The scenes are part of a 2-minute video Kastyukevich posted on the Telegram messaging app showing Russian officials and their local allies removing young children from the Regional Children’s Home in Kherson at the end of October, weeks before it was released by Ukrainian forces. Dozens of children were taken to a «safe» place, she said.
According to Kyiv, the video is evidence in a growing case against the Kremlin for its alleged war crimes in Ukraine. The country accuses Moscow of kidnapping tens of thousands of their children and send them to Russia with the intention of stripping them of their national identity, a crime that Ukrainian officials call a form of genocide. Russia denies the war crimes allegations and says it has evacuated nearly 2 million civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children, from what it said were dangerous areas of Ukraine.
In a caption to the video, Kastyukevich said the children were «evacuated» and moved to a nearby location. Crimean Peninsulaoccupied by Russia since 2014. Around the same time, Russia was trying to evacuate thousands of residents of Kherson before the imminent Ukrainian offensive.
“We have saved them,” Kastyukevich wrote.
Ukrainian officials in Kherson immediately called it a «kidnapping.»
Very little is known about what happened to the children, but senior Russian officials have told NBC News that they are still in Crimea. They say that no one has come looking for them.
The Ukrainians dispute this, saying they are working to bring the 48 children home, but fear they could disappear in Russia.
On Friday, Ukraine indicted Kastyukevich, who shared the video of the children’s evacuation, as well as a former orphanage worker and an official from the region, accusing them of the illegal transfer and deportation of the children from the center.
NBC News contacted Kastyukevich about the charges but did not hear back.
Young children from the Kherson Regional Children’s Home are not the only children who have gone missing.
Ukraine says it has documented almost 20,000 cases of children deported or forcibly removed. But that number could be as high as 300,000, according to the Ukrainian president’s adviser on children’s rights, Daria Herasymchuk.
in a unprecedented movement against the leader of a permanent United Nations Security Council member state, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Putin and his children’s representative, Maria Lvova-Belova, in March. Prosecutors of the war crimes tribunal based in The Hague accused of «illegal deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children» from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia, including «the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and child care homes.»
Moscow has dismissed charges that it illegally deports Ukrainian children, and Russian officials have promoted cases saying they rescued children from active combat. Last month, Putin said his forces have legally relocated «entire orphanages,» saving children’s lives, and that Moscow has never been against reuniting Ukrainian children with their families.
Lvova-Belova, who has said in multiple Telegram posts that she is now the adoptive mother of a child of Mariupol, a city devastated by Russia’s war, has borne the brunt of international scrutiny. In many ways, it has become the face of a new breed of alleged war crime.
Her social media is full of videos of Russian foster families greeting Ukrainian orphans, whom she personally delivered across the country, with balloons and toys.
Lvova-Belova says she visited the children at the Kherson Regional Children’s Home in Crimea shortly after they were taken out of Ukraine and promised to find their relatives.
She did not respond to a request to visit the children in Crimea, but told NBC News that her office was actively searching for their relatives in Ukraine. The children would not be placed in foster care or adoption until that search had been exhausted, she says.
Ukrainian officials investigating the case disputed his claim that no one is looking for the missing children.
Mykola Kuleba, CEO of save ukraineA leading non-governmental organization that helps deported Ukrainian children return home, said the organization has identified the children taken from the Kherson orphanage and is investigating the case.
The challenge with a case involving such young children is that they become difficult to trace after being moved into Russian-occupied territory or into Russia itself. Kuleba said the window of time to bring them back to Ukraine was getting shorter every day because many didn’t even know their own names.
“It will be very difficult to return them,” he said.
After the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova, partly to prevent ‘new crime commission’: Kuleba said reuniting children with their families had become even more difficult.
“We found that it is increasingly difficult to return any child,” he said.
Lyudmyla Afanasieva was a staff member at the Kherson orphanage and cared for the children while they were in the basement of a church whose pastor had sheltered them during heavy fighting.
The young children, whom Afanasieva said she recognized from the video shared by Kastyukevich, had been «stolen.»
“These are our children,” he said in a telephone interview.
Except for two orphanage employees, the adults who brought them to Crimea were strangers to the children, Afanasieva said.
At least three senior Ukrainian officials told NBC News they were actively working on the case: the country’s chief prosecutor, the children’s representative and the ombudsman. They refused to release detailed information about the whereabouts of the children or the status of their investigations, saying doing so would jeopardize their work.
“They moved them further, most likely. So we are still looking for them,” said Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights. “But we know exactly who we’re looking for. We know the names of these children.”
Like Kuleba, he fears that returning the children will be a challenge.
“If we are talking about little ones who, in one year, can forget where they are from, what their names are… it will be very difficult to return these children, but we will fight for each one of them,” Herasymchuk said. .
In May, nearly 15 months after the Russian invasion, Lvova-Belova said kyiv had for the first time sent concrete information about 11 children whose parents were looking for them, without providing their location or further details.
Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights chief, disputed this.
“Thousands of names” were sent to her counterpart in Moscow, Tatyana Moskalkova, who works closely with Lvova-Belova, she said, though she did not provide any documents or other evidence.
At least 373 children have been returned to Ukraine without Russian help, Lubinets said. He declined to provide further information on how they were returned, saying doing so would compromise future operations.
Ukrainian officials allege that Russian families are giving up kidnapped children for adoption. Moscow denies this, but acknowledges that 380 Ukrainian orphans have been placed with foster families in Russia. Lvova-Belova insists that they have not been formally adopted and that they will join their families in Ukraine if the families look for them.
In fact, he says, all families or legal guardians have to do is email his office to start a search. His claim runs counter to statements by Ukrainian officials and families, who say they have to devise a new rescue mission for each child.
The Russians are doing «everything» to block their efforts to recover the children, Lubinets said.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, whose office is investigating some 90,000 cases of alleged war crimesHe said that the deportation of children is a special case.
The Russians are intentionally holding Ukrainian children «hostage,» refusing to return them and stripping them of their identities, Kostin told NBC News in an interview.
“This is the type of crime that is so far from war,” he said. “This is not about the war itself. It is about the intent to steal children from the Ukrainian nation.”
Molly Hunter, Brock Stoneham, Ed Flanagan and Ostap Hunkevych contributed to this reporting.
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