A trail of evidence on social networks and state media detail Minsk’s role in a potential war crime
Original article: foreignpolicy.com
Belarusian Paralympic athlete Alexei Talai was waiting on the platform of Minsk’s main train station as a locomotive glided in and dozens of children from Ukraine’s besieged Donbas region spilled onto the platform, where they were greeted with a bunch of brightly colored balloons. According to reports in state media, their journey from eastern Ukraine to Belarus was organized by Talai’s charity with the personal backing of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a man who has described himself as “Europe’s last dictator.”
A broadcast on the state-owned City TV about the children’s arrival last September painted it as a feel-good humanitarian deed: The children surrounded Talai’s wheelchair, chanting “Thank you, thank you.” To international legal experts and U.S. government officials, it is potentially a war crime.
Of all the atrocities that Russian forces have been accused of since the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year—a list that includes mass graves, torture, and the bombing of hospitals—the systematic deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the territories it occupies was the subject of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a top advisor earlier this year. Ukrainian officials estimate that some 20,000 children have been taken to Russia in what researchers at Yale University have described as a systematic program for the forcible adoption and indoctrination of Ukraine’s children.
While Russia’s role in the deportation of Ukrainian children has been well documented, details have only just begun to emerge of a similar operation in Belarus—details that could expose those involved, including Lukashenko, to war crimes charges.
“I think anyone involved could be charged under the same theories,” said a senior U.S. government official, speaking on background under ground rules set by the Biden administration, noting that the deportation of civilians to Belarus followed a similar “fact pattern” as those to Russia.
The arrival of groups of hundreds of children from eastern Ukraine to Belarus, where they are sent to large recreational camps, has been well documented in the country’s state media, which hews closely to the government’s line. But rights advocates and foreign governments are only just starting to grapple with what happens to the children from there.
“Information about those camps is really in short supply,” said Wayne Jordash, a human rights lawyer who is assisting the Ukrainian government’s war crimes investigations.
Parents themselves have been some of the best sources of information about the deportations, said Kateryna Rashevska, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer who is investigating Belarus’s role. As swaths of Ukrainian territory were liberated in a counteroffensive last year, stories began to emerge of desperate parents traveling to Russia in search of their children. But those taken to Belarus have come from regions that are still under Russian occupation and beyond the reach of investigators.
Pavel Latushka, Belarus’s former minister of culture-turned-opposition figure, has the most detailed public accounting of deportations. By tracking posts on social networks, reports in the state media, and from its own sources, his organization, the National Anti-Crisis Management Group, found evidence that at least 2,100 Ukrainian children were taken to Belarus from occupied territories between September 2022 and May of this year. What they found was evidence of “systematically organized, [large] scale war crimes, led by Lukashenko personally and supported by some individuals and so-called NGOs,” he said in an interview.
In June, Latushka handed over a dossier of information about his findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A spokesperson for the court declined to comment.
When contacted for comment for this article, the charge d’affaires at the Belarusian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Pavel Shidlovsky, responded with a link to a news article in the Belarusian state media in which Lukashenko dismissed concerns about the deportations as “simply ridiculous” and suggested that Ukrainian children were being trafficked to the West to have their organs harvested. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The public face of the deportations is Talai, a Paralympic swimmer, motivational speaker, and strong supporter of the Belarusian regime. According to the website of his eponymous foundation, they began facilitating the transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus as early as August 2021, before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. The move was backed by a decree signed by Lukashenko, according to a statement by the presidential press service. Starting last September, reports of the deportations became more frequent. Among the facilities they have been dispatched to is Dubrava, a large children’s summer camp run by the state-owned fertilizer behemoth Belaruskali, which is already under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department. The Talai foundation did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
It can take investigators years to tie battlefield atrocities to senior commanders and a country’s leadership, but efforts to transfer Ukrainian children en masse out of the Donbas into Russia and Belarus have been carried out in plain sight and been widely documented on social networks, in the state media, and in remarks by top government officials in both countries, which is likely why it was the subject of the first ICC arrest warrants.
The deportations to Belarus have been funded by the Union State, an economic and political union between Moscow and Minsk, according to statements by a senior official involved. In October, Dmitry Mezentsev, a Russian official who serves as the head of the union, visited the Dubrava camp. “We are participants in their future,” he said during the visit, according to a Russian government newspaper. The Union State had already given tens of millions of rubles to support Talai’s efforts and would continue doing so, he said.
Social media posts by the Talai foundation and reports in the state media describe the children as being drawn from a variety of backgrounds: orphans, children with disabilities and those from impoverished families, and those living in children’s homes. Latushka’s team claims to have identified at least 50 orphans that were among the children taken to Belarus.
The Geneva Conventions, which serve as the backbone of international humanitarian law, provide detailed provisions regarding the treatment and evacuation of children in wartime: Children are to be evacuated to a neutral third country if possible, and written consent by guardians must be secured when they can be found. The deportations to Russia and Belarus are a flagrant violation of those principles, experts say. “It’s difficult for Belarus to assert that it is a neutral country,” Jordash said, as Belarusian territory was used by the Russian military to launch the assault on Kyiv.
In instances where parents have offered written consent, it’s difficult to argue that they have done so of their own free will. “Cities are under siege, and there is a lot of shelling. And when a man with a gun shows up at your house and offers to send your child to a summer camp, it’s hard to say no,” said Katya Pavlevych, a policy advisor on child deportations to the Ukrainian nonprofit Razom. Parents have sent their children to summer camps in Russia for a few weeks in the hopes of offering them some respite from the war without being told that the children would not be returned.
The Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit any efforts to change the identity or nationality of children evacuated from war zones. One of the most controversial aspects of Russia’s deportation of Ukrainian children has been Moscow’s determination to indoctrinate them, erase their Ukrainian language and culture, and fast-track their Russian citizenship. The smattering of information about the fate of Ukrainian children in Belarus suggests that reeducation efforts may be underway.
An Instagram post by the Talai foundation from last June showed a group of children from the Donbas visiting a unit of the Belarusian security forces that specializes in crowd control. The unit was involved in the violent repression of pro-democracy protests in 2020 after another fraudulent Belarusian election. In an interview last October with Sputnik, the international arm of Russian state media, the head of a Minsk region mining and oil trade union suggested that Ukrainian children from the mining regions of the Donbas were an ideal “target group” to be trained to work in Belarus’ mining industry.
In an interview with Belarusian state TV, Olga Vokova, whose organization “Dolphins” is based in the unrecognized separatist Donetsk People’s Republic and has worked with Talai to bring children from the Donbas to Belarus, described children from newly occupied regions, such as Mariupol in southern Ukraine, as “pre-programmed” for evil. She said that they had to do “everything so as to melt their hearts and show them that we [people from the separatist regions] are not evil.”
Rashevska, the Ukrainian human rights lawyer, said similar efforts were underway in Belarus, as in Russia, to quash their identities.
“In these camps, the national identity of Ukrainian children is eradicated. These children are brainwashed, Russified, militarized,” she said.