When Ilya was nine years old, his mother died in front of him in Mariupol, surrounded by Russian troops, in the spring of 2022. According to the BBC report, the boy was taken to a hospital in Donetsk.
“It flew into a neighbouring house. Mom was wounded in the head. I’m in step. She died the next day. A neighbour buried her in our yard. And the Russians came for me”, Ilya said.
Now Ilya is eleven. He sits across from the Dutch foreign minister in The Hague. He tells his story – what he experienced in Mariupol, how he was treated, and he was not allowed to communicate with his grandmother and promised to find him a new family in Russia.
According to the Ukrainian government, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russians have abducted and deported tens of thousands of children from Ukraine.
It is impossible to establish their exact number since part of the country is still occupied. According to the Ukrainian portal “Children of War”, it was possible to specify the names and circumstances of the abduction of about 20 thousand children. These are those who were deported to Russia.
Vladimir Putin calls the story of the abduction of children “inflated.” “We explain that there was no abduction; there were attempts and concrete actions to rescue children from the war zone,” he said in July.
The Ukrainian authorities believe that out of 20,400 children taken out, only 400 were returned. Ilya is one of them.
In The Hague, an information campaign, BringKidsBackUA, has been launched, designed to draw attention to the abduction of children. Six children from Mariupol and the Kharkiv region, taken away by the Russian military and then returned to Ukraine, came to the Netherlands.
They are between 11 and 17 years old. Everyone has their own scary story.
In The Hague, they have an extensive program – interviews with foreign media, filming in talk shows, communicating with politicians, speaking at a press conference.
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“I’m here to bring back other children too.”
“When you hear these numbers — 20 abducted children … These numbers are children. These are real people; these are their stories. Now you will be able to see them,” says Mariam Lambert, co-founder of the Dutch charity Orphans Feeding Foundation, at a press conference in The Hague.
Mariam helped evacuate families with children from the frontline territories for more than a year. She went for people in Soledar, Bakhmut, Kupyansk and Kherson. Over the past few months, her organisation has been working on the issue of abducted children. Together with the Ukrainian Embassy and the Ombudsman, they brought several of these children to The Hague.
“Russia is forcibly deporting Ukrainian children. Our goal is to bring the words of these children to the world to find people and organisations that can help bring children home. We want people to put themselves in their parents’ shoes, in the place of families whose children have been taken away. How would you feel if this happened to your children?” says Mariam Lambert.
She invites six children to the hall and asks journalists to be careful with questions to not traumatise them even more.
Journalists ask children if they understand why they are here. 12-year-old Sasha, in an embroidered shirt, excitedly replies: “We are here to tell you that there is a war going on in Ukraine, not that we made it all up.”
On this day, Sasha will tell his story to journalists and politicians several times. About how he was separated from his mother in Mariupol in the spring of 2022. How he was wounded in the eye during the shelling.
Trying to leave the besieged Mariupol, Sasha and his mother ended up in a filtration camp. My mother was taken away for interrogation. People came to the centre for Sasha and introduced themselves as Novoazovsk children’s rights service employees. The boy was promised that he would see his mother a little later. But they haven’t seen each other for a year and a half.
From Mariupol, Sasha was sent to a hospital in Donetsk. He begged the boy in the ward for a phone and called his grandmother. An elderly woman overcame many obstacles to take her grandson out of Donetsk.
“When I returned to Ukraine, I began to appreciate food and water because, in Mariupol, we did not have enough food. There was no bread, nothing. But most of all, I appreciated the silence,” Sasha recalls the war.
After a press conference and a series of interviews, the children’s schedule includes a trip to the interactive children’s book museum to meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Hanke Bruins Slot.
In a room filled with books, they drink compote, wait for the minister, and play on their phones. When will they be allowed to take a walk? Grandma asks Ilya not to put his elbows on the table and behave decently.
The atmosphere suddenly changes when the meeting begins. The minister shook hands with everyone and asked them to talk about themselves. One after another, there are horror stories about shelling, abductions and the death of relatives.
Ilya recalls how he was promised to find a new family in Russia in Donetsk, but his grandmother was able to find him and take him away.
12-year-old Sasha told the story of separation from his mother. At the end of the story, as if asking for help from the minister, he says: “I’m trying to find my mother; her name is Snizhana Mikhailivna Kozlova.”
After listening to the boys, 14-year-old Veronika from the Kharkiv region, when it is her turn, tells the foreign minister that she has nothing to say: “There was nothing so bad with me as with others. Well, I was under occupation, sleeping in the basement. It was scary when a helicopter flew nearby and shot.
“What you’ve been through is shocking. Dutch children do not experience this. You are courageous and brave, and you have the right to talk about it. This should not happen to children,” the minister replied.
And Veronica continued her story. When the invasion began, she was under occupation along with her aunt. Later, Veronika was taken to Russia and placed in a boarding school in Lipetsk.
For 11 months, the girl’s mother, Nina Vlasova, who serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, tried to return the child, but she was not allowed to leave the Russian Federation.
“I was taken for interrogations because my mother is a soldier. I was interrogated, although my legal representative was not there,” says Veronica.
She tells the Foreign Minister about what she experienced in the boarding school: “The children there called me “Bandera” and mocked me. They accused me of mobilising their fathers because of me. They said I was stupid because I was Ukrainian,” Veronika said.
It was only in May 2023 that she was able to leave Russia. Now, Veronika lives with her mother in Kyiv.
Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, who was also present at the meeting in The Hague, says Veronica was saved thanks to international pressure. Ukraine convened a special meeting of the UN Security Council, at which her mother spoke.
“For many months, attempts were made to return Veronica, but all was in vain. They did not want to give up the child because her mother was a soldier. The day after her mother spoke at the UN, there was a signal that the Russians were ready to deport the child without any conditions. My grandmother followed Veronica and took her out of Russia.”
