war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

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Russia refuses to return Ukrainian children taken from Kharkiv oblast

Halya Coynash

Parents holding a photo of 9-year-old Polina Hlahola from Kozacha Lopan whom the Russians are refusing to return Photo Stas Yurchenko, Graty

Parents holding a photo of 9-year-old Polina Hlahola from Kozacha Lopan whom the Russians are refusing to return Photo Stas Yurchenko, Graty

Since the beginning of its full-scale invasion, Russia has illegally taken at least seven thousand children from their native Ukraine, with the real figure likely to be much higher.  This is in flagrant violation of international law and, in many cases, the latest trauma for children who have already seen parents or other close relatives killed by the Russian invaders. 

In the majority of cases, Russia has claimed that it is ‘evacuating’ or even ‘saving’ children whose lives it first shattered.  There are numerous propaganda videos aimed at, for example, presenting the same Russian state that relentlessly bombed Mariupol and killed civilians as concerned about the welfare and happiness of its youngest victims.

On some occasions, parents allowed their children to be taken to Russia, supposedly for a summer camp, to get them away from the war.  It is looking, however, as though those parents were brutally deceived.  Tetiana Kozak from Graty has spoken with parents from parts of the Kharkiv oblast which were liberated last month after six months of Russian occupation.  Their children were taken to Russia in August, supposedly just to a summer camp in Krasnodar Krai.  The Russian invaders were, however, driven out by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in early September, and children, like 9-year-old Polina Hlahola from Kozacha Lopan, have not been returned to their parents.

As reported, Kozacha Lopan, an urban-type settlement very close to the border with Russia, was liberated on 11 September.  It had been occupied since early March, with the Russians known to have used several premises as prisons where they tortured local inhabitants.  Several dozen residents with very openly pro-Ukrainian views disappeared during the occupation.  The Russians also effectively deported people, especially women and children, claiming this to be ‘evacuation’. 

Graty writes that it was only at the very beginning of the Russian occupation that people could still evacuate to free parts of Ukraine.  After that, the invaders refused to agree safe corridors, while at the same time taking people to Russia.  The invaders tried to convict local residents that Kyiv would regard them as traitors because they hadn’t left.  Such arguments may seem absurd, but it should be remembered that people were held in a total or near-total information vacuum, often having no contact with relatives or friends in government-controlled Ukraine.

Kozak has learned that two weeks before the Russian invaders were forced to retreat from Kharkiv oblast, a coach left Kozacha Lopan for Russia with twenty children on board – seven from Strilecha, a village on the border with Russia and thirteen from Kozacha Lopan.  The destination was a summer camp in Kabardinka, Krasnodar Krai, where the children were supposed to spend just three weeks.

Such camps are also a propaganda exercise.  Moscow has demanded that individual regions in the Russian Federation take part in ‘supporting’ occupied parts of Ukraine, with these summer camps funded by the Krasnodar Krai authorities.  The latter made sure that they posted videos of the children who were reported to be in wonderful spirits.

The efforts by the Mayor of Krasnodar Andriy Alekseyenko were presumably appreciated in Moscow since he suddenly left this post on 19 August to become the so-called head of the Russian-created ‘council of ministers of the Kharkiv oblast’. 

Polina Hlahola is just nine years old, and doubtless desperate to be home with her parents, Tetiana and Yury.  They explained to Graty that they had initially hesitated but had finally agreed to the summer camp trip out of concern for their daughter’s safety, given the war conditions and heavy shelling. It was also supposed to be a nice ninth birthday present as their daughter’s birthday was at the beginning of September.

Rather ominously, Polina’s parents were asked, not only to sign authorization for the trip, but also provide the original of her birth certificate. All of this was collected by Ihor Teliatnykov, a former deputy turned collaborator, whom the Russians labelled head of the occupation administration in Kozacha Lopan.

The children were due to return on 20 September.  The Russian invaders, however, fled on 11 September, together with collaborators and some of the parents of the children at the summer camp.

Polina’s parents hoped that their daughter would simply be returned.  Instead, on 10 September, the Krasnodar authorities claimed that the children’s stay at the camp was being prolonged for another three week period “for their safety”.   On 22 September the Russian state media in Kuban reported that 223 children from Kharkiv oblast had been placed in a Russian elementary school, while an unspecified number of older children were to study at the summer camp premises.  Polina can be seen on the video shown.  It is now over a month since Tetiana and Yury saw their daughter.  

As far as the Ukrainian authorities are concerned, the fact that Polina’s parents gave formal permission to her trip is immaterial.  All such removal of children to Russia is viewed as by force since the invaders prevented civilians from evacuating to government-controlled parts of Ukraine. 

Around 55 children who were forcibly taken to Russia have been returned, including children whose parents were killed as a result of Russia’s invasion.  Each case is difficult and highly specific.   

Polina’s parents have turned to both the police and to the Red Cross.  They are also hoping that media publicity can help get their daughter home. She issues a desperate plea to the Russian authorities to return their child.  “These are children!  War is war, but why do you need other people’s children?”  

Violation of international law

In naming “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide specifically names “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” [Article II(e)].

Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits Russia as an occupying power from changing a child's nationality or civil status.  The same Convention prohibits the Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not.  Although the Convention mentions the possibility of necessary evacuation, but this can scarcely justify Russia’s behaviour when the latter actively blocked all routes to safety in non-occupied Ukraine.

Nor can Russia hide behind false claims of humanitarian need, and not only because it is the cause of all such humanitarian tragedies.  In response to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s 30 May decree on simplifying Russian procedure for adopting Ukrainian ‘orphans’, Asfhan Khan, UNICEF regional director for Europe, “reiterated, including to the Russian Federation, that adoption should never occur during or immediately after emergencies, <>  Such children cannot be assumed to be orphans, and "any decision to move any child must be grounded in their best interests and any movement must be voluntary. Parents need to provide informed consent."

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