The Forgotten Victims of Ukraine

We were told we were going on a trip to the seaside – but we were kidnapped by Russia

In a new four-article series, The Independent reveals the details of Bel Trew’s special investigation into the desperate plight of hundreds – potentially thousands – of people with disabilities caught up in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The most vulnerable of the vulnerable, abandoned and kidnapped into Russia

Thursday 02 May 2024 18:11 BST
The Independent has discovered that at least 500 people with disabilities – including children – have been bundled up by soldiers and taken to Russia. Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, has claimed they are ‘evacuations’
The Independent has discovered that at least 500 people with disabilities – including children – have been bundled up by soldiers and taken to Russia. Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, has claimed they are ‘evacuations’ (Telegram/Google)

On a freezing cold November morning, Russian officials turned up at the institution where Maksym lived and told everyone there they were going on a “trip to the seaside”.

President Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion had been raging for months and the town in the southern Kherson region where Maksym called home had been swallowed up by Russian troops.

Unlike millions of non-disabled Ukrainians, he could not flee the violence and bloodshed on his own.

Unable to use his legs from birth, he had spent his whole life in this Ukrainian facility for people with disabilities. And at the age of 33, he was living alongside 180 other people aged between 19 and 90 who also needed constant care.

When the Russians told him they were going to be moved, none of them had a choice. Far from a trip to the sea, the whole group was being vanished into Russia.

Anyone who objected was locked in their room. And they were all prevented from speaking to family before being put on a train across the border.

While most of the group went one way, for some reason Maksym was separated from everyone he knew and sent 220 miles (360km) to the coastal Russian town of Anapa. There he was placed in a hospital-style institution. His wheelchair went missing in transit.

The Kherson region has faced regular bombardment from Russian forces
The Kherson region has faced regular bombardment from Russian forces (AP)

“We kept asking, where are we going? But everyone lied to us. We were terrified because I didn’t know where we would be taken, we didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Maksym said with desperation in his voice.

“We couldn’t do anything.”

After four harrowing months alone in Russia he successfully escaped, using a mobile phone he had hidden in his trousers from officials.

Enlisting the help of a Ukrainian charity, he was secretly smuggled out, escaping the Russian police by instigating a clandestine meeting at a nearby corner store.

Speaking from a European country we have chosen not to name, he said he only now realises he had been subject to a war crime: “I had to hide my phone because they were also confiscating the phones of people who had asked to go to Ukraine.

“We cannot protect ourselves – we have been forgotten. I feel like the world has forgotten us.”

‘How can you make any decision to help when there are soldiers with guns?’

Just a few weeks before, in a different facility also in occupied south Ukraine, Russian officials had also turned up with talk of a “trip to the seaside.”

This time they had entered an institution housing 500 Ukrainian women with intellectual and physical disabilities – among them was Inna, 46 who has Down syndrome and, like Maksym, had lived in the facility all her life.

The Independent’s Bel Trew on Ukrainians with disabilities kidnapped into Russia

Armed men escorted a total of 54 women into buses, the nurses later told The Independent.

“How can you make any decision to help when there are soldiers with guns?” asked Lyubov Anatoliivna, who worked at the facility at the time.

All the staff could do was make sure the women were calm and let them go: most of them were not capable of understanding what was happening to them.

Eighteen months later Inna is still missing, according to her parents who are still desperately trying to find her.

“We have tried everything, we don’t know what to do,” her father Volodymyr, 73 says, as his wife weeps in the background.

Maksym and Inna are among at least 500 Ukrainians with disabilities – including children – that have likely been forcibly removed to Russian-held territory and Russia, according to an 18-month investigation by The Independent. The whereabouts of many of those we have documented remain unknown: of the people taken from Makysm’s facility, only 10 people have reappeared. None has been located from Inna’s.

Russia denies committing any crimes in Ukraine and has promoted the movement of people as legal “evacuations”. But evidence uncovered by The Independent points to the forcible transfer and deportation of civilians, which is a war crime and a possible crime against humanity.

The 500 missing people only include the cases we were able to verify independently; Ukrainian officials have said they believe the true number could be in the thousands.

