The Group That Searches for Missing Ukrainian Children

WASHINGTON — When the Russian Army took Kherson in southern Ukraine, the occupation authorities offered 16-year-old Anastasia a chance to go to Crimea, a holiday away from war, the officials told her mother.

But as days became weeks, Anastasia realized that she had not been given a vacation and that the Russians might not let her return home.

It was only when a nonprofit group, Save Ukraine, sent Anastasia’s mother on a bus to find her that she was able to get out. They now live in a shelter the organization runs in Kyiv, the capital.

Anastasia says she is glad to be alive and with family, as are other children living there.

“There are some people who feel sorry that they had to leave their home,” she said, speaking on the condition that her family name not be used. “But we are also very happy because we understand life is so much more than a house that might be destroyed. Now we have an opportunity to go on, to move forward again.”

In the 14 months since the Russian invasion, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $18 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including about $15.5 billion in direct support to the government to prop up its health care and education systems and to repair its power grid, which Russian forces have repeatedly targeted.

Beyond that assistance, the American aid agency has also sent grants to Ukrainian nonprofits that serve the war-battered population. Save Ukraine, founded after Russian forces attacked the country in 2014, is among them.

From the beginning, its aim has been to move Ukrainians living in occupied areas or near intense fighting into shelters or new homes.

Last May, with a grant from the aid agency, Save Ukraine set up a hotline to connect people affected by the invasion with medical and mental health care. The money has also helped the group handle evacuation requests and provide psychological counseling and legal assistance.

With a second grant, Save Ukraine opened a day care center in Kherson for children traumatized by the occupation.

Overall, U.S.A.I.D. has given $290,000 to Save Ukraine, just a drop in the bucket of overall U.S. assistance. But American officials say Ukrainians have shown how much they can do with what they are given.

“One of the most inspirational responses that we’ve seen of Ukrainians is that they are able to do things on a shoestring,” said Isobel Coleman, the agency’s deputy administrator. “The money that we have provided, in the context of the billions we have provided the government, is small. But it’s a small organization that can do things very effectively with small amounts of money.”

Private American donors and companies have also given Save Ukraine some $7 million. An American nonprofit, All Hands and Hearts, has provided money for 100 shelters and the armored buses, cars and ambulances the group has used to move 74,000 Ukrainians away from the front lines.

With the war now in its second year, Save Ukraine has expanded its mission. When Russia’s campaign to deport children from occupied areas of Ukraine became apparent, the group began to organize rescues.

The U.S. funding has not directly gone to those efforts, but the American government is supportive of them.

“There’s nothing more desperate than a parent who’s been separated from their child; they are going to do everything they can to get that child back,” Ms. Coleman said. “And in the fog of war, there are very few institutions that have been able to help these parents and Save Ukraine has been a lifeline, to be able to track down children and actually find a way to return them to their parents.”

The Ukrainian government estimates that at least 16,000 children have been taken. Save Ukraine has rescued nearly 100 of them.

In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, saying he bore criminal responsibility for the abductions.

Save Ukraine’s impact may be small in terms of numbers, but its rescues have given hope to parents like Veronika Tsymbolar, whose 8-year-old daughter, Marharyta Matiunina, was taken.

Marharyta was living with her father — Ms. Tsymbolar’s former husband — in a town near the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine when the Russian Army took over last year.

The Russians blocked communications, cutting Ms. Tsymbolar off from contact with her daughter for months. When the Ukrainians began driving the Russians back over the river in the fall, Ms. Tsymbolar finally reached her former husband.

He initially found excuses not to put Marharyta on the phone, she said. Ms. Tsymbolar then called her former neighbors and learned a horrifying story: Her daughter was missing.

“The only thing I can tell you is I hate Russia and all of them with all my heart,” she said.

A neighbor sympathetic to Moscow had fled with Marharyta as the Russian Army began to retreat.

In an interview, Oleksii Mitiunin, Ms. Tsymbolar’s former husband, said he began searching for his daughter just hours after she vanished. He learned that the Russian Army would not let Marharyta pass through a checkpoint, so the woman who took the child left her there.

Mr. Mitiunin said that he had tried to retrieve Marharyta, but that “the Russians attacked me and said go away.”

Unable to look for her daughter on her own, Ms. Tsymbolar contacted Save Ukraine. The group found the child in Feodosiya, a resort town in Crimea.

In February, Ms. Tsymbolar boarded a bus with other mothers searching for their children. Once in Crimea, Russian officials refused to release Marharyta, but Ms. Tsymbolar insisted and they relented.

Ms. Tsymbolar believes her daughter’s abduction was part of a larger Russian campaign to brainwash children and wipe out Ukrainian identity. But she said she felt enormously lucky that they had been, against long odds, reunited.

“Marharyta is OK,” Ms. Tsymbolar said. “She is home.”

Asya Shtefan contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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