War crimes come in many guises – from the shocking acts of violence in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine in the early weeks of the war to the missile attacks on hospitals and schools, to last month’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam that led to flooding and environmental damage on a colossal scale. But the only war crime that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has so far charged Russian president Vladimir Putin with is the forced abduction of Ukrainian children to Russia.
The Financial Times has reported that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are attempting to broker a deal to return thousands of Ukrainian children currently being held in children’s homes in Russia or adopted by Russian families. Nearly 20,000 children have been abducted to Russia, according to Ukrainian sources, although Russia claims the number is far lower.
So far about 370 of these children have managed to return to Ukraine, but the process is made painfully difficult. Although Moscow says it will allow children to leave if a legal guardian can collect them, a child’s parent or relative must reclaim them in person and appeal to the local social services for their release. This entails a long and convoluted journey to Russia via Poland and Belarus or the Baltic states, because direct border crossings no longer operate. From Russia, some must continue to Crimea to find their children. But many families whose children have been abducted still live in dangerous regions of Ukraine precisely because they lack the money and passports to enable them to leave, making it harder still for them to make the journey to Russia.
In spite of the ICC arrest warrant issued in March against Putin and his children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, the abductions have continued.
Some children are taken by pro-Russian relatives or friends, sometimes for financial reasons. Cases have been documented in which foster parents have quickly become abusive once a child is in Russia and used the money they receive for fostering to buy alcohol. Others are kidnapped when their orphanage or boarding school is relocated to Russia from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Many children have been separated from their parents when front lines have shifted while they are away at summer camp, leaving them under Russian occupation, and at risk of relocation to Russia, while their parents remain in Ukrainian-held territory. Earlier in the war, several children whose parents were killed during the siege of Mariupol were forcibly taken to Russia.
In addition to the thousands of children abducted to Russia, The Telegraph reported this week that more than 2,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Belarus since last September on the orders of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. These children are mostly from Russian-occupied areas of Eastern Ukraine. They are taken to Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city some two hours from the border, before being transferred by train to the Belarusian capital Minsk, then bussed to at least four different children’s camps.
These camps follow the same pattern as those in Russia. Ukrainian children are subjected to a process of brainwashing to Russify them and eliminate their sense of Ukrainian identity. They sing the Russian national anthem, chant “Down with Ukraine!”, and study lessons according to a Russian curriculum. They learn how Russia is a great country; that the Russian motherland will protect them; that Ukraine has never been a nation and Kyiv will be obliterated. Teenagers are sometimes taken to shooting ranges and taught how to fire machine guns – weapons that they may later use against their fellow Ukrainians.
Russia’s brainwashing of Ukrainian children is nothing new. The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina wrote in her essay Expanding the Boundaries of Home: a Story for us All, published by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in April, about her upbringing as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian in Lviv.
“I was born in western Ukraine in 1986, the year the Chornobyl nuclear reactor exploded and the Soviet Union began to crumble. Despite my birthplace and the timing of my birth, I was educated to be Russian. There was an entire system in place that aimed to make me believe that Moscow, not Kyiv, was the center of my universe. I attended a Russian school, performed in a school theater named after the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and prayed in the Russian Orthodox church. I even enjoyed a summer camp for teenagers in Russia and attended youth gatherings at the Russian cultural center in Lviv, where we sang so-called Russian rock music.”
Victoria grew up reading the Russian classics, watching Russian TV, and was chosen to represent Lviv at an international Russian language competition in Moscow at the age of 15.
“The Russian Federation invested a lot of money in raising children like us from the "former Soviet republics" as Russians. They probably invested more in us than they did in the education of children in rural Russia: those who were already conquered didn't need to be tempted with summer camps and excursions to the Red Square.”
She recounted how a famous Russian journalist interviewed her 15-year-old self for the evening news during her trip to Moscow. After a polite question about her initial impressions, the journalist swiftly switched to grilling her on the oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine. In a split second, she realised that the entire purpose of the interview was to reinforce a false Russian narrative.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Victoria recalled the story of her trip to Moscow, and her conversation with the Russian journalist, when she watched a TV interview with an older man from Mariupol:
“He was desperate, disoriented, and remarkably sincere. "But I believed in this Russian world, can you imagine? All my life I believed we were brothers!" the poor man exclaimed, surrounded by the ruins of his beloved city. It must be way more painful to realize where your true home is in such a cruel way, and so late in life. The man's apartment building was in ruins, and the illusion of home, the space he perceived as his motherland, the former Soviet Union where he was born and lived his best years, had been crushed even more brutally. The propaganda stopped working on him only when the Russian bombs fell.”
