Ukrainian orphans Ivan and Maksym, 17 and 16, escaped bombing and starvation in besieged Mariupol only to be captured and taken to the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, where they were held incommunicado for months with dozens of other children.
They are among approximately 400 Ukrainian children who have returned from Russia or Russian-controlled territory since Moscow invaded Ukraine – a fraction of the 20,000 children identified by kyiv as taken without consent.
The boys and four other Ukrainian children told their story in The Hague, where the “Bring Kids Back UA” campaign was launched in September by the Dutch NGO Orphans Feeding Foundation.
The boys, students at the Mariupol Construction Technical School, were living in a dormitory when the area came under heavy shelling by Russian forces. Food and water ran out and they fled on foot in March to a nearby village.
“When we arrived, we went to the hospital because there was nowhere to go. We said we were orphans and they informed the Donetsk hospital. Then Child Protective Services came and asked where our parents were. So we were taken away,” Maksym told Reuters.
Ivan said: “We didn’t want to go, but we had no choice. We were fed four times a week. We hung out in our rooms and played on our phones. They let us go out for an hour a day, and not every day. We had nothing to do. »
Moscow has repeatedly denied forcibly taking away Ukrainian children, saying it found only a small number of children in orphanages or without parental care and tried to house as many as possible in homes. relatives in Russia.
The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, accusing him of war crimes by illegally expelling hundreds of children from Ukraine.