On June 27, 2023, the National Anti-Crisis Management (NAM) submitted a communication to the International Criminal Court under Article 15 of the Rome Statute. The communication pertains to the illegal deportation or transfer of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories to Belarus.
This communication comprises a comprehensive collection of evidence and a legal analysis of the unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories to Belarus between September 2022 and May 2023.
The communication concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that all the cases mentioned in this paper constitute the war crime of unlawful deportation or displacement under Article 8(2)(a)(vii) of the Rome Statute.
For the purpose of international justice, the original document, particularly the legal analysis, is not published. This article provides an overview of the reported facts.
Context of international armed conflict
Without disputing the facts that the international armed conflict on the territory of Ukraine began in 2014 and the first transfer of children from the occupied territories of the East of Ukraine to Belarus took place in 2021, this communication by the People's Anti-Crisis Department primarily focuses on cases that occurred as part of the programs of the Union State of Belarus and Russia for the removal of children, which started in September 2022.
On February 24, 2022, Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the subsequent months, Russia occupied most of the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as partially Zaporozhye and Kherson regions. Russia gained full control over the separatist groups in the Donbass. On September 30, 2022, Russia announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine under its full or partial control, including the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics, which were thus dissolved.
Taking children to Russia
From the onset of the full-scale invasion, the Russian Armed Forces committed massive violations of international humanitarian law in the territories under their control. Specifically, the Russian authorities forcibly relocated thousands of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories to Russian-occupied Crimea or the Russian Federation. As of June 1, 2023, the Ukrainian government has identified over 19,000 children who were illegally deported or separated from their parents or guardians.
While the Russian authorities claim that these movements constitute legal evacuations to protect children, including orphans from war zones, Russia sent these children to so-called summer camps where they underwent Russian-language ideological re-education based on the narratives of Russian state propaganda. While some parents initially consented to these transfers, many were coerced into doing that. The repatriation of children was often suspended or delayed, and some children were permanently placed in Russian foster families, put up for adoption, and granted Russian citizenship. These facts indicate that the mass displacement of Ukrainian children was carried out not for health reasons, as required by international humanitarian law, but with the intention of erasing their Ukrainian identity and permanently assimilating them into Russian society.
On March 17, 2023, the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the alleged war crime of unlawful deportation of the population, specifically children, and the illegal transfer of the population, also children, from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation in accordance with Articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute.
Relocation of Ukrainian children to Belarus within the framework of the programs of the Union State
The National Anti-Crisis Management has obtained compelling evidence that Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories were not only temporarily taken to Crimea and the Russian Federation but also to holiday camps and sanatoriums in Belarus.
While sporadic transfers of Ukrainian children to Belarusian camps occurred before and shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, such transfers have significantly increased since September 2022.
According to the data provided in the communication, between September 2022 and May 2023, more than 2,100 children aged 6 to 15 from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine were sent to health camps or sanatoriums in Belarus. All cases of children's displacement mentioned in the communication were organized and carried out by the Talai Foundation, in cooperation with the Belarusian authorities acting on behalf of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, as well as the Russian occupation authorities.
Programs for the removal of children within the framework of the Union State
In 2022, a so-called recovery program was adopted within the framework of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. State Secretary of the Union State, Dmitry Mezentsev, publicly stated that the program aims to provide humanitarian assistance to children living in the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics. As established below, part of this "humanitarian aid" involves the movement of Ukrainian children to Belarus. Mezentsev also indirectly acknowledged the leading role of Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in these movements.
The evidence below confirms that the Union State implemented the so-called rehabilitation program jointly with the Talai Foundation, with extensive financial and organizational support provided by the Union State.
In 2022-2023, Alexander Lukashenko, as the head of the Supreme State Council of the Union State, and Mikhail Mishustin, as the chairman of the Council of Ministers of this entity, signed documents regarding the provision and financing of "humanitarian aid" to the population of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics from the general budget of the Union State. These documents include:
- Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Union State No. 20, signed by Mikhail Mishustin on September 16, 2022.
- Decree of the Supreme State Council of the Union State No. 4, signed by Alexander Lukashenko on April 6, 2023, titled "On the Provision of Humanitarian Assistance at the Expense of the Budget of the Union State to Students and Educational Institutions of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic.";
- Decree of the Council of Ministers of the Union State No. 14 dated May 11, 2023 signed by Mishustin M.V.
The resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Union State dated September 16, 2022, includes various measures, one of which involves allocating funds from the Union State budget for the transportation of children. The responsibility for this lies with the Standing Committee of the Union State.
