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Kuleba calls for increased communication with the world to save children abducted by Russia

Mykola Kuleba

When the founder of the Save Ukraine NGO, Mykola Kuleba, enters the room, he is surrounded by children who do not want to let him go for an interview, telling interesting stories. 

The Online.UA team met with Kuleba at one of the Save Ukraine rescue centres, where volunteers help children and adults affected by the war on a daily basis.

Save Ukraine brought home almost 230 children

Ukraine is making incredible efforts to return children abducted by Russia. Can we say that Save Ukraine is the organisation that was able to return the largest number of our children home?

Save Ukraine is not only a fund, but we probably returned the most children. Therefore, we would like to thank all the organisations that joined this process, because there are those that actually return, but do not communicate on this topic.

Our foundation has already returned almost 230 children who were abducted and forcibly relocated from the occupied territories to the territory of Russia.

By the way, 64 children out of these almost 230 are orphans who were either abducted or forcibly displaced, or were placed in family-based care or foster care, or under guardianship. That is, we can provide these statistics.

From the very beginning, we saw that as soon as the Russians occupied the territories, they naturally identified those who disagreed with the regime for some time. And they began to simply destroy those who disagreed. People were imprisoned, interrogated, shot, or squeezed out of the area in order to make them disappear.

Children were taken from Kharkiv region to Russia, and from Kherson region more children were taken to Crimea. But after the de-occupation of the territory, the Russians simply did not return these children. There were hundreds of such reports.

We immediately started our child rescue missions and returned groups of 10 children at first, then 20 or more. At the beginning it was still possible, but then it started to become more and more difficult. And we managed not only to return these children, but also to document these war crimes, because we have been cooperating with law enforcement agencies and the International Criminal Court from the very beginning.

Watch the Online.UA documentary project “Abducted Childhood” about the abduction of Ukrainian children by Russia:

The life of children in the occupation

You return children from the occupied territories, from settlements that are in the enemy's line of fire. What stories of these children impress you the most?

From the very beginning, we saw that as soon as the Russians occupied the territories, they naturally identified those who disagreed with the regime for some time. And they began to simply destroy those who disagreed. People were imprisoned, interrogated, shot, or squeezed out of the area in order to make them disappear.

Because it is very important for Russians that there are no people who do not agree with the ideology of the enemy or do not accept the occupation of territories. Many were tortured. And this happened in all the occupied territories, because Russian soldiers, the FSB, immediately enter there, identify these people and destroy the population.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

The second category of people are intimidated people. And another group is the so-called collaborators who started to cooperate. Some of them were expecting the Russians to come. And some of them just did not care who they were serving. The main thing for them was an opportunity to earn money. You know, those who are ready to serve Hitler, Stalin — they don't care, the main thing is that there is a master. And such people, as a rule, become collaborators and begin to cooperate with the enemy.

Therefore, from the very beginning, the Russians mastered, cleared these territories, and attracted those who wanted to work. And then the hands reached the children. Tons of Russian textbooks were imported and at first they began to encourage those teachers who were working before to start teaching children according to Russian programs. Then they began to intimidate, because many families did not agree to send their children to the same school, but with a Russian program.

One of the first cases we heard was from a girl from the Kherson Oblast region, who studied at a Ukrainian school in an online format. When the occupiers found out about it, they arrested the father and started torturing him. They interrogated him, simply tortured him... And spread it around the territory so that everyone would understand.

Threats began that if your child does not go to the local school, we will deprive you of your parental rights and take away your child, because you do not give your child the opportunity to study. And the school is only Russian. In order to send your child to school, you must get a Russian passport. And in this way, the Russification of Ukrainian children, the subjugation of our citizens who live there takes place.

You know, when we return families and children, of course we communicate with everyone. And we have families who simply did not give their children the opportunity to leave the house for a year and a half. And if the children went for a walk, it was in evening hours or late at night, without going beyond their yard, because there could be severe searches and interrogations...

Imagine: a bunch of soldiers in several cars stops on the street in a village. They pour out into the streets, knock on every yard. If nobody opens it, they can break down the door, enter, rummage through clothes, check everything: documents, phones, photos in phones. Just to find at least some evidence of your Ukrainian identity. The families are immediately told: as soon as they try to leave this territory, they will be immediately arrested, and their children will be taken away. That is why it is so difficult for these families to leave the occupied territories or Russia today. They are really afraid.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

Just last week, we spoke with a family-type orphanage in which 10 orphans are raised. We managed to return two, but eight remained there. The foster mother is afraid to leave, she is afraid that she will be arrested, that the children will be taken away. She is afraid of many factors. In particular, they are afraid of Russian propaganda, which tells them everywhere about the Nazis who will interrogate them.

