It's impossible for Ukrainian families to shield their children from the constant violence of Russia's war… but tonight we will tell you about a lesser known and perhaps more sinister danger they face… the Russian abduction of Ukrainian children. In the chaos of war, exact numbers are hard to come by. Officially, the Ukrainian government has documented more than 19,000 children taken by Russia, but told us they worry the actual number could be closer to 300,000 children. The International Criminal Court has charged Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children's rights with the war crimes of unlawful deportation and transfer of children. This summer we followed one Ukrainian grandmother on an undercover mission, deep into enemy territory, to find her grandson before he completely disappeared.
Polina packed what little she could and caught a 20-hour train from Poland to Kyiv to meet with a nonprofit called "Save Ukraine"… they promised to help her find 9-year-old Nikita. She traveled light but carried the weight of a grandmother's worry.
Polina (translated): He means everything to me – he is my air, my sky, my water. I live for him, he's my life. I love him very much.
Polina - who asked us not to use her last name - is in the process of filing for guardianship of her grandson. She left Ukraine so she could work to support Nikita, who has special needs.
Polina (translated): The Russian Federation stole him. They abducted him.
Cecilia Vega: Did the Russians ask anyone for permission to move Nikita? Did they tell anyone they were moving him?
Polina (translated): No, they didn't tell anyone anything. They simply removed him and hid him.
Last October, Nikita was living in a boarding school for disabled children when the Russian authorities ordered all 86 kids there to be transferred deeper into Russian-controlled territory.
Polina (translated): I came home after work, I opened Instagram and there was a picture of my child– Nikita. With a caption, Russia is taking children.
Polina says the Russians played a cruel game of hide and seek - moving Nikita at least three times in eight months - including to an orphanage in Russia.
Cecilia Vega: What were those eight months like for you?
Polina (translated): Really bad, really bad. I wouldn't sleep at night. I didn't want to go to work, I didn't even want to live because I had no one to live for. And then I found this website, Save Ukraine, on Facebook. And I called them.
The phones never seem to stop ringing at the Save Ukraine headquarters in Kyiv.
So far, they've rescued more than 200 kids, from kindergarteners to teenagers.
We met the founder, Mykola Kuleba, at one of Save Ukraine's shelters for reunited families.
Cecilia Vega: How long do the families stay here?
Mykola Kuleba: Up to three months.
Kuleba served as Ukraine's presidential commissioner for children's rights for nearly eight years.
Now, he runs these secret rescue missions, which rely on an underground network of safe houses and volunteers… including Russians who oppose the war.
Mykola Kuleba: I can't tell you how many organization involved and volunteers.
Cecilia Vega: Dozens?
Mykola Kuleba: Maybe hundreds.
Cecilia Vega: Hundreds. Is there one piece of advice that every mother must know before she starts this journey?
Mykola Kuleba: We explaining them that Russians will intimidate you. They will be doing everything to stop you, to provoke you. That's why you should focus on your child. Your goal is to take your child and not be afraid.
But it's hard not to be afraid. These women have to travel alone while the men stay behind to fight. Just before the mothers leave, they get a safety briefing where they learn how to craft cover stories for when, inevitably, they are interrogated by Russian forces.
When they return, their stories become evidence that save Ukraine sends to the International Criminal Court.
Russia's goal, Kuelba says, is to steal the Ukrainian kids' future by erasing their past.
Mykola Kuleba: Their plans to destroy Ukrainian identity. They brainwash them, indoctrinate them, Russify them. They have special classes for Ukrainian children when they teach them what is the Russian empire, what future they can have in Russia 'cause about Ukraine, it's only bad things.
Cecilia Vega: What risk do these children pose to Russia if they come back home into Ukraine?
Mykola Kuleba: Every child is a war crime witness.
Cecilia Vega: Every child is a war crime witness.
Mykola Kuleba: Every child. Yeah. Every child.
Vlad Rudenko was 16 when he was taken last October. He says armed men showed up at his door while his mother, Tetiana Bodak was out.
Vlad Rudenko (translated): They told me 'you need to pack your things.' I said, 'I will call my mom.' They said, 'don't bother- you are coming with us anyway.'
After that, Vlad says he was ordered to board a bus – part of a 16-vehicle convoy full of kids that drove to a camp in Russian-controlled Crimea.
Moscow claims it's evacuating kids from the fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine.
But we've learned Russia often pressures poor Ukrainian parents to send their children to schools and these camps, where the kids spend their days with Russian children. Images of happy kids are the propaganda Russia wants the world to see.
But, several Ukrainian kids told us what happens in these camps is less about recreation and more about indoctrination…they are told repeated lies – like "Ukraine lost the war" and "their parents don't want them."
