'Kidnapped' by Russian soldiers: Ukrainian orphans, guardian share their story after release
Shortly after Russia began its deadly invasion of Ukraine last March, Ukrainian officials and human rights groups warned that Russian forces had begun abducting and forcibly relocating thousands of Ukrainian children.
A group of 15 Ukrainian orphans and their adult guardian say they were caught in that very limbo after they were taken by Russian soldiers, barred from evacuating, and forcibly transferred.
The children, who were put on Ukraine’s missing persons list, shared their story for the first time with ABC News Live, detailing how a group of American volunteers eventually got them out.
MORE: Video Orphans stolen by Russian soldiers
"We didn't understand why [the Russians] took us. We were afraid of them, and afraid of being in Russia," 14-year-old Dasha, one of the orphans, told ABC News.
Last week Ukraine's top presidential adviser for children's rights said Russian troops have abducted close to 14,000 Ukrainian kids. The Russian government has rejected claims that it has been kidnapping children.
The forcible transfer of children can constitute a grave war crime.
Natalia Vladimirovna, head of the orphanage, says she and the kids packed up as soon as the war began. They waited to be evacuated, only to find out no one was coming for them.
"If only I had known what was waiting for us," she said. "If only I had known what would happen. Then I would have taken their backpacks and gone on foot with them. I couldn't believe that that horror would last so long. I thought everything would end soon."
There was nothing left to do but hunker down; the kids moved into the basement below their school. The region fell, and Russian soldiers soon came to the orphanage.
"I remember this tank very well that stopped and began to twitch around with its muzzle. We froze in horror. I thought it would shoot to our school," Vladimirovna said. "He asked me how many children we have here, so I realized that locals told them about the children. I said that, 'It's my children, and I'm the mother.'"
Among the 15 children was the daughter of an American family, Yulia, who had just been adopted; her paperwork was finalized just four days after the war broke out. Her mom Beth Wight says it’s clear the children were kidnapped.
"I just don't know how else you would describe it,” Wight said. "Especially with our situation, with having ours be adopted, obviously, she didn't want to be there. She wanted to come home to her family. They did-- they captured those kids."
Wight grew increasingly concerned-- until she eventually lost all contact with Yulia.
"If they found out she was adopted by an American family like that, it could put her and everybody else at massive risk as well," Wight told ABC News.
Vladimirovna says that while the soldiers treated the children well, they barred them from leaving. She says they even threatened her after learning she had been asking around for help evacuating.
"[The soldiers] were armed and angry. One of them sat with hands hitting a table and was hitting a rifle on the floor," she said. "He said, 'Do you even realize what you were doing and how it could end?'"
Wight reached out to a group of volunteers from the Christian charity Borderlands International who were in Ukraine helping evacuate people. Kathy Stickel, one of the volunteers who later joined the effort told ABC News the team came to realize the orphanage was behind Russian lines
"I couldn't, I just couldn't stand to have them be thinking that they didn't matter, that they were just like leaves that are being blown around with no direction, and no destination,” said Stickel. “The surveillance was one of the major challenges in getting them out. And then, of course, that they're a fairly large group.”
"And at that point, I just was really starting to feel very hopeless, like if they're really captured by the Russians. There's a good chance we're never going to see her again, even though adoption is final. She was our daughter," said Wight.
MORE: Russia-Ukraine live updates
Vladimirovna said she and the kids were then forcibly moved to the village of Stepanivka, outside Kherson.
Vladimirovna said armed soldiers spent the night at the orphanage after informing her of their decision, to make sure no one tried to flee.
"They secured the orphanage the whole night. They counted children in the shelter. They checked if I was hiding somebody. They really were patrolling, walking between rooms," she said.
In Stepanivka, Vladimirovna said the children were being constantly watched, and were repeatedly used in propaganda videos where Russian troops claimed they were rescuing the kids from Ukraine.
After Ukrainian troops took back Kherson, Vladimirovna said she and the kids were once again forcibly moved—this time, to Krasnodar, Russia.
With Russian president Putin fast-tracking the process for Russian families to adopt Ukrainian children, Ash and Stickel said the big fear was that the children would be put up for adoption.
Then, in November, nine months after the war broke out-- all fifteen children crossed the Russian border into Georgia.
Stickel told ABC News that she and other volunteers are pushing to get more Ukrainian children out of Russia.
"We can't actually go into the mechanics of how it was done, because it needs done again and again and again,” she said. “And we do feel that weight-- a miracle is unfairness. Right? We hold up these 15 kids and say, 'That's a miracle.' And yet the unfairness that there's so many still out there."
The orphans are now living in a new home in Georgia and receiving help from a Christian charity, Borderlands International.
As for Yulia, she is finally home in Wyoming and is now an American citizen, telling ABC the one thing she's most excited about for her new life in the U.S. is peace.
'Kidnapped' by Russian soldiers: Ukrainian orphans, guardian share their story after release originally appeared on abcnews.go.com