The cases – which took place between October 2022 and the summer of 2023 – were verified through interviews with those who were illegally taken, family members of those who remain missing, staff members of the institutions targeted and charities trying to locate missing people. The Independent also tracked official Russian Telegram groups of the occupation administration that have boasted of the programmes to move hundreds of people from institutions. We used open-source tools – like satellite imagery – to confirm alleged locations.

In many instances, the people taken were misled or lied to about what was happening, they were held incommunicado in squalid conditions and forced into adopting Russian passports in order to secure treatment or care. There are credible reports that the children with disabilities among them have been sent to “re-education” camps where they are given pro-Russian lessons with revised history and language books.

‘Russia is trying to erase the Ukrainian identity’ – Ukraine commissioner for Human Rights

Dr Gerard Quinn, who was the UN special rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities until November and who authored multiple reports on Ukraine, says people in these institutions in Ukraine were especially vulnerable, as Russian soldiers saw them as “easy targets”.

“You have highly vulnerable people who are congregated in concentrated settings. They don’t necessarily have a natural constituency to raise an outcry. And so they were being deliberately targeted because they were such easy pickings,” he tells The Independent.

The targeting of people with disabilities, Ukrainian officials argue, is part of a broader and coordinated Russian effort to “annihilate the Ukrainian identity” and could amount to “genocide”.

“Russia is trying to erase the Ukrainian identity. We must recognise all of this as the crime of genocide,” Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s commissioner for Human Rights, says.

“Putin is creating a new so-called Russia. Only one language: Russian. All people must have one passport: Russian. They must vote only for one president of Russia.”

Mr Lubinet’s office says it has repeatedly appealed to Russia, the United Nations and international organisations for hard numbers about those with disabilities illegally taken to Russia but has failed to get a response.

It has specifically asked about the fate of those in special needs institutions in the carpet-bombed city of Mariupol, now occupied by Russia. “We know all of them were transported away but we do not know where,” he adds grimly.

The Russian city of Anapa, where Maksym was taken
The Russian city of Anapa, where Maksym was taken (Getty)

People with disabilities in institutions are among the most vulnerable to being forcibly removed by Russia, as they are separated from their guardians and are easy to move en masse, says Mykola Kuleba founder of Save Ukraine. His organisation has made global headlines for retrieving more than 240 Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia. Among them are children with disabilities who are part of 500 missing that The Independent has been tracking for the last 18 months.

“Think of it like ethnic cleansing,” Mr Kuleba continues.

“It is Russian policy to take as many as they can to Russia because they want to destroy Ukrainian identity. Putin has implied this himself,” he added.

‘I think that Russia is targeting people with disabilities as they cannot protect themselves’ – Maksym

The concern is so high that Ukraine has now enlisted the help of foreign states like Qatar to try to retrieve those taken illegally to Russia. In January, Doha helped negotiate the return of 11 children. Two of the youngest, aged just five and six, were living in a care home for children with disabilities at the start of the war and were taken during the offensive to a facility in Russian-controlled Crimea.

In total, Ukraine estimates as many as 19,000 children – among those hundreds of minors with disabilities – have been taken to Russia, an action which Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska told The Independent was one of the most “heinous crimes in the war”.

But so far the government-level mechanisms in place focus only on children taken to Russia or Russian-occupied territory. Adults with disabilities like Maksym have to find a way out on their own, despite the fact they are in many cases just as – or are even more – vulnerable.

Maksym says he was only able to escape to safety because he managed to hold on to his mobile phone and secretly reached out to a Ukrainian NGO for help via encrypted messaging apps. He was repeatedly pressured to take a Russian passport and was told if he did not, he risked losing his medical support. This is forced passportisation, another disturbing trend The Independent has tracked.

Ukrainian servicemen of the 126th Separate Territorial Defence Brigade fire a D-30 howitzer towards Russian troops at a position on a front line in Kherson region
Ukrainian servicemen of the 126th Separate Territorial Defence Brigade fire a D-30 howitzer towards Russian troops at a position on a front line in Kherson region (Reuters)

And so he thinks the Russians were deliberately moving people with disabilities – who cannot resist or evacuate by themselves – because they are easy targets to change the demographics of southern Ukraine.

