‘He’s a hostage’: Ukrainian children reported seized, missing

Several weeks have passed since Ukrainian teenager Vlad Buryak was reportedly seized.

According to his father Oleg Buryak, “he’s been taken hostage” by Russian troops.

Buryak, the head of the military administration in Zaporizhzhia, the capital of the Zaporizhia region, believes Vlad was targeted because of his senior government role.

While Russian forces now control four districts in Zaporizhia, a southeastern region on the Dnieper river, Buryak’s zone remains in Ukrainian hands.

“[I] won’t let anyone take it,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview by phone.

But as for the alleged capture of his 16-year-old son, Buryak feels powerless.

On April 8, about a month after Russian forces captured the Zaporizhian city, Melitopol, a civilian convoy of cars attempting to evacuate the occupied area was slowly progressing through a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers.

Vlad was in one of those cars, heading to Zaporizhzhia to be with his father.

After the soldiers checked his documents and realised who his father was, he became the first, and so far only, known child in Ukraine allegedly taken hostage for outwardly political purposes.

Oleg Buryak with daughter Yaroslava and son Vlad on a hike in 2019 [Oleg Buryak]

Buryak said for the first 48 days, his son was held in a cell with adult prisoners of war.

He was later transferred to a location with better conditions. He now has access to a shower and toilet, and a mobile phone he has been using to call his father.

To protect his son, Buryak cannot reveal what the child’s captors want or any details about what his son has experienced.

“I can’t say what he saw or heard. From hostage, he can become a witness. And such witnesses can be gotten rid of so that nobody can find their body,” he said.

“He sent me a song,” Buryak continued, as he forwarded the video to this reporter.

In it, a woman sings: “If only I could just see you, I swear I wouldn’t need much more.”

“My son has never sent me songs before,” he sighs.

But when asked how he is coping, Buryak quickly downplays his own suffering, saying others in Ukraine have “more serious problems”.

“There are people who have lost their children, or whose children have died. There are parents whose children have disappeared without a trace.”

Ukraine’s missing children

Ukraine’s leading missing children’s charity, Magnolia, has been fielding non-stop calls from worried families since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Last year, 182 children were reported missing in the country. In three months of the war, that number reached 2,200, said Marina Lypovetska, head of projects at Magnolia.

Some children go missing after losing contact with their families due to infrastructure damage amid conflict, or as phones run out of power while they are hiding from bombs.

In worst-case scenarios, children are killed in attacks or crossfire or are forcibly displaced, according to a report from Missing Children Europe, a Brussels-based organisation that works with Magnolia.

And girls make up 54 percent of all the reported missing children.

Lypovetska claimed that in one case, two sisters aged nine and 15 were in a car with their parents trying to escape a Russia-occupied area.

“The Russians saw there were civilians in the car and two children. They started to shoot. Unfortunately, both parents were killed,” Lypovetska said.

The soldiers allegedly took the girls, but dropped the younger sister in a village. People there who were unknown to her tracked down her remaining relatives. Once safe, the younger sister recounted the story.

As for the 15-year-old, Lypovetska said: “They took her somewhere with them, and still, there is no information where she is.”

“She could be in Russia and they could do something very bad with her.”

Some children, who have been found by Magnolia – which was collaborating with Interpol and international groups – had crossed the border into Europe by themselves.

In early June, British ambassador to the United Nations, James Kariuki, told a Security Council meeting that there had been a “significant increase in human trafficking” as well as a “disturbing increase in conflict-related sexual violence, including horrific reports of rape and sexual violence committed by Russian armed forces”.

Lypovetska is not aware of trafficking cases but is particularly worried about the children who cross into Europe alone.

Al Jazeera invited Russian government officials to comment on these findings but did not receive a response at the time of publishing.

Although Vlad Buryak is the only Ukrainian child who has reportedly been seized during the war, Ukraine and other Western nations have accused Russia of forcibly deporting hundreds of thousands of others for seemingly political purposes.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in early June that around 200,000 children were among more than one million Ukrainian citizens forcibly taken to Russia, and that these children were at risk of illegal adoption.

Some children were taken from orphanages and others had been separated from families, he said.

Russian media reports corroborate these figures.

At the beginning of May, Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted a senior official as saying that more than one million people, including nearly 200,000 children, had been taken from Ukraine to Russia in the previous two months “without the participation of Ukraine’s authorities”.

Although Russia records these people as refugees, Tanya Lokshina, associate director of Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, who has interviewed recent Ukrainian arrivals in Russia, says most had no meaningful choice.

“Some of the cases I documented personally, it was about people not knowing where they were being taken,” she said, describing situations in which during attacks, people were told to board a bus that would take them to a “safe place”.

They were then taken to Russia.

In mid-May, Maria Lvova-Belova, Moscow’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, told a newspaper that more than 190,000 children had arrived in Russia from Ukraine’s Donbas region, including about 1,200 from orphanages in the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics – the DPR and LPR.

Lvova-Belova said the Moscow-backed DPR and LPR authorities had “given a political green light to streamlining the placement of these children with Russian families”.

The United Kingdom recently targeted Lvova-Belova with sanctions for, an official statement said, “her alleged involvement in the forced transfer and adoption of Ukrainian children” as well as “orchestrating a new policy to facilitate their forced adoptions in Russia”.

Magnolia’s Lypovetska said that Ukraine has banned inter-country adoption of its children until the end of the war.

“They have relatives in Ukraine. They have the right to reunite with their own families, not be taken somewhere to Russia.”

Back in Zaporizhzhia, Oleg Buryak said the reason for the alleged capture of children is simple: Moscow wants to make them Russian.

“They are white, Slavic, Russian Orthodox. They have the language, a close culture,” he said.

Underlying this need, according to Buryak, is Russia’s low fertility rate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the recent St Petersburg economic forum that the country’s demographic situation was “categorically complex”.

Fewer than 100,000 children were born in April this year, he said, a figure about 13 percent lower than in April 2020.

“These 200,000 will also have their own children,” Buryak mused.

But Lypovetska thinks differently.

“Those children have seen a lot,” she said ominously. “Those children can tell the truth to the world. We can suppose they don’t want to adopt those children. They want to do something else.”

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