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.

Invaders seize and imprison former Ukrainian soldier, then kidnap his three children to Russia ‘for adoption’

Halya Coynash

Yevhen Mezhevoi with his children, Matviy and the two girls, Sviatoslava and Oleksandra Photo Maria Morkova

Yevhen Mezhevyi with his children, Matviy and the two girls, Sviatoslava and Oleksandra Photo Maria Morkova

In modern Russia’s NewSpeak, Ukrainian cities razed to the ground have been ‘liberated’ and children taken to the aggressor state to be ‘re-educated’ and turned into ‘Russians’ – ‘saved’.  State mythology has even claimed that one of the military men involved in the near total destruction of Mariupol, Yury Gagarin, is known as ‘angel’ because he purportedly “saved” 367 Mariupol children.

Three children were almost miraculously spared such ‘salvation’ when the eldest managed, at the last minute, to warn their father of the imminent ‘adoption’ they were facing.  It seems likely that Yevhen Mezhevyi left Ukraine’s Armed Forces around 2017 when he found himself a solo parent, bringing up a son, then 8, and two infant daughters.  His military past was, however, enough for the Russian invaders to target him at a checkpoint near Mariupol when he and the children were being forcibly ‘evacuated’.  He explained to Radio Svoboda that in late April 2022, Russian soldiers arrived at the basement where the family and others were sheltering from the bombs and shelling.  The Russians said that “Chechen spetsnaz” fighters would be coming soon and would carry out “a purge”.  Mezhevyi says he didn’t understand where they were being taken, but they had little choice and got into the vehicles that the Russians provided.

Mezhevyi was immediately noticed at the checkpoint as he had a military document on him, and he was registered at a military unit.  The Russians told him that he was their “client” and that they were taking him away.  When he asked how long he would be away, they said that this might be for two hours, or two seven years.

Mezhevyi found a woman who agreed to temporarily keep an eye on the children and got them into the ‘evacuation’ bus.  Mezhevyii also managed to hang a bag with mobile telephones to his son, Matviy’s neck.  This was in part to ensure that the Russians did not find the photos from Mezhevyii’s time in the army, but also proved the crucial lifeline months later.

Mezhevyii’s so-called ‘filtration’ included interrogations and being transported, blindfolded and with hands bound, first to the Novoazovsk SIZO [remand prison] and then to the notorious prison in Olenivka which former inmates call a concentration camp.  He was held there initially with 53 other men in a cell designed for six, with the only food they received fit only for pigs, from filthy dishes, without any utensils. He was held imprisoned for 45 days, and then released, after which he needed first of all to get the place in occupied Donetsk where they had taken his documents.  There he was given all back expect his birth certificate which they told him had been passed to his children who had just been taken to Moscow.  There were 31 Ukrainian children who were illegally taken to Moscow on 27 May 2022, together with a ‘teacher’ from the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’.  It was via this teacher that Mezhevyi was able to at least speak with the children, a week after they were brought to Moscow. 

Then on 16 June, Matviy used the telephone Mezhevyi had hung around his neck to ring his father and say he had five days to come and rescue them as they were going to be sent to a children’s home or ‘adopted’. 

Mezhevyii got to Moscow in two days, with the help of volunteers whom he cannot name, so as to not obstruct their help to other Ukrainians in need.  It is thanks to them, as well as to Matviy’s resourcefulness and his father’s determination that their story has a happy ending, with the family now safely in Latvia.

All of the other children taken on 27 May to Moscow have likely been ‘handed over to Russian families’, including the 16-year-old lad who was supposedly adopted by Maria Lvova-Belova, a protégé of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and, currently, Russia’s ‘children’s ombudsperson’. 

As of 8 February 2023, Ukraine had succeeded in returning 128 children taken by the invading country to Russia.   In December 2022, Kateryna Rashevska from Ukraine’s Regional Centre for Human Rights said that they know of Russia having illegally adopted at least 400 Ukrainian children since the full-scale invasion began.  The real figure is likely to be much higher as these were only the cases that the human rights defenders had been able to verify.  Among those, there were children with living parents.

Ukrainian human rights NGOs have been warning for some time that all such effective abductions of Ukrainian children and attempts to turn them into ‘Russians’ are acts of genocide. 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)].

Nor are the perpetrators in any way hiding their actions.  Quite the contrary.  In May 2022, Putin issued a decree simplifying the process for gaining Russian citizenship, and it is known that children illegally abducted to Russia and handed over to ‘adoptive’ parents, often even have their names changed, making it hard to find them.  The local authorities throughout the Russian Federation are involved in activities aimed at either getting children ‘adopted’ or running ‘camps’ for children from parts of Ukraine that have fallen under occupation. 

The children are used for propaganda purposes within Russia, with Putin, Lvova-Belova & Co. trying to present Russia as a country actively helping the children whose lives they have, in fact, shattered.  On 16 February, Putin claimed that the number of people willing to ‘adopt’ Ukrainian children had increased by 12%.  Putin went on to assert that the children had suffered as the result of “eight years of unconcealed aggression in Donbas against our people”. 

All of this cynical nonsense is reported verbatim by the state-controlled media, while those who even mention Russian atrocities on Ukrainian soil, etc. face administrative or criminal prosecution.  It is also fed to Ukrainian children, with Lvova-Belova having openly spoken of ‘integrating’ children from Mariupol, with this involving removing their pro-Ukrainian views.   

Earlier in February the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health published a major report entitled ‘Russia’s systematic program for the re-education & adoption of Ukraine’s children’. The Ukraine Conflict Observatory report, which was prepared with the support of the US State Department, noted that Russia had begun systematically transporting Ukrainian children into Russian shortly before the full-scale invasion.  While Russia claimed to be taking orphans or wards of the state,  there were very clearly many cases, like that of the Mezhevoi family, where no attempt was made to unite children with a living parent whom the Russians themselves had seized and knew to be alive. 

The report provided details of how Russia had operated a large-scale and systematic network of camps and other facilities, with these holding 6,000 children from Ukraine within Russia-occupied Crimea and mainland Russia during the first year of the full-scale invasion.  The researcher were able to identify 43 such facilities, and point out that one of the purposes is so-called ‘re-education’, aimed at making the children more pro-Russian in their views.  The report can be read in full here.

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