Editor's Note: The story is based on the documentary Uprooted, published by the Kyiv Independent's War Crimes Investigation Unit.
Russia is systematically deporting Ukrainian children from the occupied part of Ukraine against their will – which constitutes genocide according to one of the five definitions given in the United Nations' Genocide Convention.
Once in Russia, Ukrainian children are held incommunicado, brainwashed with pro-Russian propaganda, and adopted by Russian families – even though they have living relatives in Ukraine who are their legal guardians.
Nobody knows for sure how large this "stolen generation" of Ukrainian children is. The Ukrainian authorities have identified almost 20,000 children who have been abducted by Russia since the start of its full-scale invasion and war, but human rights workers believe the true number is far, far higher.
As of early 2023, the highest number of deported children was from Donetsk Oblast.
On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia's commissioner on child rights, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, on suspicion of their involvement in organizing the abduction of Ukrainian children.
Investigating these abductions, the Kyiv Independent has spoken to more than 40 people and has discovered that the process of deportation of children from the city of Mariupol in the Russian-occupied part of Donetsk Oblast involved Russian-placed employees of social services, medical facilities, and children's social centers from the parts of the oblast initially invaded by Russia in 2014.
Children were deported from Mariupol to the earlier-occupied territories and then kept for some time in at least nine hospitals in Donetsk – even if they were uninjured.
After that, some were deported to Russia under the pretext of continuing their "recovery" in Russia. In fact, they were subsequently placed in the care of Russian families or orphanages.
The Russian families would try to convince the deported children that Ukraine had been destroyed, gave them a pro-Russian military-patriotic education, and monitored their behavior.
The Kyiv Independent also found that some children were deported to the suburbs of Moscow to the Polyany boarding house – a branch of the Children's Medical Center of the Administration of President Vladimir Putin's Affairs.
The Kyiv Independent has established the whereabouts of some of these children and has identified some of those responsible for their abduction to Russia.
As of the beginning of 2022, more than 60,000 children were living in Mariupol.
After entering the city in March 2022, Russian military and proxies from occupied parts of Ukraine began to organize the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, justifying it as a humanitarian operation.
When the full-scale war broke out, Anastasia and Sofia Kuchugurina, two sisters aged 8 and 14, respectively, lived in Mariupol – then in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast – with their mother Olga, 43, and brother Oleksiy, 25. Their other sister, Valentina Yermachkova, 20, lived separately from them in Dnipro.
Yermachkova spoke to her family at the end of February 2022 when Russian troops started surrounding Mariupol. She tried to convince her mother to come to Dnipro, but she refused. Olga had decided to stay in the city with her three children.
Talking to the Kyiv Independent, Sofia Kuchugurina recalls the worsening safety situation in the city as Russian forces closed in.
"We didn't go to hide in the basement because it was dangerous there," Sofia says. "We were told that people who went there would get crushed, and no one could get them out."
With each day that passed, the family's chances of leaving Mariupol for territory controlled by Ukraine shrank. The humanitarian corridors that the Ukrainian authorities tried to negotiate with the Russian authorities all failed.
By early March, Yermachkova had lost contact with her relatives completely. As she later found out, they had moved to live with a family friend in another district of Mariupol.
The family had to go into the constantly shelled city to get water, food, and coal, and it was on one of these trips that Olga and Oleksiy were killed.
On March 24, Sofia, together with her brother Oleksiy and her mother, went to one of the city's metallurgical plants, where there still were supplies.
"And suddenly a rocket... or a projectile, something similar to a missile, lands right next to us," recalls Sofia. "I ran to the side and was only hit by a stone, but my mother and brother were buried."
Sofia's brother Oleksiy was killed immediately, and it was impossible to get his body out from under the rubble.
Sofia tried to save her mother, Olga, attempting to dig her out with her bare hands. She called for help, but nobody came.
Sofia returned to the place with her mother's friend. They managed to dig Olga out, but she died within a few hours. Her body was loaded onto a wheelbarrow and taken to be buried in the yard.
The two sisters, Sofia and Anastasia, were now alone in the city, which was gradually being captured by the Russian army.
