A Long Way Home: Ukraine’s Child Deportees


By Olga Golovina

Ksenia, a family doctor from Vovchansk in the Chuhuyiv district of Kharkiv region, vividly remembers how her household was woken by the sound of explosions at 5.30am on February 24, 2022.

“We went outside and saw that something was flying and exploding in the sky above us,” she said. “My husband and I took the two-year-old Veronika and 15-year-old Valery to my parents. They live in a village outside Vovchansk — 30 kilometers from the border.” 

But with the border with Russia only ten kilometres away, Vovchansk was occupied on the very first day of the full-scale war.

Ksenia’s husband immediately went to Kharkiv to enlist, and continues to serve in an assault brigade, despite having been wounded twice. 

Ksenia stayed in Vovchansk, assuming that Ukraine would quickly retake the town. 

“We still did not have an understanding of what occupation is,” she continued. “We thought that it would end quickly.” 

In the summer of 2022, the Russians offered mothers the chance to send small children to sanatoriums in the Russian town of Gelendzhik, with separate camps arranged for teenagers.

Ksenia thought that this would be a good opportunity for Valery to have some respite from the conflict, so in August she sent her son to the camp. 

Then, on September 10, Ukrainian forces retook control of the Kharkiv region.

“It happened instantly,” Ksenia recalled. “No one expected such a rapid de-occupation. We were happy. But my son stayed in Gelendzhik.” 

Russia is thus far believed to have thus far deported 19,546 Ukrainian children, a process that began in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It is impossible to establish the exact number due to active hostilities and the ongoing occupation of parts of the country, but there are moves ahead to seek justice for what is potentially a war crime.

On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on suspicion of war crimes in connection with the deportation of Ukrainian children. On April 27, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution recognising the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia as genocide.

European politicians have also called for the creation of a new international mechanism for the return of children illegally deported by Russia, involving neutral countries.

Some of the children have been brought home, including from Kharkiv. 

Oleksandr Filchakov, head of the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office, told IWPR that 561 children had been taken from the region to Russia during the occupation. Of these, 37 who were taken to the Medvezhonok camp near Gelendzhik in August 2022 were returned in October last year. Valery was amongst them.

Ksenia joined a group of parents supported by the ministry of reintegration to return their children home. After travel documents were arranged, a group of 28 women left Kharkiv for Kyiv in October 2022, before travelling onwards by train to Przemyśl in Poland, near the Ukrainian border. From there, they hired minibuses to take them to Belarus. 

Ksenia said that her son was reluctant to talk much about the time he spent in the camp.  But Valery, 17 this year, is now studying in a medical college in Kharkiv and volunteers in a hospital. 


Work is ongoing to ensure that those responsible for deportations are brought to justice. 

The prosecutor general’s office has launched a number of investigations and aims to include alleged perpetrators on sanctions lists. Prosecutors are also cooperating with the ICC in investigating the illegal removal of children.     

“Primary investigative actions are taking place with the applicants,” said Yuliya Usenko, head of the department for the protection of children’s interests in the of the prosecutor general’s office. “And then we combine these proceedings, because this is a very large-scale war crime under Art. 438 of the Civil Code. Next, we build a clear and unified pyramid of responsibility so that all those involved in the planning, organisation and direct execution of the crime are punished.”

This mapping of responsibility was key, she continued. “There is a group of military personnel who are directly involved in the implementation of these plans, and there is the military and political leadership of the Russian Federation that actually planned it, there are direct executors.”

Usenko stressed that lower-level officials were also implicated, alongside the senior Russian military and political leadership.

“A clear list of those involved can be established only when we can collect the maximum amount of evidence regarding the forced transfer and deportation of children – this is a very large-scale criminal proceeding,” she continued. “And, I repeat, we do not have access to the majority of children who were forcibly displaced and deported, so our task now is to document all cases, ways and methods of deportation.”

Alongside these efforts, dedicated schemes are ongoing to work with those affected. On June 1, 2023, the Kyiv-based Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights began work, serving as a hub to support relatives and children who have been returned. It provides medical, psychological and legal aid, as well as providing temporary housing.

They work using child-centred methods to ensure that representatives of law enforcement agencies do not have to repeatedly interrogate and expose the young people to additional trauma. 

“Before the interview, the child undergoes a medical examination, a psychologist preliminarily assesses his condition, and the basic needs of the child are also ascertained,” a spokesperson for the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights explained. The psychologist then interviews the child, using a list of questions prepared by the investigator. 

“Video and audio recording is conducted at all stages,” the spokesperson continued. “The child will be interviewed only once together with the Security Service of Ukraine and the Prosecutor General’s Office. This approach makes it possible to traumatise the child’s psyche less during procedural actions. All this is for the sake of children being able to trust adults and allow us to help them.”

Olga Golovina is Editorial Coordinator for IWPR, where this article was first published


The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is headquartered in London with coordinating offices in Washington, DC and The Hague, IWPR works in over 30 countries worldwide. It is registered as a charity in the UK, as an organisation with tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) in the United States, and as a charitable foundation in The Netherlands. The articles are originally produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *