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The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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May 21, 2024

“Russia not only destroys our houses, but also our families”: A Q&A with Ukraine’s abducted children

The Save Ukraine team and the five teenagers they rescued from Russia speak at the National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance in Washington, D.C..

During the 21st century, geopolitical conflicts between Russia and Ukraine have dominated the international stage, rising sharply in 2014 following land disputes over the territory of Crimea. In February 2022, the conflict escalated when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to seize land Russia argued was its own.

Russian forces have committed mass abductions of Ukrainian children as part of their invasion in an attempt to assimilate them into the Russian population and decrease Ukrainian morale. To achieve this goal, they assigned Ukrainian children Russian citizenship, had Russian families adopt them and restricted communication with their Ukrainian families. 

The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for those involved in the abductions, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belovain, and the United Nations denounced Russia’s actions as war crimes. However, Russian forces continue to uproot the lives of Ukrainian children.

As of Jan. 4, 2024, Russian authorities have kidnapped over 19,500 Ukrainian children, and 514 children have died as a result of these abductions.

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Save Ukraine — a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding families and children of the war works to bring these abducted children back home. Since 2014, the organization has evacuated over 108,800 Ukrainians from combat zones and saved 239 kidnapped children through their network of legal entities, civic activists and volunteers.

In 2024, five of these teenagers came to the U.S. with Save Ukraine to petition Congress to materialize support for Ukraine and share their stories on a greater platform.

In Oct. 2022, 15-year-old Daiana and her classmates were given paperwork that informed them of their forced relocation to a Russian-occupied camp in Crimea. While the stated purpose of her relocation was to continue her education, in reality, it was part of the larger Russian plan to indoctrinate Ukrainian children. Throughout her time in custody, Daiana resisted Russian-centric lectures and influences and befriended other Ukrainian children in the camp. With the help of Save Ukraine, Daiana’s mother rescued her from the camp and took her home.

When Russian soldiers invaded Kherson, they removed 18-year-old Denys from his home and brought him to the Druzhba Sanatorium in Yevpatoria. The site’s medical center workers were reluctant to provide Denys with his medication, only giving him insulin for his diabetes when he had run out. In Dec. 2022, Russian forces relocated Denys to Luchystiy, a Russian-occupied camp, where he entered the local maritime technology school. While at the college, a friend texted Denys about the opportunity to return home through Save Ukraine. After Denys got in touch with the organization’s lawyers, his friend’s mother retrieved Denys from the college. At the Russian border, Federal Security Service officers interrogated Denys extensively before finally letting him pass into Ukraine.

When the invasion began, 18-year-old Rostislav was living alone in his village in Ukraine. His grandmother had died, and Russian soldiers had taken his mother to an undisclosed medical facility. A few months later, the soldiers returned to his house for him and forcibly relocated him to a camp in Crimea. After a year in the camp, Rostislav escaped from his dormitory, fleeing by car, train and foot, until he finally made it home to Ukraine.

Under the false impression she was going on vacation in Crimea, 16-year-old Elizaveta went to the Druzhba Sanatorium in Sept. 2022 with her classmates. She spent two months at Druzhba until Russian forces transferred her to the Luchystiy camp in the same region and finally to a Russian-occupied college in Henichesk. The Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner offered Elizaveta and other college kids 100,000 rubles — approximately 1,000 US dollars — and an apartment under the condition that they remained in Russia; Elizaveta refused the offer. Elizaveta’s mother worked with Save Ukraine to secure her daughter a passport, and in May 2023, her mother made it to Henichesk and rescued her.

Six months before the invasion, Ukrainian Child Protection Services placed 19-year-old Ksenia and her younger brother in Vovchans’k, a city bordering Russia, with a foster family. Ksenia attended hairdressing school in Russia because, as a legal adult, she could no longer live with the foster family and her brother. The foster parents permitted her brother to attend one of the camps in Russia. Ksenia wanted to return to Ukraine but had to get her brother from the camp first. Save Ukraine aided her efforts, and both the siblings safely returned to Ukraine.

The B&W sat down with Denys, Elizaveta, Rostislav, Ksenia and Daiana to discuss their experiences living in a war-torn country and Russian custody.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity


Q: How did you feel when the conflict initially broke out?

Elizaveta: I was in shock, because before I’d heard some stories about the war from my grandpa. I saw some movies about the war, but of course, I had never thought that it could be our reality; then I saw the dust and smoke through the window, and the next day there were several loud explosions.

Denys: I was in shock also, but I kept myself calm because my parents and my brother were already in shock, so somebody had not to lose their mind. During the first days of the war, I stayed at home and didn’t want to go out because of the missiles.

Ksenia: I’m from a small town in the Kharkiv region, very close to the Russian border, and our town was invaded first in this region. I was in shock for several weeks, and I couldn’t believe it was happening. I couldn’t sleep at all for several weeks.

Daiana: I was calm. I was going to school like, “War, what? I’m going to school.” But then, with my mother, we went to the shop, and I saw crowds of people who were grabbing all the food they could see and charging their power banks to have charge just in case.


Q: How did the conflict affect your relationships with loved ones?