In that total hostile propaganda and in that brainwashing, there are really cases that are simply shocking. Cases of violence, punishment of children, cruel treatment of them and even murder.

Girls and boys are also offered to go to Moscow to study. Other children said that they were taken en masse to Moscow for several days. During these excursions, they took part in various events and conferences attended by Russian politicians and propagandists. 

One girl said that she went to Moscow for 4 days. They lived in the suburbs of Moscow, woke up early in the morning, went to the conference until late in the evening, and among the many politicians who came to give them lectures, she remembered the former president Medvedev and the propagandist Solovyov. Imagine what these people, imbued with hostility towards Ukraine, can say to Ukrainian children!

Just yesterday, a child who returned from the occupied territory of Kherson region near the demarcation line testified that the Russian military is destroying all infrastructure and buildings. A tank approaches and either shoots or destroys houses in such a way that when the Ukrainian army vacates these territories, the Ukrainian soldiers will have nowhere to hide, nowhere to live, especially now, in the winter time.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

According to these testimonies, it is not possible to leave the territory either by car or even by bicycle. Imagine it's winter, the temperature is below zero, and a family has to go out on foot. They said that even when they were walking, they were being shot at. In fact, in order to intimidate them and everyone else who will try to leave this settlement.

They need to leave as many civilians and children as possible in these territories in order to prevent the Ukrainian army from advancing. This is the tactic of the Russians today.

Ukrainian children are scared by the Nazis

By the way, many children tell stories that they were afraid to return to Ukraine, because they were sure that they would be interrogated by the Nazis. And it was children, aged 10-12, who told us what the Russians tell them in their schools and in the mass media.

It is hard to imagine the state of a child whose mother or sister comes to them and says: "Let's go to Ukraine." And a 10-year-old child says: "No, I won't go, I'm afraid. The Nazis will kill me [there]."

One more story. A ten-year-old child from a boarding school in the occupied territory was separated from her mother. We helped this mother take her child and return her to Ukraine. I met this family at the station and talked with them.

Imagine my surprise when this boy proclaimed "United Russia" every 2-3 minutes. I couldn't figure out what it was? He asked the child: "What kind of gift do you want? Maybe Lego?” The answer was "United Russia".

I couldn't understand why a ten-year-old boy was saying the name of Putin's party. And mom explains: "It happens all the time. We traveled with him, and he always said "United Russia". He says that representatives of the party came to this boarding school, gave the children candy and Lego. And in fact, they were constantly stitched with this name. This is what is happening in the occupied territories. And this little child at the age of 10 said "United Russia" all the time.

What should be done with this child? We ask ourselves this question, that is why, together with specialists, we have started developing a program of re-indoctrination of these children, returning them to consciousness, to Ukrainian society.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

Such as this boy, who was simply stitched up by this Russian propaganda, of course, we have to give all the love, all the care. Today, we are working with professionals on how to return a child's brain to Ukrainian reality.

Because what was done to this child was abuse. This psychological violence is the same for thousands or hundreds of thousands of other children who are forced to live in the occupation today and be hostages there.

How many children did Ukraine lose during 10 years of war

Russia indicates that it "evacuated" 744 thousand of our children. In fact, Ukraine has now been able to officially establish only 19,546 cases of kidnapping. Why such a difference?

We have to correctly articulate what is happening to the population. Because today there are different numbers, and you have to understand that the war has been going on for 10 years, which means that we are talking about millions of people. According to my calculations, Crimea, Donbas, new territories are about one and a half million children.

From 15 to 20% of the child population of Ukraine found themselves under the power of Russia in 10 years. About half a million children lived in Crimea alone. There were a million children in Donbas, two-thirds of them were under occupation in 2014.

There are no statistics on how many of them moved to the territory of Ukraine or other countries. But after calculating the statistics from the occupied territories during the full-scale invasion, we can say that more than a million children ended up under the rule of the Russians, either in occupation or displaced to Russia.

The second public figure we received from the Russian side is 744,000 children who were registered after the full-scale invasion. Of course, today, since this is Russia, we can doubt the veracity of this figure as well. It may be not 744 thousand, but 500 thousand, but it is still a very large number.

