Hundreds, if not thousands of Ukrainian parents don’t know where their children are. And for many, the answer is terrifying: across the frontlines and scattered across Russia, a 6.6 million square mile country that has invaded their homeland. This is the result, Ukraine and international observers say, of a systematic effort at the highest levels of the Russian government to separate Ukrainian children from their families and their identity as Ukrainians.
While Russia has contended that it has relocated children in an effort to protect them, it does not appear to be making an effort to reunite the children with their parents. Instead, observers say, it appears to be working to erase their identity through re-education and integration into Russian families.
These accusations have led the International Criminal Court to charge Russian President Vladimir Putin with violations of international law, alongside Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights—who adopted a Ukrainian child herself and is thought to be leading the program. Such crimes against children, some experts say, may even be evidence of genocide.
Those who are unable to rescue their children themselves must turn to others for help, including the charity Save Ukraine. Founded in 2014, the NGO has helped about 90,000 people escape the conflict in the last year. It also provided many families with short and long-term shelter and rehabilitation services to help them rebuild their lives, including trauma therapy, education and job services.
Recently, Save Ukraine launched an even more daunting project: rescuing Ukrainian children who have been taken into Russia and Russian-occupied territory, says Save Ukraine’s founder, Mykola Kubela, who served as the children’s ombudsman for the president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2021. Traveling by plane or bus, it has shepherded dozens of desperate relatives through Poland and Belarus to circumvent the front lines and then into enemy territory. Over the last year the group says they’ve brought 95 children home from Russia and Russian-occupied territory.
According to Kuleba, while there are still thousands of children to be saved, their work is only becoming more difficult. A Ukrainian national database has identified over 19,000 children who have been deported to Russia, and the locations of thousands more is unknown. And as time goes by, Kuleba says that children are becoming harder to find as Russia works to erase their identities, including by placing them in adoptive families and changing their names.
Kuleba spoke to TIME in March from a Save Ukraine shelter in Kyiv—where 200 women and children are currently living—about the obstacles his organization faces rescuing thousands of others.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TIME: How do you bring children back from Russia?
Kubela: It is a very complicated process. It’s very hard to find these children if they are in Russia. They try to hide the children, or they send the children to Russian families to adopt them, place them under guardianship or foster care.
Just yesterday, we returned one child—a 14-year-old boy, Konstantin—from Anapa, in Russia. He was abducted from occupied territory in the Kherson region; he’d been in a reeducation camp for several months. The Russians said they will not return him, and if nobody comes, he will be adopted. He only had a father, but he’s very sick, and he had several sisters, and they were afraid to go to Russia. They’re a very poor family, and they had to spend thousands of dollars to cross several borders to reach Anapa.
[His 18-year-old sister] was in a group of mothers and relatives that rescued 17 children. [She] successfully reached the facility, and we helped her to negotiate there. He had been in a foster family for two weeks. They brainwashed him, and when she found him, he told her, “I don’t want to return to Ukraine. My parents told me that if I return back, Ukrainian Nazis will kill me because I was in Russia.” He told her, “if I agree to receive status as an orphan, the Russian government will help me. They will give me a flat; they will keep giving me money; they will put me in a technical school.”
She worked with him for three days. She told him, “You’re crazy. I’m your sister, your father is dying. He wants to be with you.” She worked with him for three days to convince him that he can successfully and safely return to Ukraine. And just yesterday, they crossed the border.
What kind of obstacles do you face?
All the time, we have to change our routes, because every time, the Russians try to block our missions. We do it differently every time.
I can’t tell you a lot, but we have guys who were arrested in Belarus. It’s very dangerous for anybody who tries to help anything having to do with Ukrainians there. That’s why we have to carefully plan our missions, because it could be very dangerous for these mothers and for children, or for any people who can provide support.
How do you locate children in Russian territory?
We use different tools. First of all, we have a hotline through which we receive information from people who are in Ukraine or abroad. Because we’re the biggest NGO in Ukraine who provides rescue missions, rescuing people from combat zones, many people know us and send us information about children who were deported.
Very often, the children who were returned report to us about other children who stayed in their facilities in Russia or Crimea, and then we find their relatives. Or, when relatives ask us to find a child, we find them through other children.
Just two hours ago, I talked with a journalist who told me she knows the father of a boy being held in a facility in Russia. We recognized information about that boy—we just returned another child from the facility who knew the boy was being held there, and they’re communicating through social media. Our next steps will be to communicate with the father, and take him on our next rescue mission. And to return that boy from the Russian Federation.
Very many children who are staying in Russia don’t know where their parents are. We try to find their parents, but they could be in occupied territories, or in the Russian Federation, or they could have been killed. Or imprisoned. They could be in filtration camps. Sometimes we know information about the child, but we don’t know anything about the parents.
Does paperwork pose a problem?
Yes. For example, we prepare international passports for all these parents. For many of them, it’s their first trip to Russia or to Europe—because we go through Poland, Belarus. They are very poor families, and very often, they have no documents. That’s why we have to help them to receive documents for a child, and receive legal permission from different government organizations. Without documents, it’s impossible to bring a child back.
If children are orphans, or if you can’t find their parents, are you thinking about ways to bring them back in the future?
It’s a very hard question. Last year, Putin signed legislation in May which simplifies receiving Russian citizenship, to simplify the procedure of adoption. Through the adoption process, Russia can change the last name and date of birth of any child to give them Russian citizenship. After that, the child can disappear in Russia—especially little kids. That’s why we have to hurry to return them to Ukraine.
It is our goal to raise awareness about what Russia is doing with our children, with our families, how they try to destroy Ukrainian identity and Russify our children. It is genocide.
What do you think the world needs to do to bring the children home?
First of all, to help us to fight with Russia, to de-occupy our territories, to clean our land from Russia. Second—the ICC’s decision on President Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova was a very good sign for us, because it was the beginning of the process of punishing them as war criminals. After that, maybe we will receive our children back, and they will be returned.
Correction, April 12
The original version of this piece misidentified the organization operating a shelter in Kyiv. It is Save Ukraine, not Save the Children
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