At the same time, in another district of Mariupol, two friends – Ivan Matkovskyi, 17, and Maksym Boyko, 16 – were planning how to escape the war.
Both orphans, the boys studied at the Mariupol Vocational Construction College and lived in the same room in a dormitory. Their official state guardian was the director of the college – Anton Bilay, 42, who lived with his family near the dormitory.
The relationship between the students and the principal before the full-scale war was formal. But when the electricity went out in Mariupol, and it became clear that the children in the dormitory would no longer be able to cook for themselves on electric stoves, Anton began trying to save them, cooking food and caring for the children.
By mid-March, Bilay decided to make his way out of Mariupol to save his family. He reached the city center by roads known only to locals, left his relatives there for a while, and went to look for the people who were evacuating his students from the dormitory. Unable to find them, Bilay left the war-ravaged city for Ukrainian-occupied territory.
Meanwhile, a few hours later, police took Matkovskyi and Boyko in armored cars to the Pryazovsky State Technical University's bomb shelter.
"Rockets and mortar shells were landing about fifty meters from us. They also ruined our building," Matkovskyi recalls.
On March 20, Matkovskyi and Boyko, together with other people from the shelter, decided to leave Mariupol on foot to try to get to Zaporizhzhia – 200 kilometers to the northwest, and the nearest big city in territory controlled by Ukraine.
But they didn't get far. After a few hours of travel, the boys reached Manhush, a village near Mariupol about 20 kilometers west. The Russian military captured the village on Feb. 24, 2022.
They stopped at a local hospital to rest before continuing their journey. It was here that their plan was foiled.
At the hospital, a local doctor learned that the boys were orphans and called in social workers from Russian-occupied Donetsk.
A few hours later, Olena Verbovska, 54, Russian-appointed head of social services in Russian-occupied Donetsk, arrived at the hospital. After the Russian invasion of parts of Donetsk Oblast in 2014, Verbovska had remained working in the occupied city.
That evening, Verbovska took Matkovskyi and Boyko to the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, to Children's Hospital No. 5.
Later, the Kuchugurina sisters ended up in the same hospital.
After the death of their mother, they stayed with a friend of their family until Russian took them to the hospital in Donetsk.
"They brought us there because there was no room in the orphanage. In addition, we had to get treatment – we got ringworm in Mariupol," says Sofia.
The Kyiv Independent has discovered that medical facilities in Donetsk played a significant role in the chain of deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Mariupol children were kept in at least nine hospitals in the Russian-occupied city. Not all of the children needed treatment.
Medical facilities became a staging point before the abducted children were deported to Russia.
Daria Kasyanova, program director of the charity SOS Children's Villages, is one of the few who has been able to return abducted Ukrainian children.
Kasyanova says that when Mariupol children without guardians were discovered by the Russian military, they would be taken to filtration camps, social and psychological rehabilitation centers, and in many cases to hospitals in occupied territory.
Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer at the Regional Center for Human Rights, says this "gave Russia a trump card, that allegedly the children are in a medical institution for medical reasons."
Russian authorities would use children's health as a justification for their action, attempting to frame the abduction as a humane activity.
"In reality, (hospitals were) the points from where the children were distributed further," Rashevska says.
During its investigation, the Kyiv Independent found that legal guardians who tried to take their children from the hospitals in Russian-occupied Donetsk hospitals sometimes encountered resistance from medical workers.
The workers refused to give up the children and denied the legality of guardianship documents issued by Ukraine.
Prosecutor Yanina Tertychna has been investigating the deportation of Ukrainian children since the beginning of the full-scale war. Her team is also investigating how doctors in the occupied territories were involved in the deportation, and what responsibility they might bear for their actions.
"We're investigating all of the individuals involved," says Tertychna. "As guardianship and care authorities in the occupied territories, the doctors and guardians assigned to these children took part in the deportation of Ukrainian children."
Almost immediately after the Kuchugurina sisters and the orphans Matkovskyi and Boyko were forcibly taken to the occupied territories, they managed to connect to the Internet and reached out to their legal guardians in Ukrainian-controlled territories.