Victoria Amelina put aside her fiction writing following the Russian invasion and became a war crimes investigator. She travelled to areas of Ukraine that had been liberated from Russian occupation and interviewed witnesses and survivors of Russian atrocities. On her final trip to Eastern Ukraine, Victoria was killed after a missile strike on the pizza restaurant in Krematorsk where she and the group of foreign writers she was accompanying were having dinner. She died on 1 July 2023, aged 37.
Click here to read Victoria Amelina’s essay in full.
A month has passed since the collapse of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine caused one of the world’s most devastating environmental catastrophes of recent years. The images will live long in the memory – floodwater lapping at the rooftops of Kherson, while civilians attempting to flee their homes in rubber dinghies are targeted by Russian shelling. A video of Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman, diving for cover as he comes under fire from Russian snipers has been viewed more than a million times. Ukrainian officials say over 100 people died following the dam’s collapse on 6 June as the water hurtled downstream.
Today the floodwaters have receded from Kherson and water levels are almost back to normal, but what remains is a sea of mud. Residents have returned and are busy clearing the streets and attempting to renovate their homes, which emit odours of damp and mould. People say they are grateful the disaster happened at the beginning of summer, so that their homes have time to dry out before the winter. The city centre still comes under daily shelling from across the river.
The floods are yet another tragedy that the residents of Kherson have had to bear. The city has suffered more than almost anywhere else in the course of 16 months of war – occupied in the early days, the people terrorised and unable to escape, then incessantly bombarded with artillery and rocket fire from across the River Dnieper since the Russian withdrawal last November, deprived of drinking water and electricity.
Outside the city, in lower-lying areas below the dam, huge lakes remain in places where there was no water before. The floods destroyed villages, farmland and nature reserves. Crops were lost across vast swathes of farmland as the floodwater raced through, taking with it pollutants including oil and agricultural chemicals, which all gushed into the Black Sea. Further west, residents of Mykolaiv have been warned not to drink tap water, go swimming or catch fish after Cholera-like bacteria were detected in the water. Odesa’s once beautiful coastline has transformed into “a garbage dump and animal cemetery,” according to Ukrainian officials.
Of even greater concern are the regions upstream of the dam, where the vast reservoir lies almost empty, changing the entire ecosystem. Half a million people have had their drinking water supply cut off and businesses, agriculture and wildlife have all suffered a massive impact. Covering more than 2,000 square kilometres, the reservoir spanned the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipropetrovsk districts, and was known by locals as the Kakhovka Sea because it was so big that they could not see the opposite side.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky described the dam’s collapse as “an environmental bomb of mass destruction”. Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the dam’s destruction. Ukraine is investigating the event as a war crime and possible ecocide, and estimates the cost of remedying the destruction at 1.2 billion euros.
Preliminary findings from a team of international legal experts working with the Ukrainian prosecutors indicate that it was “highly likely” that the dam’s collapse was triggered by explosives planted by the Russians. Evidence documented by the New York Times also suggests that an explosion in the dam’s concrete base detonated by Russia is the likely cause. The Soviet-era dam has been under Russian control since the early stages of the war last year.
Russia’s motivations for such an attack are manifold. Not only would it disrupt and potentially stall Ukraine’s advances and undermine the narrative of its counter-offensive, but also cut hydroelectric power and water supplies, divert resources and potentially help erode the will of the Ukrainian people to resist. But Russia accuses Kyiv of sabotaging the hydroelectric dam to cut off a key water source for Crimea and detract attention from the slow progress of the counter-offensive.
Last week, Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg was in Ukraine to meet Zelensky and other members of a new environmental group tasked with assessing the environmental damage resulting from the war. She reiterated Ukraine’s use of the word ‘ecocide’ to describe the ecological disaster brought about by the collapse of the dam. But the flooding is not the only environmental impact of the war. About 30 percent of Ukraine’s territory is contaminated with landmines and explosives, and more than 2.4 million hectares of forests have been damaged, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Andriy Kostin says.
There has been a long-running battle to get large-scale environmental destruction recognised as an international crime that can be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the unfolding ecological disaster in Ukraine may bring that a step closer. In 2021 a panel of experts that included the lawyer and author Philippe Sands drafted legislation – yet to be adopted – to enable the ICC to prosecute ecocide, in addition to its existing remit of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. A team from the ICC has visited the area affected by the flooding to investigate.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.