Vlad secretly sent his mother this video and said speaking Ukrainian, talking about Ukraine or even wearing Ukraine's colors was forbidden.
Every morning, at a camp like this, Vlad told us the Ukrainian children were forced to sing the Russian national anthem. Vlad refused to fall in line. One night, he decided to take down the Russian flag.
Cecilia Vega: And then what happened?
Vlad Rudenko (translated): They came over and told me to pack up. They said we're going to the detention ward. So, we went to the ward and I said, I'm not staying here, I'll break everything in here. They told me, we'll call a psychiatric hospital for you then. But in the end, they locked me up anyway in the detention ward for five days.
Cecilia Vega: You were in isolation for five days?
Vlad Rudenko (translated): Yes. One more day and I probably would have hanged myself.
Cecilia Vega: Tetiana, what do you think when you hear that?
Tetiana Bodak (translated): I can't… I just can't find the words because there's a lot of things he didn't tell me. And maybe I am scared to find out something that I'd better not know.
By the time Tetiana rescued Vlad with Save Ukraine's help, she had lost eight months with her son.
Cecilia Vega: Did he look different to you?
Tetiana Bodak (translated): Yes. I remember he left as a kid, but then when I met him again, I saw a man with an adult vision of life. His eyes just gave him up.
Polina couldn't risk losing any more time with Nikita. The night before she left, she gathered gifts for her grandson.
This bus station was as far as our cameras could go… but nine days in, she managed to call while we were with the Save Ukraine team. A translator relayed her harrowing trip.
Translator: I was moving there in a car throughout that minefield. There was a heavy smell of dead bodies there.
What Polina couldn't tell us over the phone was that she and Save Ukraine hatched a plan to get past a border checkpoint near the school in occupied territory where Nikita was held: she pretended to be an aid worker. Her driver recorded as she walked into the building.
Polina (translated): The director asked me, how did you get here? I told him, I'm a volunteer. I came here from Poland and brought you some humanitarian aid. I needed to say something, to be able to see Nikita and figure out a way to get him out of there. This was the only way to do it.
And then she finally identified herself as Nikita's grandmother and gave the school director a Ukrainian document authorizing her to take Nikita home. He refused.
Polina (translated): The director said to me, he's mine. I am his guardian. And I said, but I am his grandmother. You have no right because he has a biological grandmother who will take him back. This is my child.
Last year, Vladimir Putin changed the law to make it easier for some Ukrainian children to receive Russian citizenship, allowing them to be adopted by Russian families. And Putin's top deputy in charge of children's rights – Maria lvova-Belova – posted these videos of what she described as Ukrainian orphans with their adoptive parents.
lvova-Helova-- herself says she adopted a 15-year-old Ukrainian boy from the occupied city of Mariupol.
Polina showed us the documents that led her to believe Nikita was also about to be adopted.
Cecilia Vega: So, this is the Ukrainian birth certificate: born in Ukraine, Ukrainian child. And this is what Russia made – what does this say?
Polina (translated): It says that he is a citizen of the Russian Federation.
Cecilia Vega: It's almost hard for me to get my head around this. Your grandson is a Ukrainian citizen, and you're telling me, you believe the Russians were on the verge of giving him to a Russian family, of adopting him out to another family.
Polina: Yes, yes.
She says the school called her Ukrainian documentation fake and demanded a DNA test. They kept Polina waiting for the results.
For 70 days, she refused to back down…
Until finally, Polina was led into a room where she heard this:
Nikita (in reunion video): "Babushka!"
There to personally oversee the reunion- Maria lvova-Belova. Russian cameras recorded as the accused war criminal handed Nikita gifts.
She also made them an offer:
Polina (translated): Lvova-Belova said to me, would you like to stay with us in the Russian Federation maybe? We will give you some money. We will give you a car.
Cecilia Vega: They tried to get you to stay with Nikita?
Polina (translated): Yes, yes. I said: I don't need anything. I have everything.
Maria lvova-Belova insists Russia does not put Ukrainian children up for adoption and that it makes every effort to return them. On social media, she called Polina and Nikita's reunion a joy and wished them a quote "happy life."
Finally reunited-- Polina and Nikita began the long trip back to safety, driving day and night for a week.
We were with the Save Ukraine team when they arrived in Poland.
They plan to live here until the war is over.
Cecilia Vega: What do you wanna do with your grandmother now?
Nikita told me he wants to play toys with her.
And with a smile, he proudly said: this is mother, my grandmother.
Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producer, John Gallen. Broadcast associate, Katie Jahns. Edited by Sean Kelly.
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