“They want to show there are more Ukrainians supporting Russia than there truly are. They want to publicly say, ‘look how many Ukrainians are coming to Russia and taking Russian passports’,” he says.

“I think that Russia is targeting people with disabilities as they cannot protect themselves, they cannot push back, they have to follow,” he adds.

This investigation is part of a series unveiling the plight of the at least 2.7 million people with disabilities who live in Ukraine and have been “disproportionately” impacted by President Putin’s full-scale invasion, according to the United Nations which has said it is “gravely concerned” about the community.

Among the horrific crimes we documented were groups of people with disabilities being used by Russian soldiers as human shields, and being deprived of food and medicine in frontline areas which, in one case, resulted in 12 deaths.

The research has also exposed the failings of Ukraine’s outdated care system, inherited from the Soviet Union and reliant on systematic institutionalisation often from childhood. Conditions have been described as “appalling” by United Nations experts and EU reports.

The Independent’s investigation shows a lack of cohesive evacuation plans in place for these facilities when Russian tanks rolled through Ukrainian territory. There is also a lack of data. There are believed to be at least 42,000 people in institutions across hundreds of institutions but the Ukrainian disability charity Fight For Rights tells The Independent it believes the true number is far higher as there are no confirmed statistics.

A disabled woman waits for help to carry her water during an aid supply distribution in the centre of Kherson
A disabled woman waits for help to carry her water during an aid supply distribution in the centre of Kherson (AFP/Getty)

We reached out to the Ukrainian authorities several times over the last 18 months for the number of people in institutions but have yet to receive a concrete reply. No one knows how many living in these facilities are missing.

Dr Quinn says across all the research he oversaw, the reports came to the “unsurprising conclusion that people with disabilities in conflict are invisible”.

“They are just not given consideration,” he says, adding that investigations like this proved needed to be a “paradigm shift” in attitudes towards people with disabilities across all conflicts.

Jonas Ruskus, the former vice chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities who authored the UN’s main report on the issue agrees.

“We have a lack of data because usually persons with disabilities are left behind or forgotten.”

‘The nurses told us the Russians came and asked them who wanted to go to the sea’ – Voloydymr

The last time Voloydmyr, 73 spoke to his daughter Inna was July 2022. It was nearly five months after Russians had swept through the southern region of Kherson, where she lived in an institution for women with intellectual disabilities.

In the brief phone call Inna, 46, reassured her parents everything was fine, she was not sick.

“As always, she said she missed us, and she really wanted to come home,” her father adds, with desperation ringing through his voice.

Inna was placed in an institution in Komyshany as a child like so many people living with disabilities under the Soviet Union, when there was no support for caregivers and families. Before the invasion, her parents would travel to Komyshany to visit and take her out for weekends.

But then Russian tanks rolled in.

There was no structure in place to quickly evacuate the 500 or so women aged between 19 and 90 living in the boarding complex.

Russia’s appointed administration in the occupied south of Ukraine shares images of people with disabilities they have removed from institutions in Kherson
Russia’s appointed administration in the occupied south of Ukraine shares images of people with disabilities they have removed from institutions in Kherson (Telegram)

“We still had contact with her until the summer of 2022, she would check in with us but then mobile networks were cut and we lost contact,” her father continues.

The family lived in a total information blackout until November, after Russian forces retreated from the region of Kherson where the home was located. The parents rushed to recently liberated areas in a desperate attempt to find their daughter.

They learned that Inna and dozens of other women she lived with had disappeared.

“The nurses told us the Russians came to the hospital and asked them which of them wanted to go to the sea,” he says as his wife cries quietly in the background.

There had been trips to the Ukrainian seaside before the war, so Voloydmyr assumes they thought they would be brought back.

“They were deceived,“ he adds with a pause.

He says that the families of the women were not informed of the “trip” and that his daughter is being held incommunicado.

“They took all their documents with them but almost no belongings. Thank God we had a photocopy of her passport,” he adds.