"Sofia called me and immediately asked: 'When are you going to pick us up?'" Yermachkova recalls. At that time, Yermachkova had not had any contact with her sisters for weeks.
Bilay recalls getting a heartbreaking call from Matkovskyi: "Ivan burst into tears and began to beg: 'Anton Viktorovych, I'm begging you, take us away from here.' Of course, after those words, I had to do something."
Yermachkova managed to quickly arrange custody of both sisters.
At about the same time, Bilay began his travel to occupied Donetsk. It is impossible to get into the city through Ukrainian-controlled territory as there are no checkpoints on the front line. To get to Donetsk, the guardians had to pass through Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, enter Russia, and then travel on to the city.
However, when Yermachkova was already on her way to Donetsk, she received a message from Sofia. The girl wrote that a family had come to meet her at the hospital and that they planned to take her under their care.
They also wanted to separate her from her younger sister Anastasia.
Yermachkova began contacting Svitlana Maiboroda, 53. She is a former Ukrainian official who switched to working for the Russian occupation authorities after the invasion of parts of Donetsk Oblast in 2014.
She is the head of all social services for families and children in the Russian-occupied part of Donetsk Oblast.
Yermachkova contacted Maiboroda for the first time when she was leaving Ukraine for Donetsk.
At that time, they had agreed that Yermachkova would take the children. With the call from Sofia, Yermachkova learned the agreement was off. She immediately called Maiboroda.
"I said, what are you doing, how can this even be happening?" Yermachkova recalls.
Maiboroda also had other plans for Matkovskyi and Boyko.
Even as the boys' legal guardian, Bilay, was preparing to leave for Donetsk, Maiboroda suggested that the boys be sent to a boarding house in the suburbs of Moscow for a "vacation."
Bilay forbade the boys to agree to this offer. He then received a call from Maiboroda.
"I suggested to her that (if she wants) I can take the boys from this boarding house (in Moscow) and not go to Donetsk. But she said that that was impossible," says Bilay.
Matkovskyi and Boyko were left to wait for their guardian in the hospital, while other abducted children from the same hospital were forced to go to the boarding house in Russia – against their will.
"The children staged a riot and went to the chief doctor. They said they didn't want to go anywhere. But no one listened to them," says Matkovskyi.
The Kyiv Independent called Maiboroda and asked why she organized the deportation of Ukrainian children to the territory of Russia. At first, the official denied involvement, but then she asked for an official information request. She then hung up.
The Kyiv Independent immediately wrote a message to Maiboroda on the Telegram messenger app to remind her once again of the names of the children in question. Maiboroda did not answer and deleted the message from the chat.
The Kyiv Independent is unable to send official information requests to territories under Russian military occupation.
31 abducted kids
In March 2023, the Kyiv Independent received a list of 31 children.
The list was in a document that stated that on May 27, 2022, a group of children was to be taken from the Donetsk Children's Social Center to the Polyany boarding house in Moscow – a branch of the Children's Medical Center of the Administration of President Vladimir Putin's Affairs.
It was the same institution where Maiboroda had wanted to send Matkovskyi and Boyko.
The person responsible for sending the children to Moscow was Kyrylo Potylitsyn, 29, who is the temporary acting head of the Donetsk Children's Social Center.
Potilitsyn, like Verbovska, the official who took Matkovskyi and Boyko to the Donetsk hospital, is Maiboroda's subordinate.
The group of 31 children became known to the public after Maria Lvova-Belova, the representative of the Russian president for children's rights, visited them at the Moscow boarding house.
She then illegally adopted a boy from this group – Pylyp Holovnya, a 17-year-old boy who lived in Mariupol with his guardians before the start of the full-scale war.
Lvova-Belova is a Russian official close to President Putin. She was appointed Commissioner for Children's Rights a few months before the outbreak of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine.
Russian media reported that Lvova-Belova came to the occupied territories in person after the start of the full-scale invasion to take Ukrainian children to Russia.
After that, on May 30, 2022, Putin signed a decree stating that orphans from occupied territories can obtain Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure.
Pylyp Holovnya was one of the first to publicly receive a Russian passport.
