BELARUS has abducted thousands of Ukrainian children in what could be a chilling attempt to build a new army for Putin, experts have warned.
Ukrainian special forces, rights advocates, and those leading brave missions to rescue kidnapped kids told The Sun that the actions of Russia’s "satellite state" amount to "genocide".
On one cold September morning, 48 illegally deported Ukrainian children arrived in Belarus.
Standing apart, waving flags foreign to them and flanked by riot police – pictures of the disturbing spectacle were proudly splashed across Belarus' state media before largely vanishing.
Evidence is fast mounting that Ukrainian kids trapped in Russian-held territories have been snatched from families, hospitals and orphanages and shipped off to Belarus.
Investigators claim that the country is mimicking Russia’s war crimes by using force, abuse and coercion to transfer the children across the border and forcibly enrol them in "rehabilitation" camps.
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"There is no question what we are talking about," top human rights lawyer Kateryna Rashevska told The Sun.
"It is the indoctrination, militarisation, and Russification of these children and the eradication of their Ukrainian national identity."
Now, fears are growing that the traumatised youngsters are being trained to become "bound for the Belarusian army" and, in turn, an army of the Russian military.
Under international law, the deportation of the civilian population is considered a war crime, while the forcible transfer of children amounts to genocide.
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In September, the European parliament said Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko was complicit in working with Putin to commit war crimes against Ukraine.
Wrapped up in a bounty of human rights violations, the EU accused the "satellite state of Russia" of snatching children from Ukraine – and urged the ICC to issue a warrant for his arrest.
Yet, while Russia has loudly trumpeted its success in transferring over 700,000 Ukrainian children to its soil, it’s not exactly clear how many have been unlawfully taken to Belarus.
Investigators estimate anywhere between 3,000 to 6,000 kids have been taken to Belarus, where it becomes increasingly murky to track their movements.
On June 27, a Belarusian activist group first submitted evidence to the ICC that Lukashenko approved the forced transfer of 2,100 children from at least 15 Ukrainian cities to Belarus.
Minsk rejects these allegations, but if enough evidence is collected then the despot could join the ranks of his war criminal pal Putin and become an internationally wanted man.
That is the mission of Kateryna Rashevska from Ukraine’s Regional Center for Human Rights, who wants Lukashenko to be punished for his crimes "committed against our children".
The lawyer has charted Belarus’ dirty role in the plot to steal Ukrainian children from as early as 2016 in Russian-annexed Crimea.
However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the abductions have extended deep into the newly-occupied regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Donetsk.
Rashevska told The Sun that a summer campaign was in full-swing to transfer the children into Belarus "to be indoctrinated in a very fast transition".
The goal, she said, was to subjugate and militarise innocent Ukrainian children so that one day they might fight for the Belarusian army.
But it extends far beyond that, the lawyer explained. "Belarus' efforts serve a broader purpose – to glorify war as a phenomenon."
Belarus does not allow our children to be Ukrainian
From the camps, it's believed that some of the youngsters have been sent on to Russia – even to eastern regions as far as 4,000 miles from their homes in Ukraine.
Or they have been known to be returned to Russian-held territories and forced to join militarised youth associations poisoned with Russian propaganda.
"Lukashenko's actions are not isolated but rather indicative of shared intentions with Putin," Rashevska explained.
And when it comes to the "rehabilitation" camps- the evidence is clear.
The stolen children spend weeks or even months being "brainwashed, forced to speak Russian and enrolled into patriotic youth military movements – all funded by the Russian Federation".
Britain's ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, has referred to the kidnappings part of Russia's "hybrid invasion".
The diplomat described it as a catastrophic long-term strategy to sever ties between Ukraine and the "next generation that will defend the country".
Rashevska said that central to this plot is an assault on the children's sense of national identity, which proves genocidal intent.
"They don't allow our children to be Ukrainians. This could be a mass violation of children's rights that amounts to a crime against humanity.
"I am terrified."
“Look what is happening to our children, this is a clear Russian state policy," said Mykola Kuleba, head of Save Ukraine, an NGO that specialises in missions to retrieve stolen children.
“We have so far rescued 177 abducted children," the former Ukrainian Presidential Commissioner for Children said.
"Tomorrow, we have our twelfth rescue mission and should return with another 10 kids."
It’s a dangerous and pain-staking process, but one that is desperately needed.
Kuleba estimates the number of kidnapped children is near to 1.5million since Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014.
From outside of his Hope and Healing centre in Kyiv, he told The Sun his organisation's goal is to "rescue, restore and rebuild" the shattered lives of abducted children.
The impact of Russia’s crimes against Ukraine’s children and those committed on Belarusian soil will be felt for generations to come, he explained.
"The ‘re-education’ is based upon fear, manipulation, threats… they return hugely traumatised and will need recovery for a long time."
It’s a sad and lonely sad story for the unknown number of children separated from their homeland and families and sent to Russia’s neighbour.
Save Ukraine was only alerted to Belarus involvement when its rescue teams discovered Ukrainian kids forcibly separated from their families inside the state.
Kuleba said that unlike in Russia, "we did not know about clear information, how many children or which camps because Lukashenko is more secretive".
This is a policy of genocide against our nation
“But what we know is they have special educational programs where they brainwash our children," he added.
Despite their efforts, Kuleba said they "have not been able to return a child from a Belarusian camp yet".
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
For a Ukrainian resistance group behind enemy lines – they have seen first-hand Belarus’ involvement in the systematic abduction of Ukrainian children.
The National Resistance Center, a branch of Ukrainian special forces that collects evidence of Russian crimes in these war-torn regions, told The Sun it is a "key sign of genocide".
“We are talking about the abduction of our children, the militarisation of our children, the forceful assimilation of our children," it said.
A representative – who cannot be named for security reasons – explained that "the policy is to get the child out of Ukraine under any premise.
“For example, they say that it is for recreation or for medical treatment and that it is temporary so as to deceive and extort a permit from a child's parents."
Then, once the child is out of Ukraine, "it is very difficult to get them back," they said.
This is especially true in cases where Russian authorities falsely declare them as orphans in order to illegally lug them off to a new family in faraway lands.
The official said: “You see, they have a whole system in place.
"The removals started immediately as the full-scale invasion was launched, and it proves that this policy was planned beforehand."
And critically, they said Belarus is and continues to be complicit in this established policy.
“We will provide coverage to these crimes and make them known to the whole world,” they stated.
"This is a policy of genocide against our nation."
As the resistance centre continues to expose Belarus' plot to steal and militarise children, lawyer Kateryna Rashevska will use all the evidence she can to cut the head off the snake and get Lukashenko arrested.
She dreads the thought of Ukraine's children being used as means to prop up and defend his regime.
“That is why we need to call all these violations by their proper names. This is not salvation [for the children]. This is not some vacation.
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"This is a militarisation, indoctrination, and re-education. And these are violations of their rights.
"Belarus cannot be a safe place for Russian crimes."
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