Lyubov Anatoliivna, a nurse who worked at the boarding house and remained there under the eight-month period of occupation, told The Independent that the staff were powerless to stop what happened. She said a Russian official came to the boarding house and informed them of the plan. The next day, armed men turned up.

“How can you make any decision to help when there are soldiers with guns?” she asks.

“The women were taken away under the pretext of evacuation. In all, 54 women, aged 30 to 50, were taken.”

She explains that most of the women who agreed were not capable of fully understanding such a complex vital decision about their lives. All the nurses could do was put their mobile phones in their pockets as they were boarded onto yellow buses and tell them to call them when they got there.

“The girls called a few days later, and said they had arrived, everything is fine and that they are being fed. But then the connection was cut off. That is the last we heard,” the nurse adds.

Evacuation of civilians without consent is permitted as an exception in the Fourth Geneva Convention if it is for the safety of the population or for military reasons like clearing a combat zone. There were hostilities in this area as Ukraine and Russia wrestled over Moscow-occupied land.

But if the sole incentive was humanitarian evacuation, everyone within the institution should have been removed. It also does not explain why Russia has stopped the women from communicating with their family members or why they still appear to be hiding their location.

Ms Anatoliivna says the director of the institution, who approved the decision, had been cooperating with the Russian soldiers from the start and disappeared shortly after Ukrainian forces took back control of the town in November.

Volodymyr says he and his wife lodged a criminal case with Ukraine’s top prosecutors and in their investigation managed to trace their daughter to an institution in Krasnoperekopsk, in Russian-occupied Crimea. They enlisted the help of Ukrainian investigative journalist Hanna Mamonova, who says she managed to call the institution briefly and speak to Inna a year ago. But since then communications were again cut.

“It’s harder to bring these women back than the soldiers as they don’t have prisoner of war status and they technically “signed” an agreement to go there,” Ms Mamonova tells The Independent.

Russia’s appointed administration in the occupied south of Ukraine shares images of people with disabilities they have removed from institutions in Kherson
Russia’s appointed administration in the occupied south of Ukraine shares images of people with disabilities they have removed from institutions in Kherson (Telegram)

“They are also not children, so that makes it really hard too.”

She says this has meant the family have failed to get help from the Red Cross who exclusively work with PoWs. Ukrainian rights groups also haven’t had any success because of the ages of the women: they are effectively “consenting” adults.

“The Ukrainian prosecutor told me that in the near future, they will announce charges against those who took the women to Crimea. I hope this will help somehow,” Ms Mamonova adds, describing the situation for the families as “endless cruelty”.

“I constantly tell everyone about these women and ask if we can return them to Ukraine. But currently, no one can.”

Volodymyr, who continues to live under heavy Russian shelling in Ukrainian-held areas of Kherson, says he has no way of retrieving Inna. He is afraid to call the facility in Crimea, her last known location, in case the Russian authorities take her deeper into Russian-held territory or to Russia itself.

“The situation has not changed in any way, there is no news. It’s hard, very hard for my wife,” he adds, his voice cracking.

“We are very worried, it’s hard to explain how worried we are.”

‘Soldiers turned up and began confiscating the phones and laptops of the children’ – Oleksander

On the same day unknown Russian officials walked into Inna’s institution with tantalising promises of a “seaside trip”, another institution in the Kherson region was being cleared out.

It was 20 October 2022. This time, some 17km east, across the Dnipro River in a town called Oleshky. The Russians had already installed their head of the children’s “boarding school” for children with special needs as soon as they rolled into town.

At least 82 children, aged between four and 18 were registered as living there. They too had been unable to evacuate when Russia occupied their town.

A few days before, Russian doctors came and selected children they said were being taken to “recover their health” in sanatoriums, explains Oleksander Glybka. He is a disabled Ukrainian man who once lived in the institution himself and was secretly in touch with staffers working there.

“Soldiers turned up and began confiscating the phones and laptops of the children and the workers in the institutions. They banned my friend, who worked there, from leaving the building as he refused to be deported,” he says.

“At the beginning, they just took children who could walk by themselves.”

