KHERSON, Ukraine — Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, health workers 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 the Children’s Regional Hospital in Kherson began falsifying the orphans’ medical documents to make it look like they were ill and unable to migrate.
“We deliberately wrote false information that the children were sick and could not be transported,” said the head of the resuscitation department, Dr. Olga Pilyarska. “We were afraid that (the Russians) would find out … (but) we decided to save the children at all costs.”
During the war, the Russians were accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled territories to raise them as their own children. Local authorities say at least 1,000 children have been confiscated from schools and orphanages in the Kherson region, where Russia has occupied the territory for eight months. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
But residents say many more children would have gone missing if some in the community had not risked their lives to try and hide as many children as possible.
At a hospital in Kherson, the staff invented diseases for 11 abandoned babies in their care, so they did not have to be given to an orphanage, because they could give and take away Russian documents. One baby had “hemorrhage from the lungs,” another had “uncontrollable convulsions” and another needed “artificial ventilation,” Pilyarska said of the falsified records.
Vladimir Sahaydak, director of the socio-psychological rehabilitation center in the village of Stepanivka on the outskirts of Kherson, also forged documents to hide 52 orphans and vulnerable children. The 61-year-old father placed some of the children with his seven employees, others were taken to distant relatives, and some of the older ones stayed with him, he said. “If I don’t hide my children, they will be taken away from me,” she said.
But it was not easy to move them. After Russia took over 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 made false notes that a group of children were being treated at a hospital and were being taken by their aunt to meet their mother, who was nine months pregnant and waiting on the other side of the river, he said. .
Although Sahaidak managed to stop the Russians, not all the children were so lucky. At an orphanage in Kherson – where the hospital was supposed to send 11 babies – about 50 children were evacuated in October and allegedly taken to Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, the facility’s caretaker and neighbors told The Associated Press.
A bus with the inscription “Z” (a symbol painted on Russian cars) came and took them away,” said Anastasiya Kovalenko, who lives nearby.
At the beginning of the invasion, a local aid group tried to hide the children in a church, but the Russians found them months later, returned them to the orphanage and then evacuated them, local residents said.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that Russia was trying to give thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian families for sponsorship or adoption. According to the AP, authorities deported Ukrainian children without their consent to Russia or Russian-controlled territories, lied to them that they were not wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda and gave them Russian families and citizenship.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War says Russian authorities are conducting a campaign of deliberate extermination in occupied Ukraine and deporting children under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes and adoption programs.
The Russian government has repeatedly stated that the purpose of moving children to Russia is to protect them from military operations. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied claims that the country is detaining and deporting children. It is noted that the authorities are looking for the relatives of the orphaned children who remained in Ukraine, looking for the possibility to send them home.
Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, has personally overseen the transfer of hundreds of orphans from Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to be adopted by Russian families. He noted that some children were offered the opportunity to return to Ukraine, but refused. His statement could not be independently verified.
Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF’s regional adviser for child protection in Europe and Central Asia, said that until the fate of the child’s parents or other next of kin is verified, each separated child is considered to have living next of kin and the assessment must be carried out by local authorities. countries where the children reside.
Local and national security and law enforcement agencies are looking for the displaced children, but they still don’t know what happened to them, said Galina Lugova, head of Kherson’s military administration. “We don’t know the fate of these children… we don’t know where the children of our orphanages or schools are, and that’s a problem,” he said.
For now, most of the burden of finding and bringing the locals home is being shouldered.
In July, the Russians brought 15 children from the front in the neighboring Mykolaiv region to the Sahaidak rehabilitation center and then to Russia, he said. With the help of foreigners and volunteers, he was able to track them down and bring them to Georgia, he said. Sahaydak did not provide further details about the operation, fearing to jeopardize it, as the children are expected to return to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
For some, Russia’s threat to deport children has had unintended consequences. When there were signs that the Russians were retreating in October, Tetiana Pavelko, a nurse at a children’s hospital, worried that the babies would be taken with them. A 43-year-old woman, who could not carry her own children, rushed to the ward and adopted a 10-month-old girl.
Wiping tears of joy from her cheeks, Pavelko said that she named the baby Kira after the Christian martyr. “He helped people, healed and performed many miracles,” he said.