Sky News has uncovered evidence Russia has abducted Ukrainian orphans and children in care.
Allegations that the Russian military deported children were among the most disturbing aspects of this ugly war.
Sky News has investigated reports that Russians took children from two orphanages in Kherson. Our investigation found evidence to support these claims, but also revealed extraordinary bravery among ordinary Ukrainians trying to thwart their efforts.
Ukrainian officials say the Russian army abducted 97 orphans when they removed from Kherson region.
Child abduction is a serious violation of the rules of war.
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Volodymyr Sahaidak is the director of an orphanage in the village of Stepanivka outside Kherson.
When Russian forces occupied the area, he says he knew he had to take steps to protect his children.
He had seen what the Russians had done to orphans in the Donbass region since the start of a civil war there in 2014.
“We saw Russian propagandists saying they should take the orphans and send them to military schools, indoctrinate them and let them fight for Russia,” he said.
“It was the scariest thing so we started hiding children because we understood they would take them.”
The 52 children at the orphanage were among the most vulnerable, either orphaned or in care, and it turns out that Mr Sahaidak’s fears were well founded.
Exclusive CCTV footage obtained by Sky News from the cameras at the orphanage captures the chilling moment the Russians arrived to find the children.
The footage shows agents of Russia’s secret police, the FSB, leading soldiers armed with rifles through a building that is believed to be a place of refuge.
“They confiscated all the children’s files,” Volodymyr told Sky News, “because they couldn’t find out where the children were, so they took files, they took computers, they took away the CCTV because they wanted to know where the kids had gone.”
The children had left because the community had heard the call from the orphanage to hide them. The whole village mobilized to protect the children, welcoming three or four per family. They ran the risk of collaborators exposing them to the Russians and being arrested or shot.
The Russians never found the orphans but sent fifteen other children from elsewhere in Ukraine to the orphanage to look after. Sky News has seen videos showing the orphanage staff welcoming them and treating them as their own.
When the Russian forces finally withdrew from the area, they came and took the 15 children with them. The orphanage couldn’t do anything.
Orphanage teacher Oxana described the day they were taken away.
“They were put in these military vehicles and taken away, soldiers with machine guns, so of course the children were scared and didn’t know where they were being taken.”
They weren’t the only ones, Sky News also investigated allegations that the Russians took much younger children from another orphanage in central Kherson.
Natalya Kadyrova lives next to the orphanage. She also described the moment when the Russian army came to abduct the children.
“When the children were taken away, Russian armored vehicles were standing around the perimeter and soldiers so that no one was filming.”
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The children were toddlers, ages three to five, and she says that moment still haunts her.
“Of course I worry about them, they are little children. They are just abandoned children. We don’t know where they are, what happened to them or where they were taken.”
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office said the Russians removed 48 orphans between the ages of three and five from the orphanage. They say they have opened criminal charges in the case and called on Ukraine’s secret service to investigate.
The Ukrainian government claims that 13,000 children were deported or abducted by Russia during the war.
Mr. Sahaidak and his village saved 52 children from the clutches of the Russians, but not the other 15 orphans taken by them.