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Near Kherson, orphanage staff hid Ukrainian children from Russian occupiers


STEPANIVKA, Ukraine — Katia, 15, recalls rushing out of the orphanage just in time, minutes before the Russians arrived to take the other children away.

It was October 19 and the occupants of their village outside Kherson were preparing to leave.

The Russians had first shown up at the orphanage here months earlier, in armored military vehicles with 15 children in tow – Ukrainian orphans they had taken from the village of Novopetrivka in the previously occupied Mykolaiv region , about 35 miles to the north.

The 15 children had been living here ever since, under the care of the orphanage director, Volodymyr Sahaidak, 61, and under the supervision of Russian soldiers.

But the Russians were unaware that a dozen other children in the neighborhood – including Katia – also lived in the same quarters. Whenever the Russians came, the teachers would hide the children in their rooms, Katia recalls, “for siesta time”.

Now the teachers feared that the Russians would find these children and take them away too. So, a small group of staff came up with a secret plan to sneak the kids out and hide them in their own homes.

As Ukrainians liberate towns and villages previously occupied by Russian forces, residents have shared many stories of abducted Ukrainian children.

Where the children are ultimately taken – and the circumstances of their movement – ​​are often difficult to confirm. But many children seem to be like Katia and her peers – orphans or children with learning disabilities, who were already in state care. They are the youngest and most vulnerable Ukrainians and the war has been particularly perilous for them.

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One of the orphanage’s teachers, Halyna Kulakovska, 44, had heard stories like these in nearby Kherson, a Russian-occupied regional capital in early March. Kulakovska said she had heard of dozens of newborn babies taken from a city nursery and six students forcibly evacuated from their dormitories. Kulakovska was not going to let this happen to the children in her care.

Kulakovska and Sahaidak, the director, helped most of the dozen Kherson children in their center to find parents and family members. Only three children remained – Katia and two boys, Vlad, 16, and Misha, 9. The Washington Post identifies children only by their first names to protect their privacy and safety.

Katia, Vlad and Misha spent 11 days hiding in a nurse’s house near the orphanage. But as the Russians prepared to withdraw from the area, Kulakovska feared to know where they were given that they were still nearby. So she decided to take them to her home in the city of Kherson.

“I didn’t have time to think about it,” Kulakovska said. “There is a Ukrainian wordtreba, it means, ‘You must do it.’ I had to do it. I am responsible for the lives of these children…we had to protect them.

Before the start of the war, 52 children lived in the Pink Walls Orphanage, a social and psychological rehabilitation center in the Kherson suburb of Stepanivka. In Ukraine, parents who feel they cannot physically or financially care for their children can temporarily entrust them to the state.

At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many children were picked up by relatives. Some older children have managed to enroll in college and leave. But the remaining dozen students had to live with the sound of constant shelling just a village away.

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During a recent visit by Post reporters, a set of Legos still lay on a table in one of the house’s common areas, right next to a cracked window, marking a spot where an explosion sent shrapnel towards the orphanage. At the time, six boys were sleeping in the next room.

One of them was Misha, 9, who recalled being told by a teacher to quickly drop to the floor.

“It was just a weird feeling,” he said. But he said he was not afraid.

The boy’s father is incarcerated and his mother is dead, his teacher said; although the 9-year-old seems to believe his mother is still alive.

The children became so used to the sound of the explosions that they knew if the bombing was near – and if they could keep playing football or if they should rush inside. But after the Russians arrived in town, the sky suddenly became calmer.

“They felt uncomfortable when he shut up,” said one of their teachers.

Katia vividly remembers the day the soldiers arrived. Two Russians in military uniform, including a bald and bearded one, entered the center that day, along with the 15 children from the Mykolaiv region as well as their director and her husband.

The children told them that they had been living in a basement for three months and that three girls in their center had died after being hit by cluster munitions.

The Russians told the orphanage staff that they had brought them to get them away from the front line and into safer territory. When they arrived in Stepanivka, the children thought they were in Russia. They were scared, not wanting to be hugged or touched, Kulakovska said.

“But once they heard Ukrainian, they could relax,” said Tetiana Drobitko, 56, one of the teachers at the orphanage. The children watched cartoons for the first time in months. They played puzzles alongside the Kherson children.

But whenever the Russians showed up, the Kherson children rushed to their rooms to hide.

One Monday, a Russian soldier walked into their computer room and was enraged to find a toy boat on which a teenager had scribbled a sentence with an expletive that became popular in Ukraine at the start of the war: “Russian warship, go… yourself.

In mid-October, when the Russians prepared to evacuate, anticipating a retreat from Kherson, Sahaidak said he knew he could not stop them from taking the Mykolaiv children with them. But at least they could try to prevent local children from being taken away, he said.

The city of Kherson was still under Russian control when Kulakovska brought the children to her apartment, located directly opposite a building where she knew Russians lived. So she gave them rules to follow: Always stay close to her when they leave the house. Never mention the orphanage. Avoid talking to strangers and if someone asks you, say that Kulakovska was their aunt. Even Kulakovska’s neighbors learned that the children were her nephews and niece.

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On November 12, the teacher and three children were walking through their neighborhood when they saw Ukrainian flags in the streets. Kherson was released.

For weeks, teachers and children wondered what had happened to the group from the Mykolaiv region. They assumed the children would end up in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

During their trip, Sahaidak used the Telegram app to secretly stay in touch with Mykolaiv’s director of children, who was trying to find a way for the children to escape the Russians. He also worked with an American volunteer to track the group’s whereabouts. On Friday, he was stunned to learn from the director that she and her group had made it to Georgia.

Sahaidak declined to share further details fearing it would jeopardize their safe return. But he said he expected the children to return to Ukraine soon.

Sahaidak said he hopes the children can return here, to the orphanage they have called home for months, where their clothes remain stored in plastic bags.

“They are also our children,” he said.


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