Elizaveta: I didn’t have a very good relationship with my mother before the war, but now I’ve started to value her more. I made time to see her, have tea and talk with her, so we became closer, but I lost many friends because of the war. Everyone went somewhere and we stopped communicating.

Ksenia: I lost connection with my best friend. She escaped twice, and I don’t know where she is now.

Daiana: It’s complicated because when I was taken to Crimea, my family and I lived under occupation, under Russian authority, and we were forced to go to Crimea, but many of my friends on the outside didn’t understand. They thought that my family stood on Russia’s side. It’s complicated for our people. Who are you for? Why did you go there?


Q: What was your daily life like during the beginning days of the conflict?

Elizaveta: I was staying at home and studying at home for those first days. 

Denys: It was all about survival and finding the food, in those first days and first weeks.

Ksenia: I was monitoring channels, like the news, all the time to track what was going on and if there were missiles or tanks. Now when I hear helicopters, I start to remember the first days of the war.


Q: What were conditions in Crimea like?

Ksenia: There were lessons called “conversation about important things” — that was the title. They were Russian lessons, political lessons, where they brainwashed Ukrainian children and their children. There were these lessons, but I didn’t care about them. I didn’t listen to their propaganda.

Elizaveta: It was so cold in the room, and there weren’t enough sheets or blankets, and we weren’t allowed to close the door to the room. Every night, the Russian military could come into your room during check-in and put flashlights in your face. There was only one shower for the boys and the girls in the dormitory. There was a boiler to heat the water, so whoever was the first was lucky; the others had to take cold showers.


Q: How did you resist Russian influence and keep up morale? 

Elizaveta: I was just hoping my mom would come back for me. I was waiting for my mom, and I kept this inside of me.

Daiana: Friends. I made a lot of friends in the camp, from different regions of Ukraine, and I communicate with them now over the phone.

Denys: I just kept telling myself to be positive and calm.


Q: What was your daily life like in Crimea?

Daiana: The days in the camp were very similar; day by day was the same and I was bored to death. Sometimes, it was the most horrible time if you were at one of the camps.

Elizaveta: Usually in college, you get up at seven, you go to breakfast and then you have classes and lessons, but only ones that align with the Russian program. Then we have dinner, and at 4 p.m. you must be at the dormitory. We have free time, and at 8 p.m. you must be strictly in the dormitory, and if you aren’t you would be punished, like by washing all the floors. You could have been forced to wash five floors. Also, in the morning, you always must sing the Russian anthem.


Q: How did you get in contact with outside help?

Daiana: Every evening there was this gathering; some children gathered together at the gate to the camp, and I saw the crowd of kids with suitcases. I saw a girl I knew in the crowd and she gave me the number of Save Ukraine. I’m very practical, and when I found out that this girl had returned home safely, I passed this number to my mom, and my mom, in one of their groups, came to Crimea to get me back.

Ksenia: I knew that if I wanted help, I had to apply to social services. So while I was staying in Russia, I contacted social services and they helped me. They told me about Save Ukraine.


Q: What was it like on the day you escaped?

Elizaveta: I was crying for joy.

Denys: Happiness. I was happy.

Rostislav: I was afraid at first, but then I was happy. I felt fear, fear of being caught. And if I had been caught, I was thinking about the punishment.


Q: What motivated you to speak out about your experience?

Ksenia: I want to spread the word about what is happening in Ukraine with families with kids, so people know that Russia not only destroys our houses but also our families, which is more important. And that Russia is taking our kids from occupied territories.


Q: Is there anything you’d like the media to put more emphasis on when covering the war? 

Elizaveta: Children could be put, without permission, into other families. I have a mother, but they wanted to put me in a foster family in Russia. You have no choice. You have no freedom. I know the scale of this problem best because they were going to make me an orphan even though I have a mother. They manipulate that the Russians have kids by themselves, and they express that they’re loving and caring, but that’s not true. 

Denys: The Russians show on TV how they care for the children, and how they create great conditions for children. But that’s completely untrue.


Q: What would you tell other teenagers?

Daiana: Appreciate what you have. Kids like us understand, we had it and then we lost it. 

Elizaveta: Appreciate your parents, because there could come a day that you lose them.

Denys: Listen and value those people near you or close to you.


Q: What plans do you have for the future?

Elizaveta: Definitely to go to graduate school and have some profession. Just this morning I figured out that I could be a hairdresser or stylist.

Denys: I want to get married and create a family. I also want to have my own business repairing cars.

Rostislav: I will be attending photography courses when we end our trip, so I will probably try to be a photographer.

Ksenia: I want to be educated and make a media career.

Daiana: I want to go to graduate school and enter university.

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Rebecca Waldman
Rebecca Waldman, Opinion Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I wanted to report on the issues that impact our community and write stories that make a difference. What is your favorite board game? Clue
Charlie Martin
Charlie Martin, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? To explore my passions and have class with friends. What is your favorite song? Living Legend by Lana Del Rey
Colette Yehl
Colette Yehl, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I joined because I enjoy supplying my community with valuable and interesting information through my writing and learning more through my research. What is your favorite song? Heroes by David Bowie
Dresden Benke
Dresden Benke, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I wrote fake publications in elementary school, aptly titled The Dresden Press and The Dresden Times, and I figured I should make my journalism career official. What is your favorite song? Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

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