Ukraine says more than 19,000 children have been taken illegally by Russia since it began its full-scale invasion.
Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska has called on world leaders to help ensure the return of thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly taken by Russia as Belarusian state media published photos of dozens of Ukrainian children arriving in Belarus from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Zelenska said more than 19,000 Ukrainian children had been forcibly transferred or deported to Russia or the territories it has occupied.
In Russia, “they were told that their parents don’t need them, that their country doesn’t need them, that nobody is waiting for them,” Zelenska said.
“The abducted children were told that they are no longer Ukrainian children, that they are Russian children.”
Her call came as Belta, Belarus’s state-run news agency, reported 48 children from the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhia regions arrived in the country, a close Russian ally, for a “three week holiday” on Tuesday. The children were shown getting off a train carrying backpacks and suitcases, mostly looking solemn.
Belta said the initiative was organised by a Belarusian charity backed by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has previously called the state-funded removals a “recuperation” programme.
“The president, despite external pressure, said this important humanitarian project should continue,” Alexei Talai, the charity’s head, was quoted as saying by the news agency. “All the Belarusian people,” he said, want to help “children from dilapidated cities and towns in the new territories of Russia.”
‘Clearly a genocide’
In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova. The judges in The Hague said they found “reasonable grounds to believe” the two were responsible for war crimes, including the illegal deportation and transfer of children from occupied parts of Ukraine to Russia.
In June, Belarusian opposition figures gave the ICC materials, which they said showed more than 2,100 Ukrainian children from at least 15 Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities had been forcibly transferred to Belarus with Lukashenko’s approval.
Ukraine says the children are being indoctrinated and deprived of their national identity, which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as a genocide in his speech to the UNGA on Tuesday.
“Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine, and all ties with their families are broken,” Zelenskyy told the General Assembly. “This is clearly a genocide.”
Russia denies the allegations, saying instead it has saved Ukrainian children from the horrors of the war.
More than 500 children have been killed in Ukraine since Russia began its full-scale invasion of its neighbour some 19 months ago, and hundreds of others have been injured.
Ukrainian authorities are also investigating more than 230 cases of sexual violence by Russian soldiers against civilians, including 13 children, according to Zelenska. She said the child victims include 12 girls and one boy, with the youngest victim only four years old at the time of the alleged crime.
“I am turning to the UN secretary-general and the entire organisation to help us save Ukrainian children,” Zelenska pleaded.
“Help us receive information on the children taken to Russia… Help us take children out of occupied territories through special safe corridors. Our children need justice.”