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Tuesday April 16th at 10 o’clock on WGVU Public Television, PBS FRONTLINE presents Children of Ukraine

FRONTLINE examines how thousands of Ukrainian children have been taken and held in Russian-controlled territory since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. WGVU spoke with director, Paul Kenyon, who has spent a career reporting from world conflict zones including Ukraine.

Paul Kenyon: Yeah, I was there in 2014, one of the very few journalists there. We were in Crimea when the Russians arrived. And it still sort of, it tickles me now that I speak to Russians who I occasionally meet in the UK and they'll say, that never happened. And I'll say, it happened, and I was there. So, I saw it. So, there's no fake news here. I saw it happen. So yeah, when the Russians came to Crimea and then when they took large parts of Donbas, there were stories. at the time that children were being taken normally from children's homes and from boarding schools and they were being spirited out of those areas of Ukraine and taken into Russia. And those stories picked up a little bit more weight during and after the 2022 attack by Putin's troops. So, we were able to start exploring it properly then. So, what actually happens is that as the Russians took large areas of land in eastern Ukraine, so around Donbas area, you will remember that Ukraine fought back some months later and managed to push them back out of those areas. So, these are freshly liberated areas of Ukraine. And when that happened, this is when those stories started to appear with more frequency. And this is that children had been taken from, as I said, those types of institutions away from their parents, without their parents' permission, taken into Russian-held territory where they'd been made to wear Russian uniforms and where they'd been forced to sing Russian propaganda songs and we have videos of that and photographs of children, Ukrainian kids, wearing Russian uniforms in this program, in this film that we've done. And you know, and we've interviewed a number of the children who it's happened to. You know, it's serious stuff. It's a side of war which a lot of people don't see and don't hear about because it's subtle, but it's important and it's deep.

Patrick Center: Why does Russian leadership conduct such an operation and is there history here?

Paul Kenyon: The reason they do it is because they will say when anyone around the fighting front, any children need to be rescued as they would say. So, we are protecting them, we're taking them back from the front. But if that were the case, Ukrainians would say, well, once you've taken them away from the fighting, return them to their parents. It's not too difficult. There are various ways, there are agreements you could have, but no, that doesn't often happen. It does on occasions, but it doesn't often happen. So why are they doing it? In terms of what the Ukrainians would say, it is they would say it is to dispossess the next generation of Ukrainians of their Ukrainian identity, to replace it with Russian propaganda, to make them believe that the Russian cause is the correct one in the war. And that that, all along that eastern border of Ukraine, has been happening, you know, not just once or twice, it is something that happens a lot and that is organized, and that Putin and his Children's Commissioner are both behind it. There was a clip from Putin, funny enough, in the program where it's not our interview, it's something that he did for Russian state television where he says, we need to get those childrens out and we need to dispense with the normal formalities. So, you know, his normal formalities, he would mean, let's just speed this up. But if you're a mother or a father of a child who's being taken out of the eastern area of Ukraine, those formalities obviously are extremely important because they include finding out whether these children have got parents and returning them to the parents, not taking them to Russian-held territory.

Patrick Center: And you follow Ukrainian families who are looking for their missing children. What are your experiences with these families as they search?

Paul Kenyon: Yeah, there's one in particular that we spent quite a bit of time with, and she's called Nadya Ejda, and it's a really horrific story and a mystery all rolled into one. Her family were coming out of Mariupol. You'll remember that when it was surrounded very early in the war by Russian troops, and there were devastating scenes of destruction there. Her family was escaping from there, and it was her sister, and her sister's husband, and her mother and father, and three children. And they came under attack on a road out of Mariupol, and a number of people in the vehicle were killed. But the youngest in the car was a little boy called Max, who was three years old, just coming up to his fourth birthday. And he was rescued from the car by some Ukrainian troops. But there was chaos at the time. They took him into a hospital. But at that moment, it was just at the very time the Russians were taking over Mariupol. So, once he got into the hospital, nobody knows what happened to him. So now the family, the surviving members of the family, are spending huge amounts of trying to track down where he went next. what happened, whether he's been taken into Russian territory. And they've spoken to people who say they saw the little boy many days after the ambush when the car was attacked, and that he is alive and that he is well, but nobody knows where he went to. The family think that he's been taken by an adoptive family or a foster family, and that they've got to the point now of such despair after two years of looking for him, that their position is that we just hope that he's safe and well, even if he's with another family, that's better than him being dead. And we will try and negotiate with the family when we find him.

