In the middle of Siberia, the Protestant pastor Roman Vinogradov play with a group of children. His wife, Ekaterina, reads a story to the little ones. Of the 16 minors they care for, five come from Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.
The couple, whom Afp visited in Novosibirsk, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, say their mission is simple: help these “children in need”.
Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, international organizations have accused the Russian authorities of orchestrating the “forced displacement” of thousands of Ukrainian minors. President Volodimir Zelenski said that they are “kidnappings”, “forced adoptions” and “re-education” and described them as “war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Russia claims it protects “refugee” children.
“I haven’t robbed anyone” and the children “don’t think they were robbed,” insists Vinogradov, 41.
He and his wife explain that since the summer of 2022 they have been in charge of five Ukrainian children between the ages of three and twelve, who joined their four children and seven others fostered in the family.
All five are from Lugansk, one of the occupied regions, where Moscow has fueled an armed conflict since 2014 by supporting separatists.
The Russian social services “called us to ask us: Would you take in children from Ukraine?”, he recalls. Ekaterina Vinogradova.
“We said, ‘Yes, we’ll take them in,'” the 38-year-old continues.
“What difference does it make? Children are children. Their nation does not matter,” he argues.
The Ukrainian minors, four girls and one boy, arrived from Moscow six months ago. They are all from the same mother, deprived of her parental authority, and from different fathers.
AFP journalists saw these children play with the other children and help prepare food. According to documents consulted by AFP, signed by the Lugansk authorities, the five minors were in various institutions in that region before being transferred to Russia.
According to Roman, they don’t remember their mother. “The time will come when they will ask questions (about her past). Then we will start looking. Perhaps we will organize a meeting,” explains Ekaterina.
The children need time to settle down in their new home, her husband says. When the little ones went to kindergarten, “they were worried if we would go looking for them,” she says.
Under international law, neither party to a conflict may evacuate children to another country, except temporarily for imperative health or security reasons.
The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged this Monday to put an end to the situation of these Ukrainian children. “The return of children illegally captured by Russian forces should be an international priority,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate director for children’s rights at HRW.
For its part, Kyiv accuses Moscow of lying to hide these minors and prevent their return. The Russians “refuse to acknowledge that these children were deported. Russia is hiding our children,” he said last week. Daria Gerasymchuk, Commissioner for Children in the Ukrainian Presidency.
According to her, Ukraine has identified 43 centers in Russia that receive these minors. Children are “moved (from city to city) all the time,” she explains. “We have evidence of Russia’s efforts to make family reunification impossible”, she abounds.
Ukraine had 105,000 children in institutions before the war, the second-highest number in Europe after Russia, according to HRW.
It is “false to say that only orphans were taken to Russia,” criticizes Gerasymchuk. Of the 16,000 minors she says Moscow sent to her territory, only 138 were in orphanages. Others found themselves separated from their parents by war or voluntarily by the Russians in “filtration camps.”
Ukraine tried to hide those little ones. “We were sending these children from institutions to foster families so that the Russians could not identify and move them,” she explains. “But it didn’t always work.”
Volodimir Sagaidakdirector of a center for minors in Kherson, a southern city recaptured by Ukrainian forces after almost nine months, tells AFP that the occupation authorities interrogated him about the children and kept documents.
“None of the Russians said they wanted to take children. But I would say it was a disguised form of deportation, for example by saying: ‘Come on, we’re going on an excursion,’ ‘Let’s go have fun in the Crimea,'” he said in a January meeting with AFP.
A teacher from the reception center, Oksana Koval, ensures that after the Russian capture of Kherson in the first days of the invasion, they sent the minors to the homes of relatives or workers of the establishment. She herself took care of three girls.
“The Russians didn’t know we had children. We told them the parents had come to get them back,” the 49-year-old recalls. “We only cared about one thing: saving these children.”