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Russia deports thousands of Ukrainian children. Investigators say that's a war crime

The Russian government is operating a systematic network of at least 40 child custody centers for thousands of Ukrainian children, a potential war crime, according to a new report by Yale University researchers in a collaboration with the U.S. State Department in a program to hold Russia accountable.

The report, "Russia's Systematic Program for the Re-Education and Adoption of Ukrainian Children," describes a system of holding facilities that stretch from the Black Sea coast to Siberia.

"This is not one rogue camp, this is not one rogue mayor or governor," says Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab. "It is a massive logistical undertaking that does not happen by accident."

Raymond's team of researchers is tackling one of the most explosive issues of the war. Ukrainian officials say Russia has evacuated thousands of Ukrainian children without parental consent.

Russian officials do not deny Ukrainian children are now in Russia, but insist the camps are part of a vast humanitarian project for abandoned, war-traumatized orphans and have been surprisingly public with social media messaging aimed at a Russian audience. Russia does not, however, acknowledge how many children are in Russia or where they are housed.

"All of this strikes us as a carefully orchestrated performance," says Caitlin Howarth, director of operations at the Yale lab.

"The Russian government needs to legitimize its activities, that make all of this seem normal," she says, "because you simply can't move these many children through these many places without their movements being noticed."

The children are held in camps across the Russian expanse

The Yale team says it has verified at least 6,000 Ukrainian children detained by the Russian government, although researchers believe there are thousands more. The report identifies 43 camps. "Eleven of the camps are located more than 500 miles from Ukraine's border with Russia, including two camps in Siberia and one in Russia's Far East," according to the report.

The Ukrainian children transported to Russia range in age from teens to toddlers, says Raymond.

"In some cases there is adoption, other cases summer camp programs where the kids were slated to return home and never did," he says, "and in some cases they are re-education camps."

The Yale report is the most extensive look at the program so far, says Raymond. "It shows scale, it shows chain of command, it shows logistical complexity," he adds.

The report also documents a start date for transporting Ukrainian children to Russia, days before the full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022.

"These first transports of children in early February 2022 included a group of 500 purported orphans 'evacuated' from Donetsk Oblast by Russia. The reason given publicly at the time was the supposed threat of an offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces," according to the report. Some of those Ukrainian children were later adopted by Russian families.

Researchers obtained evidence through open sourcing

The Ukrainian government and U.N. senior human rights officials have consistently raised the alarm over these activities since the early days of the war.

The alarm grew louder in May 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a new decree that made it quick and easy to adopt Ukrainian children, which was next to impossible before the war. In addition, Russian officials announced it would extend government support to Russian families who adopt Ukrainian children; the biggest financial incentive is for adopting handicapped kids.

The Yale researchers began investigating missing Ukrainian children when the first Russian social media posts appeared last year. The messaging began at about the time of Putin's adoption announcement, says one of the Yale researchers. He asked not to be named to protect the security of his work from hackers.

"I believe the first places we saw this were on Telegram and then VK," he says. Telegram is a popular Russian messaging service. VK is the Russian version of Facebook.

"It quickly became clear there was an enormous amount of information publicly available," he says.

The Yale Humanitarian Research lab is defining the future of war crimes investigations by combining open source research techniques with high-resolution satellite imagery to offer analysis of alleged war crimes in real time.

There are about 20 researchers who scour social media posts, news reports, government announcements and Russian messaging services, looking for patterns and connections that otherwise might go unnoticed.

As a partner with the U.S. State Department's Conflict Observatory, the Yale lab has access to non-classified satellite imagery from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. For this investigation, it is a key to mapping the camps, said the researcher.

"You can see people. You can see cars. You can see certain types of activity," he said. "There's a very large amount of material related to the patriotic education that they undergo while they are in camps," he added. The lessons are designed, he says, to instill loyalty to Russia and promote Moscow's version of the war.

"What we are seeing," he says, "is the government of Russia and Russian leaders training and indoctrinating a generation of Ukrainian children."

What Russia calls a humanitarian project is identified by Yale researchers as a possible war crime

Russia has not publicly issued a list of Ukrainian children evacuated and detained. The number of children adopted by Russian families since Feb. 24, 2022, is also unknown. However, Russian officials insist adoption is only permitted for orphans, although evidence gathered by the Yale team shows otherwise.

The Yale report has verified that 37 Ukrainian children have been returned to their families, says Nathaniel Raymond. The thousands who remain in Russia may constitute a war crime, he says.

"It is fundamentally the unconsented custody and control of thousands of Ukrainian children. Not only is it against the law, but against common decency," he says.

The report, released Tuesday by the U.S. State Department, shows that the program is controlled by the Russian government from the top, Raymond says.

"This operation is centrally coordinated by Russia's federal government and involved every level of government," according to the report. The Yale program identified several dozen federal, regional and local figures "directly engaged and politically justifying the program."

War crimes evidence that can lead to trial is elusive

Gathering evidence of alleged war crimes has always been difficult. That part hasn't changed.

But now, open-source investigators have a trove of potential source material from on-the-ground witnesses who photograph war damage, map mass graves, record interviews with refugees — and post the results online. In addition, high-resolution satellite images make it easier than ever to identify deliberately damaged hospitals, targeted grain silos or local children's summer camps.

A commercial satellite image of a facility known as Gornyi Kluch, or "Mountain Key," in October 2022. The camp is one of more than 40 locations in Russia verified by a team of researchers at Yale University to have been part of Russia's system of camps for and adoptions of children from Ukraine.
/ Maxar
A commercial satellite image of a facility known as Gornyi Kluch, or "Mountain Key," in October 2022. The camp is one of more than 40 locations in Russia verified by a team of researchers at Yale University to have been part of Russia's system of camps for and adoptions of children from Ukraine.

The Yale team are all young Internet sleuths who work to verify the data they dig up and document the steps needed to meet the exacting standards and protocols for trial.

Raymond describes the lab's role as a "cop shop" – a "cyber cop shop," that is mindful to detail a chain of custody for the evidence produced. To understand the Lab's role, he points to the TV show Law and Order.

"We are the Jerry Orbach, beat cop side," he says, "Our job is to collect the evidence, digital evidence, and then how that comports or does not with the law."

Also for the first time, war crimes investigators can gather evidence in real time while those crimes are still occurring, says Raymond.

"We are showing that we can collect perishable evidence and make it actionable in ways that were previously impossible. In the past this scale of operation was only available to governments," he says.

It is the future of war crimes investigations happening now at the Yale Lab, says Raymond, as civil society uses the same tools as governments, "at scale and at speed."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 17, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the U.S. State Department's Crisis Observatory. In fact, it is called the Conflict Observatory.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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