University and the lead researcher of the Where Are Our People? project, speaks at a roundtable on forcible deportations in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Submitted by Ukraine PR Army

Havrylov says the church has raised millions of rubles in humanitarian relief from Russian citizens in order to fund its programs for deported Ukrainian children, which include “re-education.”

He and his research team say they have obtained internal emails and letters detailing the fundraising operations, which the Russian government says go toward helping “refugees and victims in the conflict zone.”

Ukrainians who have returned to their home country after being forcibly deported to Russia speak to researchers and investigators about being taught Russian history, culture, music and language, Havrylov says. Ukrainian culture is forbidden. Some of the children are also given paramilitary training, he adds, with the goal of them joining Russia’s fighting forces.

“It’s very hard when these children come back to Ukraine,” Havrylov said. “You (need to provide) rehabilitation to these children, because they have some moral and psychic trauma.”

‘All meant to get us … Russian citizenship’

Another tactic used by the Russians, according to researchers and independent reports, is to encourage Ukrainians relocated to Russia to apply for refugee status and Russian passports — effectively stripping them of their Ukrainian citizenship.

This fate was narrowly avoided by Lilya Maichenko and her family.

Maichenko was born and raised in Izyum, in the eastern Kharkiv oblast, and was living there with her husband and two children when Russia invaded. The city came under increasingly heavy rocket fire in the initial weeks of the war.

In the early morning of April 6, 2022, while the family was sleeping, a Russian missile struck Maichenko’s house. Her husband was killed in the blast, and her daughter was seriously wounded and burned. Maichenko, her son and her aunt, who was sheltering in the home, were also injured.

The house and the family’s belongings were destroyed.

Soon after the explosion, Maichenko says Russian troops — who had occupied much of the city by then — discovered the surviving family and rushed them to a nearby military hospital. Doctors there determined Maichenko’s daughter Polina needed to be airlifted to Belgorod, the closest Russian city to Izyum, for surgery.

“We were very afraid to go because we didn’t have documents or anything with us — no money, nothing,” Maichenko told Global News in Ukrainian with the help of an interpreter. “But we were told it was fine, that we would receive assistance with restoring our documents at the facility in Belgorod.”

Lilya Maichenko and her two children in an undated photo.

Supplied by Lilya Maichenko

After Polina’s surgery, the family was transferred to a “tent camp” in the city, where they were promised help restoring their Ukrainian documents. But Maichenko says that promise soon changed, with Russian officials saying they would only help if the family went deeper into Russia.

“A person would go to the tent and say, ‘Today we are going to Ivanovo (northeast of Moscow). If you want, you can sign, and you can go,’” she remembers.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere without documents, it was very scary.”

She also didn’t want to take her children away from the doctors overseeing their rehabilitation.

With no identification, Maichenko had no way of confirming her identity and restoring her Ukrainian citizenship documents, or get money from her bank account — making it impossible for the family to leave Russia.

She says she and her aunt pounded the pavement seeking help from Russian officials, who told them they would have to apply for refugee status first — something Maichenko refused to do.

“I think it’s quite probable this was all meant to get us to apply for Russian citizenship,” she said. “Even with a permanent resident status, it would ultimately mean school for the kids in Russia, a job in Russia and so on. Overall a Russian future. … That would have been very hard. We would have had to change or break ourselves, break our identities, to stay in Russia.”

After months of hitting brick walls, Maichenko got in touch with Helping to Leave, a non-profit organization that helps Ukrainians evacuate war zones and return those forcibly deported to Russia.

The organization worked with Ukrainian officials and helped restore copies of the documents, and the family finally left Russia on Aug. 29, 2022, nearly five months after their ordeal began.

Maichenko and her children now live in Switzerland, where they are still adapting to their new life — one that’s far more peaceful than it was in Ukraine.

“It would have been much more peaceful (in Ukraine) if we didn’t have such neighbours as Russia,” she said.

‘They’re trying to erase their Ukrainian identity’

Russia’s government has described the forced deportations differently.

The Kremlin said last summer it had “evacuated” over 700,000 children from conflict zones in Ukraine, a majority of them along with their parents, claiming the children had “found refuge with us.”

In September 2023, the Russian occupying administration of Kherson oblast — an eastern Ukrainian region just north of Crimea — posted on its Telegram channel about a meeting with the management of the Okean (Ocean) children’s summer camp in Primorsky Krai in Russia’s far east, close to the North Korean border.

The post, written in Russian, said the administration reached an agreement to send 20 children from Kherson to the camp “for rest and recovery,” and that Okean “expressed its readiness to accept more children from the Kherson region for recreation,” according to a translation.

Russia continues to assert claim over the Kherson oblast, which its forces first occupied in the early days of the invasion and annexed in September 2022, despite Ukrainian forces retaking the city of Kherson that November.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s foreign affairs minister in Ukraine to launch child repatriation effort'

Canada’s foreign affairs minister in Ukraine to launch child repatriation effort

Ukraine and its international allies have called the deportations of children a war crime. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against Putin and Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for their alleged involvement.

Earlier this month, Canada and Ukraine launched the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children to help address the forced deportations and displacements.

The goal, Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said during a visit to Kyiv to announce the initiative, is to create a consular case for every missing child and use Canada’s global diplomatic network to put pressure on Russia to return the children.

“These children are being robbed of their families, of the love and security that every child needs from their loved ones,” Joly said.

Havrylov notes the deportations are rooted in Soviet history, dating back to the regimes of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, who collectively oversaw mass deportations of millions of Ukrainians and the elimination of Ukrainian landmarks.

He said such actions continue to create larger problems for Ukraine’s demography: the more people are stolen from the homes and taught to pledge allegiance to Russia, the fewer remain to ensure the survival of Ukraine’s unique culture.

“They’re trying to erase their Ukrainian identity,” he said.

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