The fact that the transfer of children is funded by the Union State budget has been repeatedly confirmed, not only by top officials of the Union State like State Secretary Dmitry Mezentsev but also by self-proclaimed public activists such as Alexei Talai.
The Decree of the Supreme State Council of the Union State dated April 6, 2023, acknowledges the implementation of previous decisions by the Supreme State Council and the Council of Ministers regarding the provision of "humanitarian assistance." It further confirms the continued allocation of funds from the Union State's budget for the same "humanitarian" purposes. The Council of Ministers and the Standing Committee of the Union State are responsible for implementing the resolution and ensuring appropriate allocation of assistance.
In addition, the Council of Ministers of the Union State issued a decree on May 11, 2023, which provides an additional allocation of 30 million Russian rubles to continue providing "humanitarian aid" to children from the territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
Apart from financial support, the Union State actively participated in organizing the actual displacement, or deportation, of children. In a letter dated March 21, 2023, addressed to the Chairman of Russian Railways JSC, Oleg Belozerov, Dmitry Mezentsev requested the organization of transportation for 1,050 children and accompanying individuals from the occupied territories of Ukraine to Belarus in April/May 2023.
The letter clearly states that such cooperation with Russian Railways had already been implemented in 2022.
Role of the Aleksey Talai Foundation
The A. Talai Foundation played a significant role in the development and execution of the project involving the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children, including orphans, from the occupied territories of Ukraine to Belarus.
Aleksey Talai himself publicly acknowledged that the foundation had been "assisting" children from the affected regions of Ukraine, including Donbass, Donetsk, and Luhansk. In 2021, during a visit to the occupied territories, Talai met Olga Volkova, the head of the Dolphins public organization. Talai stated that it was together with Volkova that the decision was made to explore the possibilities of moving Ukrainian children to Belarus.
Furthermore, Aleksey Talai confirmed that the decision to relocate Ukrainian children from the occupied territories to Belarus received direct support from the Union State of Belarus and Russia, as well as from Alexander Lukashenko personally.
Additionally, other Belarusian companies were involved in the logistical aspects of the movement organized by the Aleksey Talai Foundation. For instance, the state-owned company Belaruskali, which owns the Dubrava camp, assisted in accommodating the children on Belarusian territory. The Belarusian Republican Youth Union helped coordinate train routes and provided assistance upon the children's arrival. Support agreements were also established with the occupation authorities of the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk People's Republics.
The role of OAO Belaruskal
OAO Belaruskali is a state-owned company and one of the world's largest producers and exporters of potash fertilizers. Ivan Golovaty serves as the General Director of OAO Belaruskali and is also a member of Parliament. Golovaty has been involved in supporting the transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus using the resources of OAO Belaruskali.
The Dubrava camp, which is owned by OAO Belaruskali, serves as the main facility for accommodating displaced Ukrainian children within the Union State program in Belarus. Golovaty personally issued orders for the preparation and utilization of the Dubrava camp to house Ukrainian children, providing precise instructions for its operation during their stay.
The displacement of children and the implementation of a re-education program in the Dubrava camp have received extensive coverage in Belarusian state media. Golovaty himself has visited the children during their time at the Dubrava camp. As of October 2022, Golovaty reported that the Dubrava camp has already provided rest for over 1,000 Ukrainian children, and it “will continue to receive more children”.
The role of the occupation authorities in Ukraine
Local authorities, who are under the control of the Russian Federation as an occupying power, have played a significant role in organizing the transfer of Ukrainian children, including orphans, to Belarus. In the Donetsk region, for instance, a letter dated September 14, 2022, was sent by the self-proclaimed Ministry of Education and Science of the Donetsk People's Republic, inviting local authorities and the head of the Donetsk Cadet Corps to compile lists of children for subsequent transfer to the Dubrava camp according to quotas between September 23 and October 11, 2022. The letter also specified the required documents for sending children to the Dubrava camp, which included translated copies of their passports or birth certificates, as well as copies of their parents' or legal representatives' passports.
Additionally, there are direct examples of A. Talai's involvement in assisting the movement of Ukrainian children through collaboration with representatives of the pro-occupation authorities in the Zaporozhye region. For instance, Vladimir Rogov, a public figure from Zaporozhye, reached out to our foundation in September 2022, requesting assistance in the rehabilitation of his region in Belarus. At that time, Volodymyr Rogov was a member of the main council of the military-civilian administration in the so-called Zaporozhye region. Presently, he leads the movement "We are together with Russia." According to the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption of Ukraine, Rogov has actively opposed the Ukrainian authorities and advocated for the Zaporozhye region's entry into the Russian Federation. He has also facilitated the issuance of Russian passports in the city of Melitopol. On April 26, 2023, the official website of the Commonwealth of Independent States quoted Rogov as saying, "More than 100 children from the frontline districts of the Zaporozhye region went to Belarus with accompanying individuals. This is the first such experience."
