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The documentary, authored by journalist Olesia Bida and directed by Vitalii Havura, uncovers the inner workings of the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the occupied territories of Ukraine.
The film tells the story of a group of children known as “Group 31” who were taken to Russia from now-occupied Mariupol in May of last year and have not yet been able to return. Among them is Pylyp Holovnya, who was taken into the family of Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights in Russia.
Families have been risking their lives to bring their children back. Some of the children want to return to Ukraine but are unable to do so.
"Ivan simply burst into tears over the phone and begged, 'Anton Viktorovich, I am begging you, take us from here.' Of course, after hearing those words, I had to go. I understood the risk," said Anton Bilay, the guardian of two boys from Mariupol, who risked traveling deep into occupied territories to recover his wards after they had been taken by Russians.
According to official data, since Feb. 24, 2022, around 20,000 children have been kidnapped by Russia. Human rights activists believe the actual number could be much higher.
"At the time of the full-scale invasion, there were almost 60,000 children in Mariupol. Some parents managed to take their children to a safe place, some remained living under occupation, and some of these children were deported to Russia. Unfortunately, we cannot determine the exact number. When we began working on this investigation, I couldn't even imagine the scale of this crime," said Yevheniia Motorevska, head of the Kyiv Independent’s War Crimes Unit.
As of July 10, 2023, according to Ukrainian authorities, only 383 children have been brought back.
"The Russians like to claim that they are actually saving Ukrainian children rather than deporting them. This is not true. They have established and finely tuned the system of deporting children to Russia. Maria Lvova-Belova is not the only one behind this; doctors, social service workers, and even 'ordinary Russians' who take Ukrainian children into their families are participating in this war crime," said the film's author, journalist Olesia Bida.
The film was created with the financial support of the Microsoft Democracy Forward Program.
Information partners of the project include NGO "SOS Children's Villages," NGO "Ukrainian Network for Children's Rights," Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights, Coalition "Ukraine: Five AM," Regional Center for Human Rights, NGO "PR Army," NGO "Razom for Ukraine," Vitsche Berlin, United24 Media, European Resilience Initiative Center, NGO "YurFem," NGO "Docudays.”
Olena Lennon, Ph.D. is a Practitioner in Residence in the National Security Department at the University of New Haven, where she teaches such courses as the U.S. Foreign & Defense Policy and International Relations. Formerly a Fulbright scholar from Ukraine, and most recently a scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., she has dedicated her research to the study of conflict management and identity politics in eastern Europe, focused on domestic and foreign policy of Ukraine. An eastern Ukraine native, Dr. Lennon has been a regular participant in scholarly and media forums related to issues in Ukraine, facilitating a more informed and objective analysis of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. She also serves as an election observer with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and has completed several election observation missions in the region. Her work appeared in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Demokratizatsiya, Eurasian Geography and Economics, and other outlets.