Then they came back for more.

The children were taken in buses and distributed between a psychiatric hospital in Simferopol, the second largest city in Russian-occupied Crimea as well as an institution in the Black Sea town of Skadovsk, which is also Russian-occupied, Glybka says. This fact was later confirmed by Zelensky’s chief of staff Andrii Yermak in a post on his official account on the messaging group Telegram.

Conditions in both places were terrible for children with physical disabilities, according to rights groups who have been trying to free them. International Humanitarian Law and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities require that specific protection and attention be given to persons with disabilities, meaning that Russia is obligated to make sure the conditions of the places where they move people to are suitable.

Glybka knows for sure that 16 children were removed in October 2022 but Ukrainian officials say that Russia has refused to provide them with a full list – which again would be a violation of the international laws on the rights of children.

A child being ‘evacuated’ from Oleshky orphanage taken from the Telegram feed of Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights
A child being ‘evacuated’ from Oleshky orphanage taken from the Telegram feed of Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights (Telegram)

And then on 12 November, Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, posted on Telegram that in total, 52 children, including those with serious disabilities, from the Oleshky institution had been “evacuated” to Crimea. She said the situation on the front line had become too dangerous for the children to remain.

There is no further mention of the Oleshky children or their final whereabouts. The Russian official later posts about fundraising for supplies for other kindergartens in the Oleshky district where children have remained, raising questions about why only certain orphanages were emptied if it was a so-called humanitarian evacuation. In other posts, Ms Lvova-Belova discusses the adoption of Ukrainian children. Ms Lvova-Belova – and President Putin – are wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of forcible transfer and deportation of children.

The Independent knows of only two boys who were successfully found and returned from the Oleshky group: a severely autistic teenager called Sasha, and Nikita, who was just nine when he was taken. Both boys were located and rescued with the help of Save Ukraine after months of gruelling work. Separately, the boy’s relatives had to take treacherous journeys through enemy territory with cover stories to bring them home.

Save Ukraine spokesperson Olha Erokhina tells The Independent the group is particularly concerned about Russia’s use of forced adoption of the children who were taken as well as the use of “re-education” and brainwashing camps.

“We consider this to be a genocide of Ukrainians because they want to make them Russian,” Ms Erokhina, tells The Independent.

“We saw the school library textbooks they were given about Russian history and Russian language, other subjects... it’s brainwashing.”

‘We took people for a comfortable life’ – Russian officials

Russia does not hide this on its expansive social media networks where it regularly boasts about the transfers and deportations of people with disabilities.

On 6 November 2022, the Telegram page of the Russian-appointed occupying administration in Kherson boasted that it had evacuated a further 400 people living in the Hola Prystan and Kakhovka boarding houses for the elderly, infirm and disabled again in south Ukraine.

The posts say they were first by ambulances taken to Crimea and then onto the Russian towns of Rostov and Voronezh – some 750km away – “for a comfortable life”. The Independent was unable to trace what happened to these people.

Four days later, posts revealed all those living at a psychoneurological boarding house in Kherson had been sent for “treatment” in Stavropol in southwest Russia, again around 750km east in a different direction.

Both these actions could constitute the war crime of deportation.

In the video accompanying this post, dozens of people can be seen boarding buses. Among them are 14 from the “Dnipro psychoneurological boarding house”, the Russian-appointed Kherson administration added in a later post.

Ukrainian media had previously reported that a total of 98 people were removed from this institution which is located in occupied Nova-Khokhlova, including staff members, and forcibly “dragged them onto the buses”.

There are more posts of “evacuations” taking place in December 2022 and April 2023.

Again, The Independent has been unable to trace what had happened to these people. There are concerns they too have vanished.

“The cases we have dealt with, no one is told they are going to Russia or that they are going indefinitely,” says Nelli Isaieva from Helping to Leave, a Ukrainian NGO initially founded to help civilians leave temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine. As the war dragged on, it switched to helping Ukrainians who had been deported to Russia as well.

