In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Mykola Kuleba, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights from 2014 to 2021, and the head of the charity foundation Save Ukraine, talked about massive forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, which could qualifies as a war crime. Kuleba also discusses mass cases of sexual abuse against Ukrainian girls and boys in occupied territories.
Do you know about war crimes by Russians against Ukrainian children?
This war is a crime against Ukrainian children because, before 2014, we had 8 million children’s population. Now only half live on the territories controlled by Ukraine, and 20% of all Ukrainian children stay in the Russian Federation or occupied territory. It is dangerous because these children are brainwashed every day, and Russian authorities have a clear strategy to Russify Ukrainian children and destroy Ukrainian identity. Of course, the main goal of Russia is to destroy our country as a nationality. They hate Ukrainians. That is why being Ukrainian and living in Russian Federation is dangerous.
Howe many children are staying in Russia at the moment?
Russian officials say more than 700,000 children were registered only after Feb. 24 last year. Since 2014 it has been several hundred thousand, including territories occupied by the Russian Federation, its 1.5 million Ukrainian children staying under the Russians. That is why we are calling all international organizations to help – the Red Cross, and the United Nations to help Ukraine to recognize where these children are and return them to Ukraine.
Maybe these Ukrainian children are not accompanied by adults. Some of them are kidnapped, in particular from Mariupol or occupied territories. Some of the children have the status of orphans but have parents in Ukraine that are looking for them. There are different stories, but we must know where our children are.
I saw in the media that many Ukrainian children had been adopted by Russians, probably forcibly.
You never found a Ukrainian child who Russians adopted. Last year Putin signed two bills, the first simplifies receiving Russian citizenship for an accompanying child, and the second simplifies adoption procedures. If you want to adopt a child in Russia, you must first give the child Russian citizenship. That is why they are formally adopting Russian children, not Ukrainian ones. It is impossible to find information about adopting Ukrainian children because Russians first give them Russian citizenship.
You will never recognize how many Ukrainian children were adopted last year and since 2014. Its already continued for nine years. Last year Russian officials reported about thousands of adopted Ukrainian children in Krasnodar Kray and other regions of Russia. These children are not only adopted but placed into foster care, there are all forms of having Ukrainian children into Russian families. They are not reporting Ukrainian officials about unaccompanied children, which is against international law. According to international law, Russia should inform Ukrainian officials about every Ukrainian child on its territory.
Could this forced children’s deportation be qualified as an international crime?
Yes, it is an international crime. First of all, they are forcibly deported. I read a message from Putin’s Commissioner of children’s rights, Marina Lvova-Belova claiming it is not deportation. It is evacuation. Russians are trying to draw an image of lifesavers helping Ukrainians survive. However, in fact, it is the deportation and kidnapping of Ukrainian children. It is genocide because they are trying to forbid them from being Ukrainians in the Russian Federation.
We have evidence from children that have been returned through our rescue missions reporting that Russians force them to sing Russian songs, forbid them to paint Ukrainian symbols, wear colors of the Ukrainian flag and identify themselves as Ukrainians. They force Ukrainian children to study Russian history. I can show you – it is a new book that I brought from liberated territories just yesterday. These books were published last year in Russia and sent to Ukrainian schools in occupied territories. I found thousands of these books in one of the schools there. Here you can find a story about how Lenin created Ukraine.
So, it wasn’t Ukraine before, but Lenin one day decided – maybe it would be good to create Ukraine. It occupied territories where Ukrainian children must go to school otherwise teachers tell parents that they’ve terminated their parents’ rights. In this way, Russians are trying to destroy Ukrainian identity. It is genocide.
You just arrived from the liberated Kherson region. Have you seen any cases of sexual abuse of Ukrainian children during the Russian occupation?
We have special centers that work with women and children who experienced sexual abuse and war crimes by Russian militaries. The last case was a girl who returned from the Russian Federation, and we recognized that this child was sexually abused while she stayed in occupied territory. She has seen a lot of girls there whom Russians raped, friends of hers.
How old is she?
It was a fifteen-year-old girl. Now she is sixteen. We work with this girl, and she tells us that she wasn’t raped because her brother hid her from the Russians, but we think this is not true. She can’t tell the truth because, for any girl, it’s shameful to be raped. That is why she is staying in our center, and we work with her. She is reporting about other cases of her girlfriends being raped by Russians.
There are other cases, too, when we recognize sexual abuse. We are trying to help these girls and their parents. It’s not only girls. It could be men who Russians raped.
How many victims?
Our center has twenty cases, and we need to be a bigger organization to have more. We consult these people and children online and have a center where they could live and have a recovery trauma healing program. There is a network of centers that provide these supports.
Not many people, especially children, are ready to talk about this terrible experience, so we don’t know how many victims.
It’s hard to imagine how many victims of not only sexual abuse but different kind of atrocities by Russians, especially in occupied territories, which are now liberated, where our rescue teams operate. More than 60 vehicles, armored cars, and ambulances work in combat zones to evacuate families and children.
Only after evacuation, after placing these families and children in healing centers, can we recognize abuse or other issues with the children. However, it is very hard to identify in combat zones. Just yesterday, when I was talking with a family in combat zone, we heard shelling, and children were crying and hiding.
In these circumstances, speaking and building relationships with families that allow them to tell me about something is challenging. It is much easier in our center, where these families live for a month or more and are ready to discuss something. Families don’t want to negotiate in combat zones; the primary goal is to take them to a safer place. Sometimes it’s impossible to get to know about the crimes.
What about Ukrainian children who are staying in the Russian Federation? Is it possible to bring these children back? Do you know about success stories?
We rescued 44 children from the Russian Federation, a significant number for NGOs. The Ukrainian government has no negotiations with the Russian government to return these children. Russia blocks any evacuation. However, these are two opportunities: first, to obtain victory and liberate Ukrainian territories, and second, to call international organizations, the United Nations and the Red Cross, to help Ukraine find its children and return them back.