The role of local organizations
The movement of Ukrainian children from the territories occupied by Russia to Belarus was facilitated by several so-called non-governmental organizations, notably the public organization "Dolphins" and the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. The "Dolphins," headed by Olga Volkova, has become the primary partner of the Aleksey Talai Foundation in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. As confirmed by Olga Volkova and Aleksey Talai in their interviews, they met during Aleksey Talai's visit to the temporarily occupied territories of Russia and decided to bring Ukrainian children to Belarus for what they refer to as rehabilitation. Furthermore, Olga Volkova personally accompanied Ukrainian children to Belarus. In Belarus, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union contributed to the relocation of the children. Alexander Lukyanov, the First Secretary of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, publicly stated, "We, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, gladly participated in accompanying these children (...). We ensured the coordination of their transportation, provided water, medicines, food, SIM cards... Upon their arrival, we also accompanied the children."
In summary, the transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus was primarily organized by representatives of the Belarusian state administration system, acting on behalf of the self-proclaimed Union State, and the Aleksey Talai Foundation, in close cooperation with the public organization "Dolphins," led by Olga Volkova, and local authorities in the occupied territories.
Movement of Ukrainian children to Belarusian camps
The National Anti-Crisis Management has identified at least five camps and sanatoriums in the Minsk and Gomel regions of Belarus, to which Ukrainian children were taken:
Republican Children's Hospital for Medical Rehabilitation in Ostroshitsky Gorodok, Minsk region;
Sanatorium "Golden Sands", Gomel region;
National children's educational and health center "Zubrenok", Minsk region;
Children's recreation camp "Dubrava", Minsk region;
Sanatorium "Volma", Minsk region.
The movement of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories to Belarus began long before the full-scale invasion. However, in this communication, we primarily focus on the movement to the Dubrava children's camp due to its scale and relevance.
Dubrava is a children's health camp located in the Soligorsk district of the Minsk region. It is owned by OAO Belaruskali, a large state-owned company that produces potash mineral fertilizers.
According to the National Anti-Crisis Management, at least two groups of children, totaling 1,050 individuals, arrived at the Dubrava camp from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine in September-October 2022 and April-May 2023. Each group arrived in three batches, with approximately 350 people per batch, including children and accompanying adults. Here is the schedule of arrivals and departures of children at Dubrava:
Autumn 2022 - the first group of children September 5 and 6 – September 21, 2022
First group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children. September 23 – October 9, 2022
Second group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children. October 13 – October 30, 2022
Third group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children.
Spring 2023 - second group of children April 3 – April 20, 2023
First group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children. April 24 – May 10, 2023
Second group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children. May 14 – May 30, 2023
Third group of children: About 350 people, including more than 300 children.
Children were brought to Belarus from all four regions of Ukraine under Russian occupation: Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye. Most of the children were transported from cities in the Donetsk region that have been under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic since 2014. These cities include Horlivka, Makiivka, and Donetsk itself. However, there were also at least 100 children from Mariupol, which was occupied by Russia in 2022.
Since September 2022, Belarusian media covering the arrival of Ukrainian children in Belarus have regularly emphasized that among the children there are orphans and children without parental care. However, the removal of orphans from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine began much earlier, in 2021. The National Anti-Crisis Management was able to confirm the identities of approximately 50 children, some of whom did not return to Ukraine but were taken to orphanages in the Russian Federation for adoption.
Moving to the children's camp "Dubrava"
The children from the occupied territories of Ukraine were initially brought to Russia by bus. From Rostov-on-Don, Russia, the children then traveled by train to Minsk, where they were greeted at the Central Station by volunteers, Belarusian media, and in some cases, Aleksey Talai himself. Subsequently, the children were transported to Dubrava by bus, accompanied by approximately 40 adults.
On average, each group of children spent 14 to 17 days at the Dubrava camp. According to Belarusian media, the children were engaged in various leisure activities, including sports, board games, contests, quests, concerts, visits to Orthodox churches, and other excursions. Many of these events had a re-educational focus.
Political re-education of Ukrainian children in the Dubrava camp
During their stay in the Belarusian camps, the children were subjected to pro-Russian re-education, as revealed by a study conducted by the Humanities Research Laboratory at the Yale School of Public Health. Re-education, in this context, refers to the promotion of cultural, historical, social, and patriotic ideas or messages that serve Russia's political interests.
