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Arte documentary: Ukraine is looking for its stolen children

Arte documentary: Ukraine is looking for its stolen children
ARTE: “The Abducted Children of Ukraine” – directed by Robin Barnwell, 2024

What nightmare are parents living through? How do you look for children whose traces are lost behind fronts and borders? This is impressively told in the BBC documentary “The Abducted Children of Ukraine” by the British filmmaker Robin Barnwell. Arte will show it on Tuesday (February 6th) at 9:45 p.m.

  • About the trailer: “The Abducted Children of Ukraine”

The station focuses on the approaching second anniversary of the Russian war of aggression. The documentaries “Ukraine: Hunting War Criminals” (8:15 p.m.) and “War and Justice” (11:10 p.m.) can also be seen that evening.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin last year. Not because of the war of aggression against Ukraine, not because of the bombing of the neighboring country, but because of the abduction of Ukrainian children. Deportation or expulsion of the population from a conquered territory is punishable as a war crime.

20,000 children abducted

The Ukrainian government has information about around 20,000 children and young people who are said to have been taken to Russia and other Russian-controlled areas. The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher. Russia rejects the abduction of the children, saying it is about evacuation from dangerous war zones or for recreational stays.

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Documentary filmmaker Barnwell (“The Survivors of Mariupol”) focuses on a case for which there is evidence on both sides of the front – the removal of 48 children from a children’s home in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson in October 2022. Kherson was killed a few days after the start of the war occupied by Russian troops in March 2022. The children found shelter from the bombs in the basement of a church. Moscow Vice President of Parliament Anna Kuznetsova visited the home. The removal came just as the Russian troops were already about to withdraw from the city. There is video footage of it, a member of parliament was in charge.

One of the missing children was Viktor, then two years old. His parents live in the region. He was in the home preparing for surgery on his cleft palate. The film shows how mother Olha recognizes her son on the video of the transport. The parents hide their overwhelming grief from their little daughter: the father goes into the garden to cry, the mother hides, as she says. A particularly spooky case is the disappearance of the toddlers Marharita and Ilya from the home in Kherson before the others were taken away. The film gives many indications that a high-ranking Russian politician and his wife may have adopted her.

“Illegal deportations”

“These are illegal deportations and forced relocations, absolutely brazen kidnappings,” says Viktorija Nowykova in front of the camera. The human rights activist and her colleagues are the good angels of the film. They help the parents, using criminal intelligence to comb through photos, videos, social networks, passenger lists and other sources for traces of the missing people. It’s like in many places in the attacked Ukraine: volunteers do the preparatory work so that the overburdened state can fulfill its tasks.

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Kiev lawyer Kateryna Bobrowska keeps in touch with 17-year-old Bohdan Jermochyn in chats – another case that has made waves publicly. Bohdan was brought from Mariupol to a foster family near Moscow. On his 18th birthday he was threatened with being drafted into the Russian army to fight against his homeland.

It’s part of a good film that there is a happy ending for some of the main characters: some children return home. According to official information from Kiev, around 400 minors have been brought back to Ukraine so far. But most Ukrainian children remain under Russian rule and are often expected to grow up with new names and identities.

Alleged war crime

The International Criminal Court sees Putin and the Russian children’s rights commissioner Maria Lwowa-Belowa as the ultimate responsibility for this alleged war crime – an arrest warrant has also been issued against them. In February 2023 it became known that Lwowa-Belowa herself had adopted a 15-year-old boy from Mariupol.

Ukraine sees the repatriation of the children as a main task and is also mobilizing international support for this. President’s wife Olena Selenska recently attended a conference in Riga about the problem of abducted children. “Thousands of children are still in captivity,” she said. “We call on the world to act immediately.”

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