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February 26 began like any other day for orphans in Crimea. Morning light broke the horizon, and children awoke with dozens — in some cases hundreds — of other kids living in the same building. They stumbled to the sinks half-awake to brush their teeth and get ready for another week of school. After losing one or both parents, these multi-storied, Soviet-style warehouse buildings are, for these kids, the only home they know.
But this would be no normal day. Instead of the normal routine that had brought some form of stability to their lives, on February 26 these orphans learned that Russian military troops had begun occupying their property.
That’s the day Russia launched its takeover of Crimea.
What kind of nation begins its invasion campaign by taking over orphanages?
The ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is pro-Moscow. His poor leadership and excessive spending took the country to the brink of disaster and has crippled Ukraine. When the people rose up against him and forced him out of the country in February, he promptly emptied the national treasury and fled to Russia. That means there has been no money for the government of Ukraine to pay its military or provide social services — including much-needed food to the 275 state-run orphanages that are home to over 100,000 orphans.
Unable to feed its orphans or defend itself, Crimea fell to the Russians in a matter of minutes. The Ukrainians I talk to are worried that the entire country of Ukraine could be next. (I’ll be quoting various Ukrainian friends below; all have asked to remain anonymous.)
My first trip to Russia was in 1997. Since then, I have crisscrossed the country over 50 times and been to over 150 orphanages as the president of a United States-based non-profit organization. I’ve met thousands of orphans and listened to their heart-wrenching stories. I’ve celebrated Russian holidays with orphanage directors who have become good friends. I have befriended dozens of government officials and had dinner in their homes with my family. Most of them are shocked about how their government is behaving.
Russian authorities have refused to release the 4,350 orphans living in Crimea. Local Ukrainians believe the reason is clear — the Russian authorities do not want to let the orphans living in the Ukraine reenter Ukrainian territory because they are no longer Ukrainian — they are Russian. Ukrainians who tried to rescue them were told by Russian troops they were now “property of the Russian state.” A member of the Ukrainian KGB told me, “Russian authorities have special plans for the children in the orphanages. They have their eye on them. They know who they want them to be, how they want them raised, they have their eye on them.”
This situation reeks of the old Soviet mindset. The moral system of the Soviet orphanages, with its strong collectivism and weak familial links, made it one of the main recruiting grounds for the Red Army. Orphans were indoctrinated to believe that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world and they were the most fortunate children in the world because everything was given to them by the state, headed by the father of the country, Josef Stalin, who cared for all his children.
Will the orphans of Vladimir Putin’s Russia be similarly recruited? And more generally, what will happen to Ukrainians who resist this unlawful invasion? The country is fiercely divided regarding its stance toward Russia. These days, based on what I’m hearing, I wonder whether Soviet-era prisons — gulags — will be reinstated for resistant Ukrainians.
“There are 4,350 children trapped in Crimea we can do nothing about.”
For now, Russian troops have pulled out of the orphanages and taken over the Ukrainian army bases in Crimea. But some locals fear that the Russian army might invade the south and east of Ukraine, capturing orphanages in those regions. I am told that only a few days ago, eight anti-aircraft installations were brought to the borders. With one act, they could destroy half a city, and Ukraine would have virtually no way of defending herself.
Tension fills the Ukrainian hillsides. Everyone feels it, and they pray they are not witnessing the end of their nation: “Everyday we go to bed and thank God for a peaceful day, and we hope the next day will be the same, but we fear it will not,” I was told.
One of the greatest tragedies of this invasion is that hundreds of Ukrainian orphans were in the midst of the adoption process. They had their eyes and hearts set on a new family, but thanks to the Russia invasion, those hopes were dashed to pieces –adoptions are on hold. I’m hearing firsthand reports — from orphanage directors and volunteers — of orphans wrestling with temptations to suicide.
The Ukrainians I know who work with orphans are focused on two priorities: First, to find solutions to the ongoing food crisis. Second, to negotiate with local authorities to find solutions to protect the children in south and east Ukraine.
“We are working on a program right now for the children’s safety,” a nationally known leader who has worked with orphans for over 20 years. “There are 4,350 children trapped in Crimea we can do nothing about. In the south and east, there are 42,000 children. We cannot allow them to become victims of Russia’s campaign against Ukraine. There is so much uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen next.”