Asia 'can help' Ukraine's children

Asia 'can help' Ukraine's children

INTERVIEW: Thousands of abducted young people face cultural 'genocide' in Russian territory

Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska gives an interview to reporters in which she appeals to the global community, especially Asian countries, to keep paying attention to Russia's ongoing war against her country.
Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska gives an interview to reporters in which she appeals to the global community, especially Asian countries, to keep paying attention to Russia's ongoing war against her country.

Ukraine's First Lady, Olena Zelenska, is calling on the international community, especially Asian countries, not to turn a blind eye to what is happening in her country. She said Ukrainian children are being abducted by Russia during its full-scale invasion.

"It is important for us that the focus of attention does not shift from Ukraine to other, unfortunately existing problems in the world," she said.

"We have been saying since the first day of the Russian invasion that aggression against Ukraine is a dangerous marker of what is happening in the world," she added. "Because aggressors and tyrannies exist, you cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening, even if you are in another country or another part of the world as far away from us as, for example, [Asia]."

Ms Zelenska, wife of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the recent escalation in the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East has only confirmed this. This shows that if the international community does not promptly respond to threats to human rights in one part of the world, sooner or later, it will ignite in another part, she said.

"We have seen over the past year and a half that, unfortunately, international preventive mechanisms do not work," she said.

Ms Zelenska was speaking to a group of seven Asian journalists from Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan and Mongolia who were invited to Ukraine from Nov 23 to Dec 3 to speak with civil society members, businessmen, soldiers, survivors, peace advocates and other Ukrainians affected by Russia's war.

The trip was organised by Ukraine-based NGO Public Interest Journalism Lab, a group that researches and creates best practices for public journalism in the digital age.

On Feb 24 last year, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that started in 2014. The invasion was the largest attack on a European country since World War II. It is estimated to have caused tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of military casualties.

By June last year, Russian troops had occupied 20% of Ukrainian territory. About 8 million Ukrainians had become internally displaced, and more than 8.2 million had fled the country by April 2023. Extensive environmental damage caused by the war contributed to food crises worldwide.

Ms Zelenska said international organisations who are supposed to keep the peace have been "perhaps simply slow to respond". This is a threat to all people in the world, regardless of where one lives.

Tyranny can also grow in any country in the world, she warned.

"We see how attitudes towards Russia have changed over the last 15 years from admiration for their president to the fact that everyone now realises that tyranny has grown on such a scale that they cannot stop.

"So it seems to me that responding to threatening markers that democracy is under threat somewhere, that elections are being held in any country in the world where opposition candidates cannot participate, should be a moment of reaction from the whole world.

"You can't turn a blind eye to people's tragedies, and especially now, I'm confused when people start comparing tragedies, making some kind of rankings of who has it harder and who has more victims.

"[Being victimised] is bad, even if there is only one victim in a war. Every war is bad. We have to keep this in mind all the time," she said.

Alleged abductions

Ms Zelenska said lots of children have been abducted by Russian forces, noting the efforts and challenges she faces in trying to bring them back to Ukraine.

The abduction of Ukrainian children by Russians is very painful, she said.

A total of 19,500 Ukrainians, including very young children and teenagers, have been taken into Russian territory, according to state data.

"We understand what it really looks like, and we are sure that this is an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people because when a child is taken from one ethnic group and moved to another, it is a sign of genocide according to all international legal documents," Ms Zelenska said.

It is very difficult to imagine what can happen in the mind of a child when they are taken away from their native country and are re-educated in another, she said, noting she learned about this from children who have been returned.

Currently, 386 abducted children have been returned, she said, adding they underwent so-called "patriotic training" while they were held.

She went on to say that the children were told they were now Russian citizens and were required to learn the Russian national anthem.

They were given Russian identification documents, including passports, with different names or names spelt differently, she said.

"This really confuses tracing because, for example, the Ukrainian name 'Mykyta' if written in Russian becomes 'Nikita'," she said. "When this child is later searched for, [the changes] will hinder the search. Many steps are taken [by Russia] to ensure that the child is lost and cannot be found."

The 386 children who have returned are a unique case because relatives and acquaintances managed to retrieve them from Russian territory, she said, adding they found out where the children were and picked them up.

The children were mostly older and were able to get in touch with friends and relatives back in Ukraine via telephone and asked to be picked up, she said, adding those who are younger are forced to adapt in Russia. This is wiping their identities, culture and memory, she said. They become Russian children, she noted.

"This is exactly what they want to do. This is a painful blow for Ukraine and the entire Ukrainian society, for everyone who sees all our losses now," Ms Zelenska said. "This makes it impossible for us to put pressure on them in many cases because this is pressure on children."

Ms Zelenska said she has called on the international community to pay attention to the problem. A coalition of security advisers has finally been created because of it, she said.

During a meeting in Malta, Canada made the coalition proposal, and 66 countries chose to support it for the return of Ukrainian children, she said.

The coalition aims to constantly monitor abducted children, receive data from Russia and work together for the return of the children, she said. Many individual countries are involved in the process, she said.

"We want every country in the world that has a voice on international platforms to support this coalition and raise its voice in support of Ukrainian children. We want the process of returning Ukrainian children to be humane and comply with all legal norms and the rights of children in the world," she said.

"We are ready for the international community to monitor and assist in this. We want all the steps we take to be for the sake of the children, not just for the sake of getting them back. It is our right to take our children, but we want it done in a proper way," she said.

Ukraine's future

Responding to questions about the future of her country after the war, Ms Zelenska said Ukraine will begin to rebuild.

Fortunately, the state began this process immediately after the first destruction began, she said.

"We cannot let the country lie in ruins. These recovery processes are really powerful, thanks to our partners from all over the world. The government is trying to restore what can be restored now.

"Of course, there is a lot of work ahead, and we have just talked about demining. Ukraine is now the most contaminated country in the world, unfortunately, with mines," she said.

Ms Zelenska said that rebuilding and the cleanup will take years and it is a huge job Ukraine is obliged to do to ensure a peaceful life for its people.

"Of course, we all dream of victory, and I am sure that everyone imagines this day differently.

"Everyone has their own dreams. I really want to see Ukrainians in the squares and streets of our cities celebrating, singing songs and not being afraid to look up at the sky. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine this now," she said.

"I think that when this happens, we will all feel this huge tension and fear slowly disappear. I love travelling and I hope that after [winning the war], I will have the opportunity to visit many more countries I have not been to.

"But all of these are such painful dreams now that you realise you can't even set yourself a date when they might come true," Ms Zelenska said.

Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, South of Ukraine. It was attacked by a missile shot by Russian forces on July 23,2023. At that time 5 people were living in a shelter of the Cathredal, fortunately they were alive. The Cathredal is so meaningful to Ukrainians in Odesa here. The renovation is being built but a priest here said he does not know now when it will be completed as the country is during the war. More donations and other financial assistances from abroad are still needed to help rebuild the church.

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