Ukrainian children abducted by Russia appeal for Canadian MPs to help

OTTAWA — Tetiana Bodak's mind flooded with questions one year ago when she picked up the phone and learned her son had been kidnapped from their home in the Kherson region of Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine had already been raging for months when 16-year-old Vladyslav Rudenko called his mother to tell her he had been taken to a nearby Russian-occupied territory, and was waiting on a bus that would take him to Crimea.

"How could they do it without even my knowledge?" Bodak said in Ukrainian through an interpreter. "Who took you from the house?"

She could still communicate with him while the bus carried him toward Crimea, a Russian-occupied peninsula south of Ukraine. But once he arrived, she didn't hear from her son for two months.

The mother and son shared the story of his captivity and desperate bid to escape with a House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights on Tuesday, in hopes Canadian parliamentarians will help rescue others.

Rudenko and three other teenagers matter-of-factly described being separated from their families and forcibly taken from Ukraine to camps in Russia or Russian-occupied territories. They appeared over video conference from Ukraine, and communicated through interpreters.

They told MPs they weren't allowed to speak Ukrainian at the camps. Instead, they were pressured to accept Russian passports.

"We were forced to learn and sing the Russian national anthem each week at a certain time and if we refused, we were admonished for it," 16-year-old Anastasiia Motychak told the subcommittee through an interpreter.

Several of them described attempts by Russian authorities to place them and their peers in Russian foster care.

That's what happened to Kseniia Koldin's 12-year-old brother. The two were already orphans when they were taken to Russia. Koldin, 18, discovered a way to get back to Ukraine but had to plead with her brother to leave his new foster family in Russia.

"I was trying to explain to him that if he does not go now, then we will not see each other, and we will not be able to be together as a family," Koldin said through an interpreter.

The brother and sister have since returned to Ukraine, where he lives with a Ukrainian foster family.

Several of the teens described experiencing or witnessing abuse at the hands of the Russians who abducted them, including Denys Berezhnyi, 18, who said he was denied access to the insulin he needed to manage his diabetes.

"After a month, I was really feeling bad because I had no more insulin and an ambulance took me to an ICU unit," he said through an interpreter.

Children at the camps were as young as six years old, they said.

Rudenko said he stole the Russian flag from the flagpole at the camp, and was put into a "punishment cell" for a week.

"I spent a week with no communication, with no phone, nobody was allowed to go in and speak with me," he said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.

"I had suicidal thoughts in there."

It wasn't until his mother described her harrowing journey to rescue her son that Rudenko broke down before the committee, taking off his headset and putting his head in his hands to hide his tears.

She said she travelled to the Belarus border, through Russia to Crimea and into the occupied town of Lazurne, enduring several hours-long interrogations along the way.

"They placed a hood on my head so that I wouldn't be able to see where they're taking me," Bodak said.

"They were all carrying weapons, and I knew that they could do anything they wanted, but thank God, they took me to my son."

The two weren't allowed to leave Russia for five days, she said. Eventually they were released, but only after they agreed to record a video disavowing the organization that helped her reunite with her son.

The children who testified Tuesday were all rescued with the help of Save Ukraine, an organization dedicated to repatriating and rehabilitating abducted Ukrainian children.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis's office worked with Save Ukraine to identify the children who who appeared as witnesses, and the committee agreed to hear their testimony.

Save Ukraine CEO Mykola Kuleba wouldn't share with the committee how his organization rescues the children because of the great personal risk taken by volunteers. He said it's much more difficult to rescue younger children, who can't track down their own families through social media.

Those who remain in Russia are stripped of their Ukrainian identities, he testified.

"I appeal to you today to use your voices to condemn Russian forcible transfer of Ukrainian children as genocide, and to pursue accountability for perpetrators of this devastating crime," he told MPs over video conference from Ukraine.

It is unclear how many children have been taken to Russia or territories it controls in Ukraine, but Save the Children, another group that testified at the committee, says Ukrainian and Russian estimates of that number range from 2,000 to 20,000.

"Although we cannot say for certain the scale of the issue and how many children have been affected, we do know that the situation becomes increasingly complex as time passes for every single child," said Kateryna Lytvynenko, the humanitarian policy and advocacy manager for Save the Children.

"Canada can play a big role in finding a solution."

In particular, Canada can help reunite abducted children with their families by encouraging other countries to broker communications between Ukrainian and Russian officials, she said.

The subcommittee will likely release a statement with specific recommendations about how Canada can support efforts to recover children and prosecute those responsible for taking them, Genuis said.

"More broadly, I hope that this renews our commitment to preventing the Putin regime from stealing people anymore."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press