The so-called recreational activities in the camps encompassed three distinct narratives: the narrative of Belarusian hospitality and "miners' solidarity," pro-Kremlin patriotic ideology, and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. All of these narratives were aimed at erasing the Ukrainian identity of the children.
The narrative of Belarusian hospitality was based on propagandistic claims about the "solidarity" of the Belarusian regime with its "brotherly people" and the supposed admiration of Ukrainian children for the Belarusian reality. For instance, Belarusian propaganda asserted that Ukrainian children expressed a desire to join Belarusian youth associations. Alexander Lukyanov, the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, publicly stated that the children who arrived in Belarus had expressed this sentiment. The Belarusian Republican Youth Union, although formally a non-governmental organization, is also the successor of the communist Komsomol, which Alexander Lukashenko has utilized to strengthen his repressive political regime.
The children also had meetings with military departments under Lukashenko's administration. For instance, they were taken on an "excursion" to the military-patriotic club "Lynx" at military unit No. 3214 of the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. These meetings involved demonstrations of weapons, special equipment, military vehicles, and hand-to-hand combat. It is worth noting that military unit No. 3214 had previously participated in the brutal suppression of peaceful protests in August 2020.
Belarusian officials also discussed the future education and employment prospects of Ukrainian youth, particularly in Belarusian factories, including the mining industry. During the stay of the third group of children in October 2022, Dmitry Shvaiba, chairman of the Minsk regional organization of the trade union of workers in the chemical, mining, and oil industry, mentioned that Ukrainian children from the occupied territories could receive education in Belarusian secondary educational institutions with subsequent employment opportunities. This would enable them to work at OAO Belaruskali.
Furthermore, pro-Kremlin patriotic propaganda, particularly the concept of the "Russian world," was reinforced through meetings with pro-Kremlin propagandists, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, and paramilitary patriotic organizations. The children even had encounters with the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club that is currently under European Union sanctions for actively supporting Russia's war against Ukraine, publicly denying Ukraine's right to exist, advocating for the "denazification" of the country, and promoting the idea that Ukraine should be an integral part of Russia.
Pro-Kremlin patriotic propaganda is indeed closely intertwined with the anti-Ukrainian narrative, and there are specific instances that highlight this connection. One such example occurred in October 2022 when the Gruzdev sisters performed at an entertaining concert for Ukrainian children. During their speech, the Gruzdev sisters expressed their desire “[to] live in peace. For Biden to die, God forgive us, for Zelensky to [die] too, and for Putin to prosper and take control of all of Ukraine.”
The re-education described above was carried out in the paradigm voiced by Olga Volkova. In an interview with the Belarusian state television channel ONT, Olga Volkova called the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine “liberated territory” and stated that “these children are already programmed for evil, and therefore everything must be done to melt their hearts.” In the same interview, Volkova stated that she was trying to “instill in [children] the main thing – patriotism, history,” emphasizing the role of the church and the importance of traditional family values, as well as repeating the Kremlin’s narrative about the “Satanism” of the West. Aleksey Talai expressed similar views, publicly declaring that the Russian Federation should occupy the entire territory of Ukraine, and all of Ukraine “should be demilitarized, denazified, and sane, loyal (...) forces that want peace for the Eurasian continent should come to power there.”
From the information provided, it is evident that Ukrainian children, including orphans, were subjected to a re-education process aimed at eradicating their Ukrainian identity and fostering cultural alienation from Ukraine.
According to the National Anti-Crisis Management, the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories to Belarus is categorized as a war crime in accordance with Article 8(2)(a)(vii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The National Anti-Crisis Management has identified the names of five individuals whom they consider to be the most responsible for the illegal transfer of children to Belarus:
Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko,
Dmitry Fedorovich Mezentsev,
Ivan Ivanovich Golovaty,
Aleksey Konstantinovich Talai,
It is important to note that this list may not be exhaustive, as new evidence is expected to emerge.
Although Belarus has not ratified the Rome Statute, Ukraine has recognized the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for crimes committed on its territory since 2014, as per Article 12(3). Therefore, the Court has the authority to investigate the illegal transfer of children from Ukraine to Belarus. Additionally, the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine and Lithuania has already initiated an investigation into this matter.
The National Anti-Crisis Management has forwarded the relevant information to the office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and continues its investigation. They are analyzing new evidence, which will also be shared with the International Criminal Court. Notably, evidence has already been gathered regarding the export of Ukrainian orphans to various regions of Russia for adoption or placement under guardianship after their stay in Belarusian camps.
If the International Criminal Court determines that the removal of Ukrainian children from the occupied territory to Belarusian camps constitutes a war crime, the next possible step would be to issue arrest warrants for the individuals involved.