Traumatized for life? The consequences of kidnapping to Russia for Ukrainian children

The Ukrainian government assumes that more than 16,000 children have been kidnapped to Russia and Russian-occupied territories since the beginning of the war. According to a Yale study at least 6000 of them are housed in 43 camps, where they are re-educated pro-Russian and military. A UN commission said last week it had evidence of hundreds of such cases. Children and parents were repeatedly prevented from getting in touch with each other. Those are war crimes. The International Criminal Court has therefore issued an arrest warrant for Putin and his child rights commissioner Maria Lwowa-Belowa. Both are accused of being responsible for the sometimes violent kidnapping of Ukrainian children to Russia.

According to the Yale study, most of the children come from social institutions in the Donbass region, i.e. the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. But children from the Cherson and Zaporizhia regions are also affected. There is no exact information on the age of the kidnapped victims. The Yale study only shows that infants from the age of four months are accommodated in the camps. The oldest children are 17 years old.

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Many children will struggle with long-term effects

Many of them come from orphanages. According to Ukrainian reports, Russia also abducts children for whom there is no information about the parents’ whereabouts. The Children’s Rights Commissioner Lvova-Belowa confirmed that this was the case in the case of about 30 children from Mariupol. It is therefore quite possible that war orphans are also among the deportees.

“The children will realize that they are being lied to”

It is not yet possible to say exactly what consequences the deportation to Russia will have on the mental health of the children. But the Munich psychologist Cornelia Lohmeier is sure that many will struggle with long-term consequences. “If the children are separated from their parents and taken to another country where they may not even understand the language, then that can lead to trauma,” says Lohmeier. Separation from parents is usually experienced as traumatic – even if the consequences only appear later. According to Lohmeier, whether the kidnapping also leads to traumatization also depends on “how the children experience being taken away from the war zone”.

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Russian videos repeatedly show how Ukrainian children are greeted with balloons and cuddly toys at train stations or airports. Russia presents itself as a rescuer and presents the deportation of children as an “evacuation”. But what do the children themselves think about it? Lohmeier suspects that some refuse to resettle in Russia. “The older children in particular are more likely to try to defend themselves,” says the expert. “But there will also be children who initially believe the Russians and are relieved that they come from the war zone and are supposedly being accommodated for recreation.”

But in the case of children who have reached school age, critical questions are likely to follow – at the latest when the accommodation in the camps continues and answers to the question about the biological parents are not forthcoming. “The children will realize that they are being lied to. And that leads to a considerable loss of trust and uncertainty.” Preschool and elementary school children cannot be expected to put the Russian war crimes into a political context. It can take years for children to understand the exact connections – and political socialization also plays a role. “But younger children sense that something is happening to them that they cannot influence. The helplessness is even greater there than with the older children.”

The day will inevitably come when they ask: Why is it that I feel so alien here?

Cornelia Lohmeier


Do younger children suffer more?

So do younger children experience more suffering from kidnapping than teenagers? According to Lohmeier, it cannot be assumed. Despite the initial helplessness, younger children are more able to adjust to their new life. “The smaller children who feel accepted, spoiled and given gifts will settle in better and try to make friends and feel at home,” says Lohmeier. At a young age, those affected would have no option but to accept their fate anyway. “Perhaps they actually have the feeling that their adoptive parents have accepted them and that they have found someone they can trust,” says Lohmeier. The younger a child is, the better the adaptation works – this is evident from adoption studies. The reason: the children have a smaller horizon of experience, are less able to classify what happened and retain fewer memories.

However, kidnapping is not easily forgotten by young children. The psychologist is certain: “The day will inevitably come when you ask: Why is it that I feel so strange here? What was it like back then?” While young, abducted children eventually look for the reason for their feeling of being a stranger and for their origin, the older ones primarily want to find their biological family again. “The children are probably either told that their parents are dead or that they are no longer interested in them. But they can’t verify it – that’s a completely unfinished chapter,” says Lohmeier. In principle, older children find it more difficult to accept being “adopted” by Russian parents. Because of their greater life experience, they would rather try to assert themselves and resist.

“There will be some left”

But this is often useless. Even an escape hardly seems possible – especially since the Russian government is kidnapping some of the Ukrainian children to the remote regions of Siberia and eastern Russia. According to WDR correspondent Tobias Dammers, 300 kidnapped Ukrainian children have already returned to their parents. However, many parents do not know where their children are. And even if the whereabouts are known, not everyone can afford to pick up their children from Russia – especially not over long distances.

KHERSON, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 01: An elderly woman looks at damage caused by overnight Russian shelling of a residential building on December 01, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine.  Recently Ukrainian forces took back control of Kherson, as well as swaths of its surrounding region, after Russia pulled its forces back to the other side of the Dnipro river.  Kherson was the only regional capital to be captured by Russia following its invasion on February 24. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

“I pray every night that we survive”

Ukraine celebrated the liberation of Cherson in November. But the city is still in the stranglehold of the Russians, who are shelling it from the other bank of the Dnipro. More and more people are fleeing. Those who are still there report Russian war crimes – and pray.

According to Lohmeier, when older children and young people realize that there is no way out of their situation, this has dramatic consequences: “Feelings then freeze and become submissive.” Depending on their age and the experiences of abduction, there are further long-term consequences possible, which express themselves as disturbances in experience and behavior: anxiety and panic states, nightmares, concentration disorders as well as learning and behavioral problems ranging from aggressiveness to emotional withdrawal or overadaptation. “As with post-traumatic stress disorders, there will be a lot left behind,” Lohmeier suspects. Psychosomatic disorders are also possible, especially in smaller children who cannot classify their situation – such as diffuse sleep disorders, stomachache and headaches.

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Babies suffer too

Even some infants are not left untouched by the kidnapping. “Your own memory probably won’t be enough for you to track it down. What remains is what is stored in the body’s memory.” If the abduction from Ukraine takes place under violent circumstances, as the Yale study shows, then the abducted infants could also suffer a variety of long-term consequences.

Exactly how the kidnapping affects the mental health of Ukrainian children will vary from case to case. There is no question that some will suffer from long-term psychological consequences. There have already been similar cases in history, from which parallels can possibly be drawn – for example during the times of the Second World War. At that time, the Nazis had hundreds of thousands of children from Northern and Eastern Europe who corresponded to their Aryan racial image deported to Germany, forcibly adopted and “Germanized”. Many of the “rapid children” suffered lifelong from being uprooted and the associated trauma.

Will the Ukrainian children now face a similar fate? Lohmeier hopes that this can be prevented by speedy repatriation to Ukraine. It is important to be as open and age-appropriate with the children as possible. This enables them “to be able to mentally process what they have experienced physically and mentally.” If the children are placed with Russian families, there is no way around them being lied to. “I hardly believe that someone would deal with it so openly and say that it would be a coercive measure of unknown duration,” Lohmeier suspects. But even if some things can be covered up, the kidnapped children could eventually come across documents or Internet articles and want to get to the bottom of the truth. Lohmeier is convinced. that “the questions can never be completely buried.”

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