We do not know today how many thousands of children live in the occupied territories, because this number does not exist. But we can talk about approximate data, how many children were lost in 10 years. It is lost, because today they are growing up like Russians. They have come to terms, many of them have already grown up... They have become adults who were formed either in the occupation or on the territory of Russia. This figure reaches about 20 thousand.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

These are only those that Ukraine managed to identify. At least there are lists of children who disappeared somewhere. And although the location of many of them is unknown, they are being searched for. But it would be a big mistake to talk only about these 20 thousand. We have to talk about all Ukrainian children who are either hostages, or exiles, or displaced, or abducted.

Russians torture children in the occupied territories

There is information that Russia tortures our children, whom it supposedly "saves". Do you have specific examples of such situations?

Just yesterday we got another baby back and what we learned shocked us again. Every returned child is a witness to crimes. And many crimes. Especially those who live in the occupied territories. We will learn how the occupier acts, how he harasses.

A family or a child can be severely punished for any manifestation of their Ukrainian identity. For the fact that in someone's phone they found just some photos or Ukrainian texts or music — anything related to Ukraine. We have cases where children were physically punished. When children were taken from their parents, put in prison, interrogated, tortured with electric shock!

And after that, the parents of such a child were told that if she stayed in this territory, it would be even worse. Parents must remove their child from this place altogether. Moreover, where to remove is the problem of parents.

But the occupiers are very afraid that children and adults in these territories will remain Ukrainian. They want to keep only those who obey, who are ready to follow their propaganda. They don't care if it's a child or an adult. Therefore, the children we return can tell you a lot.

For example, there is a boy in Ukraine who was given a birth certificate at the age of 14, and he rejected it. He said that he did not want to receive Russian citizenship. He torn up this birth certificate in front of them. He was in solitary confinement several times for this. About two weeks during all this time he spent alone, without windows, without food, that is, sometimes three days, sometimes four days, simply for disobedience. Because he refuses to be a citizen of Russia.

They produced a birth certificate for him a second time. They showed: look, here is your certificate, we will not give it to you, it will be in your personal file. He turned 17, and they said: now get a Russian passport. He refuses again. They say: stupid, you can get 100 thousand rubles of help there! That is, Russia has a whole program aimed at the Russification of Ukrainian children, the entire population in general, and there are also incentives, financial incentives.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

That is, if the child receives a Russian passport, he will receive a financial reward. And this child is an orphan, he says, I will not. And he gives up his Russian passport.

If the children even have parents, and we have a lot of such cases, and even after the de-occupation they remained there as hostages, the Russians do not try to send any of them back, to find their parents. On the contrary, they are offered to receive orphan status and receive a reward for it. If the child agrees and "makes" an orphan, the child receives a housing certificate, which can be used upon reaching the age of 18.

But the amount of that certificate is so small that one cannot buy a house, except somewhere beyond the Urals in a village. Leave your home and live there.

Russia has a very big problem with the population. They have a demographic crisis. Imagine, Russia is 13 times larger than Ukraine. And in terms of population, they are only 3 times more. Therefore, they are very interested in the Ukrainian population.

How Russia forced thousands of our children to fight against Ukraine

Today, since 2014, millions of Ukrainians have been held hostage, exiled or taken to the territory of Russia. And more than a million of them are children. Many of them live in Russia. A large part remains in Crimea and other occupied territories.

Most of these children are passported and have Russian citizenship. And during these 10 years, many of them have already grown up and are fighting against Ukraine with weapons in their hands. Because this is Putin's strategy. This strategy was used before, in the Ottoman Empire or the Mongol-Tatars. Putin's Russia is no different.

They also abduct Ukrainian children today, displace them, indoctrinate them and instill the gene of hatred towards everything Ukrainian. It is very easy to do with children, because at school, they are constantly told about the greatness of Putin, the greatness of the Russian Empire, that Ukraine is nothing at all, it does not exist.

We returned such children who said that Ukraine no longer exists. They were sure of this, because they were told through their textbooks, through the education system, that only by being part of the Russian Empire, one would be able to have a happy future. That Russia is not really an aggressor. You will find it in Russian textbooks. The aggressors are everyone around Russia: Ukraine, America, Europe.

And Russia is a "victim", it defends itself, it did not attack Ukraine. And then the children are told that it is generally prestigious to be a soldier. So if you really want to become a hero, you have to get a military profession. And in schools, every child is immediately given a machine gun. One is not only being taught to use weapons, but is being set up against Ukraine.