The Kyiv Independent has identified 20 children from the list. Some of them lived in Mariupol before the full-scale invasion. According to law enforcement, 13 were orphans, or their birth parents had been deprived of guardianship rights.
The Kyiv Independent also discovered that at least 14 children from the list, after their so-called "recovery" in the boarding house, were taken into the care of Russian families.
Some Russian-linked families have already illegally adopted several children deported from Ukraine.
A former employee of the Russian police, Liliana Romanova, a resident of the city of Podolsk, Moscow region, according to Russian media has adopted a boy from Donetsk Oblast – Oleksandr, as well as a boy from Kherson Oblast – Viacheslav.
The family of Denis and Yekaterina Tripolets, from the Russian village of Malinki in Moscow Oblast, first took in three Ukrainian children – two sisters and a brother, then another of their younger sisters. Later, at the request of the Tripolets family, Maria Lviv-Belova brought the children's youngest brother from Donetsk Oblast to Russia.
The Shirokov family from the city of Yegoryevsk, Moscow Oblast, took under their guardianship two children from the list of 31.
Almost immediately after, the family took them on vacation to Abkhazia – a part of Georgia under Russian military occupation since 2008.
Matkovskyi and Boyko helped identify the children from the group.
The boys confirmed that nine of the children from the photos had been with them in Donetsk Children's Hospital No. 5 in March 2022. Matkovskyi still keeps in touch with some of them.
Two 17-year-old children, a boy, and a girl, immediately after their deportation sent Matkovskyi a photo of their documents and asked him to help them return from Russia to Ukraine.
The boy managed to escape from Russia after a few months. The girl is still there with her brother. She recently posted on social media that she "might spend her whole life in Russia," asking people to leave her alone.
Mykola Kuleba, the head of the Save Ukraine charitable foundation, whose volunteers have been returning children from Russian deportation since late 2022, says abducted Ukrainian children aren't free to express their own wishes.
"There are children there who want to return, but (the Russians) change their cards and phones, and children are afraid to get in contact because this is Russia, where there is total control," says Kuleba.
"They know that they could get punished."
Currently, Save Ukraine has returned more than a hundred abducted Ukrainian children from Russia – more than a quarter of the 383 abducted children rescued by Ukraine as of July 14.
From the list of 31 children, Ukraine has managed to return four. They were from Mariupol and surrounding areas and had parents and relatives there.
Prosecutor Tertychna says that after questioning the returned children, her team learned that their Russian foster families were feeding them with Russian propaganda and would tell them that Ukraine had already been destroyed.
Some of the children are known to have tried to escape Russia, but failed.
One boy from the list, Bohdan Yermokhin from Mariupol, made it as far as the Belarusian border before being detained and returned to the foster family of Iryna Rudnytska, a former volunteer of the Chechen war and a resident of Ruza, Moscow Oblast.
Witnesses to war crimes
Ukrainian authorities believe that since the beginning of the full-scale war, spearheaded by Lvova-Belova and Putin, Russia has deported more than 19,000 Ukrainian children, lawyer Rashevska thinks the actual number of abductees may be up to 100,000.
Russia does not transfer lists of the names of abducted children to Ukraine. There is also no single return mechanism for them. And for volunteers, it's getting more and more difficult to return abducted children from Russia.
"Interrogations of Ukrainian guardians in Russia can last for days, not hours," says Kuleba. "The position of the Russians today is to oppose any possible return of the abducted children. They understand that every returned child is a witness to a war crime."
Anastasia and Sofia Kuchugurina, Ivan Matkovskyi, and Maksym Boyko are among the few children abducted by the Russians who have been returned to their legal guardians.
Bilay and Yermachkova reached Russian-occupied Donetsk in June 2022, took the children, and returned to Ukrainian-controlled territory with them.
Ukraine is also working to return the remaining children from the list of 31 sent to the Moscow boarding house.
"There simply cannot be an option that children deported from Ukraine remain in Russia forever," says Rashevska. "International humanitarian law has no such provision that would allow the occupying state to take children away and keep them permanently."
The Kyiv Independent has managed to establish the exact address of the residence and complete information about one Russian family where an abducted Ukrainian child is currently staying.
This child has relatives in Ukraine who want to bring her home.