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Ukrainian Children Brought to Camps in Belarus, Exposed to Pro-Kremlin Propaganda


A boy sits in front of a shelled building in Donetsk, one of the Russian-held cities from which Ukrainian children have been taken to Belarus
Source: wsj.com

More than 2,000, including some orphans, have been transported from Russian-occupied areas

Original article: wsj.com

WARSAW — Belarus, a staunch ally of Russia, has transported thousands of Ukrainian children — some of them orphans — to the country, where they were exposed to pro-Kremlin propaganda, an effort that underscores the former Soviet nation’s support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

More than 2,000 children have been brought by rail from Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine to Belarus as part of an agreement between Russia and Belarus, according to a publicly available document from the Belarusian government as well as leaked documents from Russian Railways and Belaruskali, a Belarus company funding the effort.

According to the documents, the children have been brought by rail to Belarus’s capital, Minsk, and then transported to camps on buses owned by soccer team Shakhtyor Soligorsk. The team, owned by Belaruskali Chief Executive Ivan Golovaty, won the Belarusian Premier League last year but was stripped of its title due to a match-fixing scandal.

Belaruskali didn’t respond to requests for comment on the camps. The government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which has direct control over much of the state machinery in his country, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The press office of the soccer team didn’t respond to a request for comment. Belaruskali, a state-owned miner of the potassium-based fertilizer potash, has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union and is the country’s biggest taxpayer. According to the leaked documents, the company spent millions of dollars to bring seven groups of 310 children each from Ukraine since spring 2022 to the company’s sanatorium at Dubrava, a children’s camp it owns in the south of Belarus, where they stayed between two and three weeks at a time.

Belaruskali
Belaruskali Source: wsj.com

The Warsaw-based National Anti-Crisis Management Group, a Belarusian opposition think tank led by Pavel Latushka, deputy head of Belarus’s political opposition body in exile, got some of the details of the program from Russian Railways documents that were obtained by a hacker. The opposition group also obtained information from an internal document from Belaruskali and from an official inside the company. The Wall Street Journal has viewed those documents.

Photos of the camp circulating on the social-media accounts of Belaruskali and the facilities hosting the children show that they were given basic arms training, met with Russian Orthodox priests and were regaled with flashy shows that glorified Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Alexander Lukashenko is one of Vladimir Putin’s few foreign supporters in the Ukraine war
Source: wsj.com

In one video recorded in October and posted on the same social-media channels, two women entertain a group of children gathered in a small theater, praising the Kremlin leader while calling for the deaths of President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The National Anti-Crisis Management Group established the identities of the children in the video using leaked information from officials inside the sanatoria, and Ukrainian orphanages identified some of the children as orphans from Ukraine. “So that Putin prospers and takes control of all of Ukraine,” one of the two women, holding a microphone under stage lights, said to the applause of the children. The transfer of orphans across borders without the permission of their home country’s government is illegal under international law. Moscow administers the occupied territories and has declared them part of Russia, but its claims aren’t recognized internationally. In the case of children who aren’t orphans, it couldn’t be determined whether their families consented to their transfer to Belarus.

Ukraine says nearly 20,000 children have been taken from its territory by Russia since the start of the war, sometimes to camps in Russia. In some cases, children are returned to their families. The Ukrainian government says the camps in Russia are aimed at instilling pro-Moscow sentiment in the children.

The Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Ukrainian ombudsman for human rights. Lithuania, which together with Poland has become a hub for the Belarusian opposition, has opened an investigation into the transfers of Ukrainian children to Belarus. Belaruskali has promoted the camps on its website and has said that they are health facilities for children, but according to internal company documents seen by the Journal, the amount of money spent per child for health needs was $0.20. Last September, Belaruskali’s website said the camp took 1,050 children under the age of 15 from eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area, including the occupied cities of Donetsk and Mariupol. In early April, the company’s website announced that more than 1,000 children from Donbas would come to the camps in Dubrava for sports, arts and “the tastiest Belarusian cuisine.” One group, numbering 307 children, was accompanied by 40 adults, according to the website. A document obtained by the opposition group shows an order bearing an electronic signature of Golovaty, who is also a member of Belarus’s parliament, to bring three groups of children from eastern Ukraine to the camp between April 3 and May 30. The document ordered the company’s financial director, Sergey Pinchuk, to find the money in the corporate budget to pay for the expenditures. The opposition group says the children—including 200 orphans—had been taken from 15 cities and towns throughout occupied Ukraine, including the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The group identified individual children in videos of the camps and compared them with publicly available names of children in orphanages. The National Anti-Crisis Management Group says the Belarusian government also directly funds part of the effort.

Source: wsj.com

In late June, the National Anti-Crisis Management Group submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court, the international body that is trying Russian war crimes in Ukraine. That evidence detailed the process and timeline of the transfers of Ukrainian children to Belarus.

The ICC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In March, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin, together with his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, to face charges of unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Belarus recently attracted fresh Western scrutiny after Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group re-established itself in the country following its failed insurrection against Moscow’s military leadership. Russian soldiers also used Belarusian territory for Moscow’s initial push into Ukraine in February 2022, and Putin has said Moscow is basing tactical nuclear weapons in the country.

The U.S. and Europe have slapped sanctions on Belarus for its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Belaruskali was sanctioned in 2021 by the EU and the U.S. for its role in supporting Lukashenko’s regime. Those sanctions have effectively curbed all of Belaruskali’s sales abroad since the start of the war.

The EU doesn’t sanction food and fertilizer, out of humanitarian concerns, but comprehensive Western financial, economic and transport sanctions have at times stymied what should be legitimate trade.

More recently, some EU countries have been seeking a way to make it easier for Belaruskali to resume its fertilizer sales while still remaining under sanctions. However, that has been held up for months by Lithuania, which has cited the company’s role in the alleged transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus.

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