Empty cradles at an abandoned orphanage in Kherson, Ukraine, where Russian forces are believed to have kidnapped 46 children. November 27, 2022. BERNAT ARMANGUE / AP
Original article: lemonde.fr
Minsk, with the aid of the Belarusian Red Cross, has brought more than 2,150 minors into its territory since the invasion of Ukraine, claiming to be offering them 'respite'
By Faustine Vincent
Russia is not alone in forcibly transferring Ukrainian children to its territory. Less well known is the fact that Belarus, Moscow's number-one ally in the war in Ukraine, also engages in this illegal practice, which could constitute a war crime. More than 2,150 Ukrainians aged between 6 and 15 living in Russian-occupied areas have been deported to Belarus since the Russian invasion in February 2022, according to official Belarusian documents and statements, consulted by Le Monde, and leaks compiled by Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushko, who was sentenced in March to eighteen years in prison in absentia in Minsk after a sham trial. A former member of the regime, Latushko submitted evidence of Belarus' involvement in these forced displacements to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on June 27.
In March, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, for organizing the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko too could eventually be the subject of an arrest warrant.
On September 13, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning "the illegal transfer of more than 2,150 children, including orphans, from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to so-called recreation camps in Belarus, where they are subjected to Russification and indoctrination". The European Parliament said that "Alexander Lukashenko is as responsible for these war crimes as Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova," and called on the ICC to "issue a similar international arrest warrant for" the Belarusian leader.
The Minsk regime makes no secret of these forced transfers. On the contrary, it claims that they are "humanitarian" operations designed to offer respite to war-torn children. In August, Lukashenko publicly acknowledged his direct involvement, in close collaboration with Russia. "We agreed with Vladimir Putin that we would finance these trips from the state budget of the Union [a treaty linking Russia and Belarus]," he said. "We have done so and will continue to do so without worrying about any reproach."
Belarus, which has served as a rear base for Russian troops since the invasion of Ukraine, boasted that it had brought in "over a thousand children" in the spring. On Tuesday, September 19, a group of 48 Ukrainian children arrived from the occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Images broadcast by the official press show them thanking the authorities, red and green Belarusian flags in hand, flanked by riot police.
Field trips to military units
Back in April, newspapers reported enthusiastically on the arrival, "thanks to Alexander Lukashenko's instructions," of 350 children from the Donbas region, transported by train to Minsk "to recover" in the Dubrava camp near the capital. "There will be plenty of meetings and entertainment," boasted the Belarus Today article. "The most important thing is that every child remembers his or her childhood as it should be – calm, interesting and happy."
In fact, the program can be summed up in three words: indoctrination, militarization and Russification. Children attended a concert by the Grudzdev sisters, Belarusian pop singers and Kremlin propagandists. A video of their performance shows the duo on stage, all smiles, calling for the American and Ukrainian presidents, Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky, to "die" in order to "live in peace," and for "Putin to prosper and take control of the whole of Ukraine''.
A field trip was also organized to the Lynx military club of unit no
3214 of the Ministry of the Interior, known for its brutal repression of peaceful protests following the fraudulent re-election of Lukashenko in 2020. The children took part in shooting workshops and watched demonstrations of military equipment and hand-to-hand combat. The majority of these Ukrainians return to the occupied territories at the end of their stay in Belarus, but some are sent to Russia, according to Latushko. He says that he has proof that "orphans who stayed in Belarus were then adopted in Russia".
At least six camps have been identified in the country, including three in the Minsk region. The largest of these is Dubrava, owned by the state-owned company Belaruskali, one of the world's largest fertilizer producers and exporters. Its director, Ivan Golovaty, is one of the key players in these forced transfers. In September 2022, the company announced on its website that it was taking in "1,050 children aged 6 to 15". This is presented as humanitarian action and relayed unabashedly under the banner of "help for Ukrainian children". Travel is organized by the charitable foundation of Belarusian Paralympic athlete Aleksei Talai, which has publicly stated that it is working in cooperation with the Belarusian authorities.
Belarusian Red Cross involvement
Despite this accrued evidence, Lukashenko's role in the deportation of Ukrainian children has remained largely unknown since the start of the war. "The problem is that our Western partners are focused on Russian aggression," said Latushko. "It's very strange, they seem to have forgotten about Belarus, while Lukashenko is a co-aggressor and has let Putin use the country to attack Ukraine."
What's even more disturbing is that the Belarusian Red Cross, the country's largest charity, has claimed to be actively involved in these forced transfers. Interviewed in July by the state broadcaster Belarus 1 from the occupied Ukrainian city of Lyssychansk, the head of this humanitarian organization, Dmitry Shevtsov, said that "the Belarusian Red Cross has taken, is taking and will take an active part" in these transfers of children to Belarus in order, he said, to enable them "to forget the horrors of war" and "to rest". A few weeks earlier, the head of the Belarusian Red Cross had been filmed in the occupied territories wearing camouflage with the letter "Z" on his arm – the Russian symbol of support for the war in Ukraine.
His statement caused a scandal. Aware of the potential damage to its reputation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) expressed its "deep concern". It said it had "learned of this visit and these activities through the media," which were "in contradiction with its humanitarian mission" and its duty of neutrality.
The humanitarian organization has launched an investigation, the findings of which are expected in October. It has also called on Shevtsov to step aside until then. To no avail: he was re-elected as head of the Belarusian Red Cross at a session of the organization's XXVIth congress, held on September 7 in Minsk, to decide his case. When contacted, the IFRC, which has 191 branches worldwide, made no secret of its embarrassment but refused to comment while the investigation was underway. It explained that national Red Cross organizations each have their "own legal status" and that it "neither supervises nor controls their operations".