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Russia must immediately return all kidnapped children to their families and communities


Kseniia Korniienko is a human rights lawyer at the Regional Centre for Human Rights in Ukraine and has been working on the protection of the rights of illegally deported and forcibly transferred Ukrainian children for two years, including preparation of communications to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and development of a unified legal mechanism for the return of the children, and sanction policy. The Regional Centre for Human Rights is an association of professional lawyers, advocates, human rights defenders, and activists united by shared values and purpose.

An astonishing 19,546 children have been taken from Ukraine and deported to 57 regions in the Russian Federation. There are literally thousands of bewildered young people being brought up by strangers in unsupervised conditions from Rostov to as far away as Vladivostok.

Anastasia was only eight years old when she was seized by Russian invaders who had reduced her home city of Mariupol to a smouldering ruin. On that fateful day, she was with her 14-year-old sister Sofia, their mother Olga and brother Oleksiy looking for water, food and coal in the shelled city. Tragically, Olga and Oleksiy were killed by a Russian missile.

Russian soldiers took the traumatised girls to the Donetsk Hospital where only Sofia began to be processed for custody by a Russian foster family. They made the decision to separate the sisters. It is hard to imagine a more cold-hearted move.

Thankfully, their 20-year-old sister, Valentyna, discovered what had happened. She left her home in Ukraine-controlled Dnipro, making the dangerous journey to the Russian-occupied Donetsk region. She endured threats and humiliation from the Russian invaders but was determined not to leave without them. Today what is left of the family is struggling to return to normality. The story of the girls inspired the Ukrainian media outlet Kyiv Independent to create a documentary, Uprooted.


Anastasia and Sofia were just two of an astonishing 19,546 children who have been taken from Ukraine and deported to 57 regions in the Russian Federation. There are literally thousands of bewildered young people being brought up by strangers in unsupervised conditions from Rostov to as far away as Vladivostok.

It is hardly a surprise that the International Criminal Court in The Hague denounced this as a war crime in March 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The true tragedy of Ukrainian children

So why have the Russians done this? There has been a catalogue of excuses from Moscow ranging from the need to evacuate youngsters through to “rehabilitation” and most ominously of all, “re-education”.

I’m sure it’s as clear to you as it is to me that the intention is to transform Ukrainian children into Russian children. This is a form of collective brainwashing, a crude attempt to erase Ukrainian identity. This is the kind of behaviour that regimes intent on genocide have practised.

My work as a human rights legal expert involves the protection of the rights of those who are most vulnerable in military conflicts and full-scale war. Children are the most defenceless. unable to make their voice heard and too often the target of horrific abuse. All of us have a moral duty to stand up for those thousands of children forcibly taken from their homes, many of them suffering from disabilities or orphaned.

No parent can fail to be moved by the desperate plight of these Ukrainian children. South Africa is a country that values, nurtures, and cherishes its young people.

At the September 2023 United Nations General Assembly in New York when President Cyril Ramaphosa met the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, the leader of South Africa reiterated his demand that “the children who were removed from Ukraine should be returned”. He added that this needed to happen at a fast pace.

SA must uphold children’s rights

Ukraine values this support from President Ramaphosa and the people of South Africa. You understand the need to take the human rights of your youngest citizens very seriously. You have enshrined the rights of children in Section 28 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution.

Let’s be clear about the illegality of this Moscow-directed policy. Grabbing children off the streets of occupied Ukraine and then indoctrinating them to hate their own homeland is a violation of several articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is a crime against humanity. There is no exaggeration in declaring that this crime echoes what happened to children under the Nazis in the Second World War. It is a concerted attempt to rub out their identity. An act of ethnic cleansing and even — let’s not hold back from this word — genocide.

There is a tremendous need for an urgent response. Every day that passes, a Ukrainian child is being abused somewhere in Russia. We urge South Africa, as a global champion of humanitarianism, to insist that the Kremlin provides a full list of all the children who have been deported. We need to know the true scale of this catastrophe.

Russia must immediately and unconditionally return all children to their families and communities. There must be no further kidnappings and deportations. The brainwashing and psychological torture stops now. Ukrainian children are not a social experiment to be transformed into loyal Russians. They already have a home country and people who love them very much.

I have been visiting South Africa, meeting with government, civil society, and South Africans from all walks of life to discuss how we can work together on this urgent crisis.

And I’ve been blown away by the compassion and support everyone has shown for Ukraine’s children. At a special concert on Human Rights Day to raise awareness of the plight of Ukraine’s children, it was incredible to see hundreds of people turning out in support.

As support continues to grow, I hope that South Africa will join us in demanding Russia ends this terrible war crime and we can look forward to the return of our nation’s sons and daughters. DM


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  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Simply disgusting, inhumane and wicked beyond words!! This is the vile and evil Putin at his best, besides mass-murdering populations and killing his own countrymen who dare oppose him. This is the diabolical monster that our hideous anc support, worship and pay homage to – to our eternal shame. Kidnapping children to obliterate their identity and turn them into Russians is the lowest of the low. It just shows the useful idiot that Cyril is to Putin – he supposedly pleaded for the kidnapped children to be returned and was ignominiously ignored.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Parents and their children are so unprotected in the current political space, I am watching LBC James O’Brian is interviewing the British people some are only becoming aware that it is British weapons killing and maiming civillians and children around the world now that their 3 civilians were targeted and killed.
      Putin has no record of respecting human life but he has a very good memory of when his accusers also failed to do so.

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