Patrick Center: Are you working with any organizations who specialize in tracking down missing children, or are you just following and telling their story? Paul Kenyon: It's interesting because when we went to do this story, we realized there are quite a few organizations that have been involved in this for a while. And one of them is called Save Ukraine. It's a big NGO in Ukraine and we follow them. There's a group of three of them and they're sort of war zone investigators, and they set off into recently liberated territory. So, you know, very close to the front line, very dangerous areas. And we went with them for three or four days and they find families who've lost their children and they tried to stitch together clues as to where that child might have gone, when the child was last seen, where they're likely to be now. But they also, they also interview children who have been taken to Russia and have managed to get out. Some of them have escaped, and some of them have been brought back by this organization, Save Ukraine, and we travel with the investigators, and we meet some of these kids and hear their stories about what it was like on the Russian side.

Patrick Center: For those who don't escape, but who have been discovered, is there an exchange? Is there a protocol? Do the Russians admit what has happened? How does that unfold?

Paul Kenyon: It's kind of informal. I think you'd say, which is that at the start of the war, the Ukrainians would send minibuses of mothers and grandmothers to go and find the children. They'd get a sense of where the child was, which area, maybe an orphanage somewhere where the child had been taken. And they would send out these minibuses, and the mothers would get there and take all the documentation to prove these were their kids, and then they'd negotiate on the ground. But, from what we understand, over the last year or so it's become increasingly difficult. Mothers are now turned around at the border, or they're caught by the Russian security services and turned around and told to go back to Ukraine. It's becoming increasingly difficult for these mothers to get their children back. So, I mean, it is still possible. And I think it's also, it depends on which region of Russia the child has ended up in. So, some of the regional governors in Russia, they say if we phone them and we negotiate, then they will say, yeah, I mean, why shouldn't you have your child back? If you can get here. If you can get across the border and travel a couple of thousand miles here, you can have your child back. Some of the other governors who are possibly more hardline will say, no, that's just not going to happen. They're with us now.

Patrick Center: How many children do you estimate have been abducted?

Paul Kenyon: The official figure is from the Ukrainians. It's something like 19,000 Ukrainian children are still on the Russian side, which is an extraordinary number. You know, if I came to you and I said, it's a few hundred, we'd think that was pretty big and significant, but we're talking 19,000. And in terms of those who've been brought back, when we first started doing this, I thought, of all the stories of kids being brought back, surely the figure must be in the many thousands that have been returned. But actually, the figure, I can't remember exactly, but it's between three and 400 that have been brought back. So, it's still pretty rare and difficult to get the kids back.

Patrick Center: Is there a bigger plan to return these children as an adult and to use them to foster Russian ideas within Ukraine?

Paul Kenyon: I'd not really come across that. It's a really good question. I'm sure that Ukraine would, they would say that would be an end plan or something, actually something we do know happens, is that they take some of these children to Russian military camps and they train them to fight. And of course, the people they're fighting at the moment are Ukraine. So, they would end up fighting their own country folk. So that is something that's happening, which obviously the Ukrainians are particularly disturbed about. But about the long-term plan, I'm not sure. I think it's more that you take these children away. And in a way, its gaining territory, isn't it? But it's human territory instead of geographical territory. So, they're gaining all the time more and more pockets of Ukraine. And as we know, it's been at a stalemate now for several months, but because of the situation with funding, which is all wrapped up, as we know, with the American elections coming up. The supply of arms and finance and assistance to Ukraine has slowed down. And so, the Russians are pushing back. So, this will become more of a problem as the Russians take more territory.

Patrick Center: Tonight at 10 o’clock on WGVU Public Television, PBS FRONTLINE presents Children of Ukraine. Director Paul Kenyon, thank you so much for your time.

Paul Kenyon: Thank you.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.