A child being ‘evacuated’ from Oleshky orphanage taken from Maria Lvova-Belova’s official Telegram
A child being ‘evacuated’ from Oleshky orphanage taken from Maria Lvova-Belova’s official Telegram (Telegram)

It helped retrieve Maksym, and seven others from the same institution but who had been taken to Voronezh.

“The people we helped were not told they were going to Russia, they were told they were going to Crimea only for the winter time. They were promised they could return, but no one was going to be taken back”.

‘We are easy targets, we cannot protect ourselves’ – Maksym

After being separated from everyone on the train out of Ukraine, Maksym eventually found himself placed in a facility that looked like a hospital in Anapa, along the Russian seaside. No one explained to him what happened to the others, or why he had been separated. He was too afraid to ask too many questions.

He described the sprawling facility as a kind of makeshift “refugee camp” for Ukrainians, guarded by Russian security officers. He was living among an estimated 3,000 Ukrainians all from the occupied Kherson region of Ukraine – some who wanted to be there, some who secretly did not.

There was no true freedom of movement. The authorities held everyone’s documents. He was not placed on the ground floor and his wheelchair went missing on the journey to Russia. With restricted mobility, it was often physically impossible for him to leave the building.

Alone, separated from the only people he knew, and lacking his travel documents, Maksym felt trapped and scared.

Like Inna, Maksym was just three years old when his family placed him in an orphanage which was a standard practice under the then Soviet Union for those with disabilities. At 19, he had “graduated” to the institution in the town in Kherson where he was still living when the Russians arrived. He has had little contact with his family: he recalls texting his mother who is based in occupied Crimea at the start of the invasion, saying he was scared and needed help.

“She said, ‘Better stay there everything will be OK’ and that was it,” he adds.

And so, when he was taken to Anapa in Russia, it took him a month to pluck up the courage to instigate his escape. He had a friend in Ukraine who told him about Helping to Leave. He texted the group’s emergencies page on an encrypted messaging app.

During the first attempt to evacuate him, the Russian authorities barred Maksym from leaving, saying he had not warned them in advance or secured permission from the police to leave.

“At that point, they were offering people Russian passports and even threatening people,” he continues.

“I kept promising them, ‘Yes, I will take the Russian passport’ but continued stalling. Eventually, I said I was going to a little corner store nearby and never came back.”

In early April, Helping to Leave managed to secure a suitable vehicle to pick him up from that store. He had a long journey north, first to Krasnodar, then on to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, a border city with Ukraine where he waited a week until the organisation could sort out his onward journey.

He was eventually taken to a European country where he is now safe. He is one of the lucky few. Most cannot arrange their own escape.

Iryna Fedorovych from the Fight for Right disabilities rights group in Ukraine says she is concerned that the Ukrainian government and international community are not doing enough to track down people with disabilities and to help them return.

“There is no known and transparent work of the government on returning people, there is not even information for relatives on how to report someone is missing. There do not appear to be reports of forcible displacement of the institutions,” she tells The Independent.

“For adults with disabilities, who have lived all their lives in institutions, it is almost impossible for them to return by themselves.  The government needs to at least track all these people and be public about this and do something.”

This is particularly imperative if Russia is making a point of focusing on these institutions.

Maksym says he is particularly worried as people with disabilities are “easy targets”.

“We cannot protect ourselves,” he continues, adding that he worries every day about the elderly who also lived in his institution, who will not have phones or the ability to arrange a rescue like he did. He is particularly concerned by those in the latter stages of their lives who may not have family looking for them or friends who can help.

He says he now understands he was “the subject of a war crime” and worries that the crimes committed against Ukrainians with disabilities are not being tracked with the level of care as other crimes.

There has been global publicity about the abduction of children into Russia and, of course, the ICC arrest warrant.

But who is looking for those with disabilities, he asks.

“People with disabilities get less attention than the children but many are just as vulnerable,” he adds with a deep pause.

“We have been forgotten. I feel like the world has forgotten us.”

Comment: It’s horrifying what’s happened to Ukrainians with disabilities during Russia’s war – we cannot abandon them

Tomorrow: how the tragic death of one man held by Russian forces shows the true horror of Putin’s invasion

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