That after a few years this child with a weapon went to kill Ukrainians?

I will tell you more. Tens of thousands of people mobilised from Donbas and Crimea were schoolchildren 10 years ago. Tens of thousands who are fighting today. Who were indoctrinated or Russified, turned against Ukraine, turned into Russian soldiers. And today they came with weapons to kill Ukrainians. If you ask why, they will say: "We are liberating the originally Russian territories. We are at war with the Nazis."

This is Russian propaganda. This is what Putin's Russia is doing to Ukrainian children today. This is Putin's real goal. And this is genocide. It will be proven.

Unfortunately, the world is asleep to prove it today. Because it depends on him whether we will be able to save these children or whether these children will die in Ukraine as Russian soldiers.

We need to do this: prove the genocide and stop this war for the sake of our children. For the sake of returning the children kidnapped by Putin. For the sake of those brainwashed children. Which were made, in fact, by zombies. Who believe in the Russian propaganda that poisoned their brains. And today they decide to fight against Ukraine. This is genocide.

Ukrainian children
Photo: SaveUkraine

Russia "trophies" Ukrainian children

Maybe you know the cases when Russia forced our children to donate blood for the Russian military, or maybe about other medical interventions?

You know, with the hatred that we can see on social media today, Russians openly express themselves, and not only on social media, but even on Russian television, politicians say that Ukrainians deserve to be killed. And it does not matter whether they are children or adults — they must be destroyed.

Therefore, against this background, I do not even doubt that there are certain organisations and groups in Russia that do business by selling organs. I can't tell you about blood transfusions. We have no confirmed facts.

But I understand that anything can happen, we will learn about these crimes, just as we learned about the crimes of fascist Germany against Jews, Ukrainians, and those who were in captivity.

After I saw what happened in Bucha, in Irpin, I don't even have any doubt that today in the occupied territories, our military, children, our families can be used to conduct any kind of research. And it is not only about blood, but also organs and so on. For Russians, it's just business.

Imagine, the wife of Mironov (Russian politician Sergey Mironov — ed.), in fact, the leader of Putin's party, for whom she is already the fourth wife, and he is, in his turn, is her fifth husband, goes to the Kherson region and steals children. They will take a Ukrainian child from an orphanage, and today in Moscow this Ukrainian child, already having Russian citizenship and a different surname, is brought up in this family.

What is it for this family? This is a trophy for me. It's just that he, you know, like a weapon or a piece of something, took this child for himself. What is the purpose? I do not understand the motivation of this person, other than this.

What can be the motivation, if you hate Ukraine, you just kill it. You came to destroy the Ukrainian population. And you take away a Ukrainian child. For what? Well, what is the purpose? To flaunt it. Look, I have a trophy, I am growing it. It's not with love, you know?

I "save"...?

Okay, saving, but who? As an object of what? It cannot be motivated by love. It is motivated by hate. Even if he says "I save from the Nazis", what is that? Because for me, adopting a child is an act of love. In order to make this child happy in my family. Without any political or other overtones.

And here this child is being taken away from Ukraine as a trophy. Yes, to save her, but it's a trophy. That is, in the same way that Putin pats Maria Lvova-Belova (authorised by the President of the Russian Federation on children's rights - ed.), a criminal, and says that she is well done. Because she took one more child stolen from Mariupol into her family, and distributed the others among the families of her acquaintances.

Russia sees Ukrainian children as Russians

And this boy has legal guardians in Ukraine. And there are many such cases. This is just a well-known case, because it is Maria Lvova-Belova. And how to return such children?

Unfortunately, there are no mechanisms for the return of such children today. Children who were in residential institutions were abducted by Russia and changed their legal representatives. And she forced the children who were in families to get Russian documents and reissue them according to Russian legislation.

That is why I repeatedly appealed to international organisations, the UN, to help them develop tools for the return of Ukrainian children today. First of all, we have to identify them. We need to understand where each such child is. Not only those orphaned children, but more than four thousand of them who remained in the occupation or were taken to Russia. But also those children who became orphans.

How many Mariupol children became orphans and how many were taken away because their parents were killed? We dont know. We don't know where they are. And that is why we need the international community to help us determine where these children are. To let us understand, at least, the scale of the problem.

I will tell you that according to my rough calculations, since I monitored the situation as a children's ombudsman, it is tens of thousands of children. Tens of thousands. This may be three or four tens of thousands of children who have found themselves without legal representatives over the past ten years.

