“These children will probably never return to Ukraine”

Our reporters followed children who were doubly struck by fate. Born with disabilities or into poor families, most were rejected by their parents. A handful of women and men are busy comforting them under the bombs and evacuating those who can. Manon Quérouil-Bruneel, our special correspondent in Ukraine with photojournalist Alvaro Canovas, tells us how this moving reportage came about.

How did you discover the situation of these children? Through on-site meetings or is it a topic that you have already made up your mind?
We were contacted by an NGO who explained the logistical difficulties faced by the people looking after these children who need to be taken to safe areas before the cities are surrounded and bombed by the Russians. In the specialized centers, caregivers don’t want to tear themselves away from their own families to evacuate the children. But they also have an administrative problem, which I mention in my article: the Ukrainian government, concerned about the risks of trafficking minors, imposes ID cards and administrative complications that delay the evacuation process. The NGO asked us to come and document the situation of these orphans. A team was waiting for us on site, with whom we could go both to the kindergarten and to the evacuated center for disabled children.

Also read: “In Ukraine, no one expected the severity of this war”

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Are these traffic risks that the government fears proven?
In fact, minors, children and young people crossing the border alone, whose whereabouts are unknown today, have disappeared. No doubt there are war profiteers who look out for such situations. This is a real risk, but the problem for the NGO is that this precautionary principle is also applied in the event of war, with compromises that are difficult to agree on. Because these children who remain in bombed areas are clearly in mortal danger.

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They describe moving scenes. Like that little boy who asks you if you’re “a friend” or if you’re going to kill him. What mental state are you in?
All of these children are already affected by a mental disorder. This little boy has autism. We have a feeling they are losing the only landmarks they had. Some rocked back and forth very violently, others covered their ears and screamed. And there was also the difficulty of knowing how long these disabled children would hold out on a bus to the border. Stops should be scheduled whenever possible. The physically disabled children need ambulances, some are completely bedridden. It’s a very big logistics.

What are the solutions to help them? Is adoption possible?
The easiest way is for specialized centers abroad to volunteer to take in the children, like the one in the Czech Republic that took in those we followed. It is necessary to be able to guarantee the Ukrainian government a basis, via recognized institutes that transmit their statutes, so that it does not fall for dubious associations. The problem is that most of these people hope that the war will not go on forever and that the exiled children will return. But it doesn’t take all the way. These children will probably never return to Ukraine.

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When we see what people are struggling with, we journalists just feel like we’re doing our part of the job and we tell ourselves it’s still not enough

Mykola Kuleba, a former child rights officer in Ukraine who is very involved in these evacuation operations, explains that the orphans rescued by the Russians are brainwashed and used as a breeding ground for the army. Is this fear justified?
It’s difficult to verify. But we know that orphanages in Russia take in many children who are not orphans but have alcoholic parents or parents who are too poor to care for them and entrust them to the state, which disposes of these children at its own discretion. They are vulnerable and probably easier to indoctrinate into the ranks of the Russian army. But the evidence is lacking.

How did you experience this report together with children who are particularly vulnerable?
At the moment we are still in the urgency of the report. When we take a break, emotions are likely to overwhelm us. We were very moved by the uprooting of these children from their educators. They were very tight. These are women who, since the beginning of the war, have chosen to stay with these children, even if it means giving up being with their own families. It’s an impressive commitment. It was heartbreaking to see them saying their goodbyes, thinking it was better for the kids but not knowing if they would ever see them again. And these babies of a few months doomed to live in a basement, it’s heartbreaking.

The longer Russian troops trample on the ground, the higher the cost of the war to civilians

What about threats against journalists? There were several dead and injured. He told himself that they would be particularly targeted by the Russian army.
In Kharkiv, a city near the Russian border, something is always erupting and we live in a converted bunker. We see people coming digging in the rubble to salvage memories of their past lives… Not journalists are particularly targeted, but the civilian population as a whole. Our working conditions are difficult, but when we see what the people and the war effort of the entire Ukrainian people are struggling with, we journalists, we just feel like we’re doing our part of the job and we say to ourselves, that’s always it not enough yet.

Are you already hard at work on the next report?
We work on site in Kharkiv. It is the second largest city in the country and is constantly under artillery fire. It was partially emptied of its inhabitants, but many stayed and resisted. What we have known for some time is that the more faltering the troops on the ground, the greater the cost of war to civilians. Unable to take Kharkiv, they bomb and destroy. And those who stayed are either old people who have no intention of leaving the places where they lived, or young people, all volunteering to help distribute food and medicine. But there are also people who are “documenting” what is happening to support war crimes charges. In particular, we saw shrapnel from cluster bombs falling on the houses. These crimes won’t be very difficult to prove.

For a donation to the children of Ukraine: alliance4childrenukraine.org

Find the report of Manon Quérouil-Bruneel and Alvaro Canovas in Paris game #3803 of 26

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