Amid mounting reports of Ukrainian children being forcibly deported to Russia during Moscow’s brutal war against the country and its culture, savvy Ukrainian technocrats are launching a tool to fight back in cyberspace. An interactive public website will soon go live to assist expert search teams that are tracking missing children, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser on the protection of children.
Daria Herasymchuk, the adviser for the rights of the child and rehabilitation of children, said in a Zoom interview with PassBlue on July 11 from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, that 45 children have already been returned to the country from Russia and the Russian military occupied territory in eastern Ukraine. Among them are some apparently taken from Ukrainian orphanages or other institutions. Some children have been severely traumatized and will need time to recover, she said. The government is providing mental health services.
Another 5,100 confirmed and documented cases are still on the docket for action.
In legal moves, many more children have been at least temporarily displaced from Ukraine through voluntary migration in refugee families, Herasymchuk said, speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter. In early July, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of Ukrainian refugees has reached more than 5.6 million in the five months of war. Unicef said that about two million of them are children.
The temporary-protected children are also a concern, Herasymchuk said. Ukraine is asking receiving countries to cooperate in providing education and other services in the Ukrainian language to keep children from losing their cultural roots. Music, the arts and literature have been important to Ukrainians, and Russians often target those institutions. Museums are also at risk.
Within Ukraine, there are also millions of displaced people as towns and villages are being destroyed by Russian military strikes, leaving homes in rubble or disrepair. Normal public services, such as supplies of water and electricity, have been cut or curtailed. Russians have shelled schools and medical centers, including children’s hospitals and maternity wards. Civilians often appear to be targeted in their houses and apartments. (On July 14, Russian missiles struck the western city of Vinnytsia, killing 20 people, including three children.)
Specific to the Russian deportations, the number of Ukrainian children thought to have been forcibly reported under Russian “evacuation” plans has been estimated as high as hundreds of thousands by various sources, including Russian media, Herasymchuk said. She explained that the situation was fluid and complicated, making concrete numbers almost impossible to obtain in Russia or in areas of Ukraine under Russian military control.
Precedents exist, however: Ukrainian children were deported to Russia in 2014 after it invaded Crimea and when it later carved out Russian-dominated breakaway entities in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Fighting there has never stopped and been particularly fierce since the Russian invasion in February. President Vladimir Putin openly vows to annex this region permanently and absorb it into Russia.
Herasymchuk, 35, was born in Kyiv in 1986, five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent democracy. She grew up and was educated in a “new” Ukraine, graduating from the Pereyaslav-Khmelnytskyi Pedagogical University, a center for teachers studying ethics and aesthetics. She taught in rural schools for years before becoming active in nongovernmental organizations.
Her work in the nonprofit world was on the education and rights of children with disabilities — though she rejects that description as too negative. Her daughter Polina, born in in 2008, was diagnosed as deaf in infancy. Since 2013, Herasymchuk has been executive director of Feel (Vidchuy in Ukrainian), which supports children with hearing impairments and their families.
Zelensky promised to reform social policies after his election win in 2019, having captured 73 percent of the popular vote, but he then faced months of a relentless pro-Russian campaign by the Trump administration to undercut his presidency or possibly back an effort by Moscow to remove him from office. He survived the challenge.
In June 2021, Zelensky appointed Herasymchuk to her current position as adviser on children. Within a year of her appointment, however, Putin’s Russia had invaded to try to take back independent Ukraine, and her professional life changed course. Today she dreads reading her email in-box, with its daily statistics on childhood deaths, injuries, illegal deportations, sexual abuse and loss of parents — a portrait of a continuously terrorized and grieving nation.
Here is her story of working for children in wartime, told in her own words through an interpreter, edited and condensed for space. — Barbara Crossette
PassBlue: You spoke of a new government project to enhance public attention and involvement in the search for missing children and how to deter those who aim to capture them for political purposes and/or trafficking. Tell us when this new system will be introduced and how it will work.
Herasymchuk: We have tried to create a a united front with various kinds of organizations using an informational site named The Children of the War. It will be ready by the end of July. It will collect the exact numbers of the children who were possibly displaced or deported. Also from all our sources, national sources and open sources, there will be information about these children, including names, profiles and photos. This will simplify the process of finding these children. It will be a portal for requests from persons who are looking for children and know the dates of birth and nationality. They may want to learn if there have been changes in their passports or nationality documents, et cetera.
PassBlue: You have spoken about investigations of cases by teams on the ground but declined to explain more about their work, like where and when it takes place. Is the risk too great?
Herasymchuk: Different teams are working with the issues of verification of such children, of finding them and of creating specific operations to get each of them back. In each case, it’s not exactly the same operation. There have been happy success stories, but I can’t give you any details or additional information of such operations because in future, it could not be very good or even very bad for such operations.
PassBlue: Have children who have been rescued and returned saying much about what they have experienced?
Herasymchuk: I personally don’t have any contacts with such children up to today. But I could say that even if I had such contacts, I couldn’t give you exact details because first of all, these children are now having a big trauma because of their life situation. I think it is not a good idea to get any information or [submit them] to any interviews. They just need to feel better, to have some rest in all meanings of this word.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.