These are the orphans who were orphans and who became orphans due to the fact that the aggressor came to Ukrainian land and killed their parents or imprisoned them. But the Russians gave these children the status of orphans, made them Russian children, and then, as Russian children, they are either in orphanages or placed in Russian families. And we know nothing about them.

It is our right as a state to know about these children. It is our right to take care of them. It is our right for our children to live on our land. It is our right to raise them as Ukrainian children. But despite this right, the aggressor came with the goal of destroying Ukraine as a state, as a nation.

And of course, today it is impossible to talk to the aggressor about this. Because I participated in the Minsk negotiations. Children's issues were raised there. This is impossible when the aggressor says: "No, these are Russian children." When Putin's adviser, who led the negotiations at the beginning of the war with Ukraine, officially declared that Ukrainian land belongs to Russian children. What are we talking about? Under these conditions, under these circumstances, how can there be negotiations with the aggressor?

But this is already a condition of the aggressor: we see your land as land for Russian children. We see your children as Russian children. They should all become Russian children.

Under these conditions, how can we turn to the aggressor and say — "give back our children"? At the beginning of the war, I was still naive, turning to the international community and asking to return our children. I'm not even addressing this anymore, but I'm asking: at least admit that Russia is committing genocide and help at least establish where these children are.

The world must recognise Russia's actions as genocide

Why is the world not listening?

I see how the state is currently increasing these communication efforts, but unfortunately it is not enough. This is not the level of communication that will convince the international community that this is actually genocide.

Today, the whole world, we are not talking in general, but for each country separately, they are primarily busy solving their problems. Look, the United States is busy with elections and solving the problem of Israel. Yes, Ukraine occupies a certain place in the politics of the States, and it is a serious place, but we do not communicate this issue enough.

In my opinion, we should promote the issue of abducted children more. Since the beginning of the war, the vast majority of communications have been directed at "give us weapons, we want to win back territory." Which is true, but for what? What are weapons for? What are the territories for? This is our population, these are our people. And this is not only the population that lives in the occupied territories today, but also the population that was forced to either flee to Russia or was forcibly deported.

But today we need these communications in the international arena to prove the genocide, to show that these are Ukrainian people, and we want them back. We need finances, weapons, and everything in order to win back our children from the enemy. And until every child is returned to Ukrainian land, we must not stop .

What are the main steps to get there? Because actually helping us when there is a real problem is the duty of the International Red Cross, the United Nations.

You know, last year I spoke with some representatives of the UN who deal with the issues or problems of the disappearance of certain species of butterflies in different countries. And you know, when I heard that, it just tore me up inside. I respect their efforts to save butterflies. But I cannot put the destruction of Ukrainian children and the disappearance of butterflies in some country on the same scale.

And for me, our communication should be based on that, we will think together about butterflies, but first we should think about those Ukrainian children who are being destroyed today. And this should be the basis of communication. There should be a lot of it.

Today, we are very weak in the information field of these countries due to other reasons. I will not analyse them now. But it should be quite aggressive communication. Because every family, even in Europe, America or China, understands the problem of children, because almost every family has a child. And they need to explain how it would be in relation to their children.

At the beginning of the war, when I spoke in Congress, I explained: look, you are now in Washington. Imagine (and then a Russian soldier was standing in Irpen, in Buch) that the enemy is standing in the suburbs of Washington. Russians kill your children. And they want to enter Washington, your administrative capital, in order to destroy you and your children. And in the captured territories, they turn your children into Russian ones. What will be your reaction to this? So help us! Please accept this as your own grief.

You know, I once spoke with the chairman of the Senate of one of the States. He came to Ukraine. And when I told him about these cases of displacement of children whom we return, he said with tears in his eyes: "I have 16 grandchildren. I can't even imagine my reaction if, God forbid, someone would touch at least one of them." He is a respectable old man. He stood there crying because it touched his heart.

Our communication should be like this. We must touch every heart. And for that, we need whole institutions that will deal with this issue, that will be empowered to develop these strategies to reach out to the international community and make it work.

You said we need to reach every heart abroad to get all our children back. I'm sure you have something to say to the international communities, to everyone, to every person abroad, to help bring every one of our children home.

We see their injuries every day. We know how much they have been abused, how murderous this war is for our families, our children... How many of them have lost their parents...

Therefore, the main message to the international community is to help us win this war for the sake of our children. Help us save our children, get our children back. Recognise what Russia is doing as genocide of the Ukrainian people.

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