According to official information, 1,009 out of 2,623 Ukrainian orphans and children deprived of parental care from the Kherson region are currently in the temporarily occupied territories or in occupied Crimea. They were not evacuated in time at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Slidstvo.Info has long been investigating the deportation of Ukrainian children and identifying the collaborators and Russian military involved. The journalists asked the officials responsible for protecting children’s rights why the children were not evacuated to safe areas in time. The video has English subtitles.
“YOU ARE LOOKING FOR THE ENEMY IN THE WRONG PLACE”
In a special report, Slidstvo.Info journalists covered the story of 15 Ukrainian orphans deported by the Russian military from a boarding school in the village of Novopetrivka in Mykolaiv region. In the summer of 2022, with the assistance of local collaborators, they were taken first to the suburbs of the then-occupied Kherson, and then to Russia.
The journalists asked Daria Herasymchuk, Advisor to the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, about the mechanisms for evacuating children from potentially dangerous areas.
When asked about preparations for the evacuation of orphans at the beginning of the invasion, the official replied irritably, explaining that it was not her responsibility.
“You’re looking for the enemy in the wrong place, you want to prove that the children were kidnapped because we didn’t evacuate the children in time, I understand what you’re talking about… I’m not involved in evacuation, and neither is the president… All children should be protected by the state, and we do protect them,” Herasymchuk said.
Indeed, neither the president nor his advisor on children’s rights have been involved in the evacuation of orphans. But they represent a state that has pledged to protect the rights of these children and understand exactly how this mechanism should work.
“In Ukraine, it is the military-civilian administrations that are responsible for evacuating children from institutional care facilities, meaning that the military-civilian administration is empowered to decide from which territory and where they evacuate children… They are responsible for the conditions of their placement,” explains Herasymchuk.
“WE DID NOT KNOW THAT THERE WOULD BE SUCH AN ATTACK”
In other words, the Mykolaiv Regional State Administration was supposed to handle the evacuation of 15 orphans from the Novopetrivka boarding school.
Therefore, the journalists of Slidstvo.Info asked this question to Alla Velikhovska, Director of the Department of Education and Science of the Mykolaiv Regional Military-Civilian Administration.
The official said that at the first meeting on February 24, 2022, the issue of evacuating orphans from potentially dangerous areas was raised at the then Regional State Administration.
“We had already come to the meeting with specific lists of where and which children we would evacuate. It took us only an hour to find out which orphans we had. Then every director was informed about the evacuation and the heads of the communities were responsible for providing transport,” says Alla Velikhovska.
The village of Novopetrivka, where the boarding school operated, belongs to the Shyrokivska Hromada (Territorial Community). The head of the territorial community, Serhii Peresunko, says that everything was ready for the evacuation of children – the bus was parked near the village council.
“We were provided with a bus to take the children out, it was parked near the village council. The plan was to take the children to Voznesensk (a city in Mykolaiv region — ed.), but then the shelling of the road and Voznesensk began. On that day, it was decided that it was dangerous to take the children,” Peresunko recalls.
In other words, they were planning to evacuate these children – they prepared a bus and agreed to take them to Voznesensk. But, according to the head of the Hromada, the village was occupied by the Russian military a few days later, so the evacuation became impossible.
According to the director of the Department of Education and Science of the Mykolaiv Civil Administration, there was no talk of preventive evacuation.
“We did not know that there would be such an attack. On February 24, this issue came up. I come from a military family, so I understood that the first thing to do was to evacuate the children,” Velikhovska explained.
Apart from the 15 kids from the Novopetrivka special boarding school already mentioned, all orphans in the Mykolaiv region were evacuated.
“HOW WERE WE SUPPOSED TO ARRANGE EVACUATION UNDER FIRE?”
The journalists found out that the situation in the neighbouring Kherson oblast was completely different.
Due to the rapid advance of Russian troops from Crimea, it was no longer possible to organise evacuation from most of the oblast. According to the Service for Children in the Kherson oblast, there are currently 1,009 orphans and children deprived of parental care in the temporarily occupied territories and Crimea (at the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were 2,623 children registered in the oblast).
The Oleshky orphanage was among those that almost immediately found themselves under occupation on the 24th of February. It was supposed to be under the care of the local Department of Social Development, whose head, Inna Ivanova, has held this position since September 2022, as her predecessor switched to the occupiers.
Inna Ivanova noted that she did not know anything about the arrangements for the evacuation because she did not work in the department at the time.
“I can’t tell you, probably, the management had to organise some routes, but you know that there were no official corridors in the Kherson oblast,” Ivanova said.
Russian troops entered Kherson a little later, on March 1, 2022, but the evacuation of the children from the local Children’s Home failed. With the assistance of collaborators, the Russians took them to the temporarily occupied Crimea.
According to representatives of the Kherson Oblast Children’s Service, there are currently no institutional care facilities, including boarding schools, rehabilitation centres and orphanages, on the coast of Kherson Oblast liberated from Russians. All children have been evacuated. Currently, 259 children remain on the right bank of the Kherson region, living with their guardians or in family-type orphanages.
“We now have an evacuation plan in case there are any actions regarding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. We are discussing this, but as for the rest, we have no plan. I think it’s better to ask the ministry (the Ministry of Social Policy — ed.),” said Olena Mikheeva, director of the Service for Children in Kherson Oblast.
WHAT DO THE MINISTRIES SAY?
The Ministry of Social Policy did not have time to talk to Slidstvo.info journalists, but officials promised to respond to a written request. However, at the time of publication, the Ministry of Social Policy had not responded to the request.
The Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine agreed to respond only to a written request from journalists.
These ministries, among others, are members of the Coordination Headquarters for the Protection of Children’s Rights under Martial Law, established in March last year. Its main task, according to the Cabinet of Ministers’ resolution, is to “coordinate the actions of central and local executive authorities and local self-government bodies to organise the evacuation of children, including children with disabilities and orphans, children deprived of parental care, who have not reached the age of 18”.
The Ministry of Reintegration told Slidstvo.Info journalists that they were not responsible for organising the evacuation of children.
“The Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, the National Social Service of Ukraine and the relevant regional military administrations at the location of institutional care facilities are responsible for organising the evacuation of status children from dangerous areas. Therefore, the relevant information should be addressed to these bodies,” the response to the journalists’ request reads.
The Ministry noted that they are responsible for agreeing on the appropriate routes when evacuations take place through active combat zones.
And the Ministry of Education says that they were preparing for a full-scale invasion. Back on February 15, 2022, they collected and summarised information on the number of places in special institutions to which children could be brought in case of evacuation.
Also, as the Ministry of Reintegration told Slidstvo.Info, according to the current legislation (the updated legislation on this issue was approved on June 1, 2023 – ed.), evacuation plans should be developed at the level of each individual institution and at the level of regional military administrations.
Thus, more than 19,000 Ukrainian children, most of whom are orphans, have been abducted by the Russians and are either in Russia or in the territory of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
Ukraine can neither verify the conditions in which these children are being held nor establish their exact number, as Russia does not provide this information. In the meantime, Ukrainian orphans are given to Russian families under a simplified procedure, taught to sing the Russian anthem and to be Russians.