After all the meetings, in a conversation with the BBC Ukrainian Service, Veronika says she is a little tired of telling her story: “I did not regret that I went. I hope we will help a lot of children.”
Russian officials have consistently denied preventing children from leaving Russia. According to them, anyone who wants to can go safely.
“It’s not human.” How did the Netherlands react?
The minister was shocked by what she heard, the Dutch Foreign Ministry told the BBC Ukrainian Service. And during the meeting with the children, it was felt how painful it was for her to listen to all this.
Hanke Bruins Slot thanked them for their courage to talk about themselves.
The effect of the meeting was strong. After all, it was not adults or politicians who spoke about the problem, but an 11-year-old boy, looking into his eyes, talked about his mother’s death and his abduction.
“I hope that thanks to your stories, we will be able to help other children in Ukraine; we will be able to make sure that this never happens again,” said a spokeswoman for the Dutch authorities.
“What the Russians have done to them is not human. These kids are very strong because they talk about it,” she told reporters.
The Foreign Minister promised that the Netherlands would help investigate the abductions, continue publicity at the international level and achieve sanctions against the Russians involved.
The Netherlands will also donate DNA testing kits to Ukraine, which will help identify the children who have been taken out.
The children’s stories were also heard in the Dutch Parliament. The Ukrainian delegation met with members of its foreign affairs committee.
“Russia is deporting hundreds of thousands of children from Ukraine.
These are horrific crimes on an unprecedented scale,” commented Ruben Brekelmans, a deputy from the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
The politician called for continued sanctions pressure on Russia in response to war crimes, which he wrote about on the social network X.
However, among the authors of the comments under this post, some considered removing children not abduction but salvation. This generally repeats the Russian narrative that children are taken from Ukraine for this purpose.
A user also wrote under the post of the Dutch politician that sanctions against Russia are shot in the foot because they damage their economy; some called for an end to the war and the start of peace talks.
The children’s visit to The Hague as part of BringKidsBackUA caused a restrained reaction from the Dutch media. Only a few publications reported about it. Among them is the liberal daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which interviewed Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets.
When asked by NRC Handelsblad how BringKidsBackUA differs from Russian propaganda, which shows children taken out of the war zone, Lubinets replied that on the Ukrainian tour, “no one forces them, no one explains what to say” and that “these are children who voluntarily express their opinions.” This, he said, is the difference.
Three Ukrainian children were aired on the popular talk show Op1 in the Netherlands, which has an audience of over half a million viewers. There, Veronica told how she came up with ways to escape from Russia.
The presenter quoted Putin’s children, who said the Russians were saving them.
“If the essence of salvation is to leave children without relatives, then they succeeded,” Veronica replied ironically.
The presenter asked the children: “Do you think Putin will ever be brought to justice?”
“Yes,” they replied.
“Despite the support for Ukraine in many countries, we see that in some governments and parliaments, some people still do not believe Russians are kidnapping children. They want to find some arguments, somehow explain Russia’s actions,” said Daria Gerasimchuk, Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Children’s Rights.
According to her, Ukraine hopes to motivate other countries to strengthen sanctions and political pressure on Russia, starting with the Netherlands.
“We must constantly demand the return of children. The issue of kidnapping should be constantly on the daily world news agenda. Condemning Russia’s actions is not enough. Action is needed. International organisations must act decisively,” Gerasimchuk said.
She recalls that the 400 children returned is extremely small compared to the total number of children removed.
At a meeting with the Foreign Minister, Gerasimchuk said that the four children sitting in front of her had lost their parents, but they had other relatives in Ukraine who were waiting for them.
“They had someone to go back to. But they were not released,” said the representative of Ukraine.
Mariam Lambert of the Orphans Feeding Foundation says this is just the beginning of the campaign. Children will continue to perform in other places.
What about the investigation?
In March 2023, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of Russia, Maria Lvova-Belova. The warrants were issued precisely based on the deportation of children from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
“This is just the beginning. A much larger number of people should receive arrest warrants. All those who organised the move and accepted these children into their families. The world has never seen such large-scale crimes with the abduction of children,” Daria Gerasimchuk believes.
Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets talks about the need to pressure Russia through the courts, as only this can force it to return the children.
According to him, the process went faster after the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova in March, and the Russians began to return more children.
“If you want to return the children, issue the following warrants because there are many more Russian officials involved in the abduction of children than two,” Lubinets said in The Hague.
He says the Russians are simply catching children in the occupied territories, transporting them to Russia, and throwing away their Ukrainian documents.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague told the BBC Ukrainian Service that the investigation into the case is ongoing, but the details are kept secret.
Recently, the ICC office was opened in Kyiv, the most prominent representative office of the court outside The Hague. The Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine says that in this way, cooperation between Ukrainian and international prosecutors will be more effective.
According to Daria Gerasimchuk, after the return of children from Russia, providing them with medical and psychological assistance, investigators work with them.
“Prosecutors ask children questions in special green rooms; this information is transmitted to the Prosecutor General’s Office. Then Ukraine submits it to the ICC,” the Commissioner said.
According to sources of the BBC Ukrainian Service in The Hague, the Ukrainian delegation met with representatives of the ICC on September 15.
“New evidence in the case of the abduction of children, evidence of Russia’s war crimes, has been presented to the court,” the source says.
“The most important result of this trip is that everyone confirms their readiness to help return the children. Sometimes they don’t know how to do it, but they are ready,” Lubinets said in an interview with the BBC’s Ukrainian Service.
After many speeches and interviews, the children went to the miniature park in The Hague to eat ice cream, take selfies and play.
The Ukrainian delegation and Mariam Lambert from the Orphans Feeding Foundation went to New York to talk about the abducted children at the UN.