July 4, 2024

A Race Against Time

Ukrinform via ZUMA Press Wire/SCANPIX
Participants decorate a tree in Zaporizhzhia during the ceremony to honor the memory of Ukrainian children killed as a result of Russian armed aggression against Ukraine on July 4th.
Participants decorate a tree in Zaporizhzhia during the ceremony to honor the memory of Ukrainian children killed as a result of Russian armed aggression against Ukraine on July 4th.

In June, Ukraine held, together with the Swiss government, a peace summit in Geneva. President Zelensky’s Peace Formula that lays grounds for this high-level conference specifically lists “Release of prisoners and deported persons,” including children, as its priority.

Much hope was pinned on the momentum created by the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants against the Russian president and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, who top this war-crime pyramid. Yet, little actual progress has been achieved … in now more than a year. For instance, Putin travelled, unobstructed, to Central Asian and earlier the Gulf states. And despite mounting evidence implicating Belarusian officials in the same state-run campaign, no further warrants have been issued.

Do what you can, with what you’ve got

Ukraine has, however, been pushing ahead where it can. By May 2023, the Ukrainian government had developed the Bring Kids Back UA action plan, and Kyiv opened the first Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, based on the Barnahus model, where underage victims of crimes and their families can undergo medical and forensic examination, receive necessary therapeutic and psychological assistance, as well as provide testimonies in a safe environment. In February 2024, the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children, co-chaired by the Canadian Government, was launched. It now comprises 33 states, and Daria Herasymchuk, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights and child rehabilitation, revealed on May 25 that Argentina was planning to join, while Chile was reportedly deepening cooperation with Kyiv on the issue.

Rescue missions – although still operated on a case-by-case basis – have become more structured and consistent, with multiple stakeholders – including the Ukrainian government and its foreign partners, Ukrainian and foreign NGOs, journalists and volunteers, among others – involved. And arguably, the international spotlight did force Moscow to make several ‘gestures of goodwill’ and release, for instance, Bohdan Yermokhin and Veronika Vlasova, after their cases were given too high of a profile, thus becoming a PR liability for the Kremlin.

Slow but Steady?

On 23 May, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets reported that 13 children arrived in Ukraine– of those, 7 from the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) and 6 under the Presidential Bring Kids Back UA Plan with Qatar’s mediation and assistance from volunteers. Once in relative safety in Ukraine (and Ukraine will only be safe when Russia has been militarily defeated), they receive humanitarian aid, as well as medical and psychological care.

Governor Oblast Oleksandr Prokudin announced that 101 Ukrainian children from Kherson Oblast had been returned from under Russian occupation just this year, as of May 27. The youngest child – only 9 months old – was born already under Russian occupation and thus, under the Kremlin’s aggressive passportisation campaign in TOT, a “Russian citizen” in Moscow’s eyes. A few days earlier, 4 siblings, aged 2-12 years old, were brought back from the TOT, Kherson’s governor said. On May 1, an accompanied 11-year-old girl and two siblings, looked after by their off-age elder brother who was himself at risk of being drafted into the enemy’s army (another jeopardy looming over more and more Ukrainian teenagers with each passing day and each new mile of occupation), arrived in safety.

In March, 10 children, who were either separated from their families by the full-scale invasion or lost their parents or legal guardians to Russia’s war, finally reunited with their loved ones in Ukraine, having suffered the horrors of occupation, Mykola Kuleba, former presidential commissioner for children’s rights and founder of Save Ukraine, said.

Also in March Andriy Yermak, the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine who also leads the government’s efforts within the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children, stated that 9 children taken by Russia, including a 3-year-old toddler and 4 minors who had previously been in Ukrainian state care, returned home. Teenagers were already talking to investigators about the Russian crimes that they had witnessed or suffered in Russian captivity, he added.

How far have we travelled, and whom we’ve met along the way?

Older children have also been advocating for themselves and their peers at the international fora. In March, a Ukrainian delegation visited Strasbourg and met the European Parliament’s leadership and its biggest groupings. As part of the Stolen Voices information campaign, Ukrainian children abducted by Russia spoke at the UN and testified at the US Congress.

Nevertheless, as of Thursday, May 29, 2024, only 388 out of 19,546 children deported to Russia and or forcibly displaced throughout the Russia-controlled territories of Ukraine, including occupied Crimea, had returned. The number hasn’t changed in a while — at least not since January when First Lady Olena Zelenska addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe by saying, “At this rate, it will take 50 years to return them.”

One might get confused as to why this is so, especially in light of these press releases by the government or NGOs such as Save Ukraine. The reason might be that the latter include children with parents or legal guardians who managed to escape the occupation. Although less periculous than for way back home for unaccompanied minors held by Russia since 2022, those families’ physical and bureaucratic journey across the border is fraught with much danger. They walk, at times, over 2 kilometres through the humanitarian corridor — under rain, snow, or scorching sun, and with terrified toddlers or elderly grandparents with their health crippled by months of Russian occupation.

No Time for A Summer Break

This summer, the Kremlin appears to be preparing more than one offensive campaign against Ukraine. June 1 marks World Children’s Day, and on May 28, the Institute for the Study of War reported that Moscow is preparing to intensify the deportation efforts in these coming months. In particular, the puppet authorities announced that 40,000 children from the TOT would be sent on “vacations”: from Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. Some of the advertised “recreational facilities” are nothing else but boot camps, which explicitly claim to be “preparing the youngsters for service in the [Russian] Armed Forces” by teaching them to handle firearms and operate drones and by hostile military propaganda.

It must be remembered that the guise of summer camps, as well as so-called temporary humanitarian evacuation, has been used by the Kremlin as a tactic to justify and whitewash child deportations since the very beginning of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This commentary was first published by Postimees.


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