Putin the evil child snatcher: DOMINIC LAWSON is closer than most to the plight of Ukraine's children because his family are hosting an 11-year-old boy called Yehor. Here, he reports on how Russia has abducted thousands, now being brainwashed in camps

In the early hours of last Wednesday morning I was woken by explosions, and the building I was sleeping in seemed to vibrate. This was the result of Russia firing a barrage of hypersonic missiles at Kyiv, a murderously intended retort to the meeting in Washington at exactly that moment between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Joe Biden.

By real good fortune – and the use of U.S. Patriot missile-interceptors – no one was killed in this attack, the most intensive such onslaught on Kyiv since the first days of the full-scale invasion almost two years ago. But scores of people were injured, including children.

When I heard and felt the blasts, I immediately thought of one child I have got to know well. His name is Yehor. We have hosted this delightful Ukrainian boy, now 11, and his mother Vera, since July 2022.

Yehor’s favourite playground in Kyiv had been hit by a Russian bomb in the first weeks of the war; and as Vera said to my wife when she arrived in England: ‘I had to decide whether to act as a patriot, or as a mother.’

It became clear to me that Yehor had been traumatised by those bombings. And the reason I thought of him in the darkness that morning was because he and Vera were just arriving back for two weeks in Kyiv to spend the Christmas period with his father, Vitaliy, who had been living alone in their home.

In the early hours of last Wednesday morning I was woken by explosions, and the building I was sleeping in seemed to vibrate, writes Dominic Lawson 

This is Daria Gerasymchuk, President Zelensky's adviser on Children's Rights

This is Daria Gerasymchuk, President Zelensky’s adviser on Children’s Rights

A day later, they gave me a wonderful dinner in their flat, high up in a vast Soviet-era apartment block. I couldn’t help but notice how vulnerable it seemed, with windows of glass so much thinner than the ultra-reinforced version in the hotel I was using (where all the staff of the U.S. embassy now live).

Next day, Vera told me that during the almost non-stop attack by Iranian-manufactured drones that began about two hours after I left, they once again moved to the windowless public corridor outside their flat – presaging yet another sleep-starved night.

It’s hardly surprising that many millions of Ukrainian children are now thought to be suffering from PTSD – or what we used to call ‘shell-shock’.

One of the youngest so afflicted is Sviatoslav, now two, but who was just a few months old when his mother Anna Zaitseva rushed with him to what she thought was the place of greatest safety in her home city of Mariupol, 24 hours after the beginning of the invasion.

That was the Azovstal Iron and Steelworks, a gigantic plant built under the Soviet regime, which had shelters designed to resist nuclear attack. Her husband Kirilo was employed at the steelworks, but had earlier been in the military, and he joined the soldiers there in a heroic but doomed defence.

Anna, now 26, whose job had been teaching French at a school, told me how she had sung lullabies to her baby boy as their subterranean space shuddered with the impact of the Russian forces’ ‘bunker-busting’ bombs.

Yehor and Dominic near the memorial for those killed from Russian aggression during the war

Yehor and Dominic near the memorial for those killed from Russian aggression during the war

Traffic police officers block a road as smoke rises above buildings following recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk

Traffic police officers block a road as smoke rises above buildings following recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk

But when the baby-formula for Sviatoslav ran out – and food was running out for everyone – Anna, with her child in her arms, joined civilians who gave themselves up. She went through a ‘filtration camp’, and told me about her interrogation by the Russian security service, the FSB.

‘They made me strip naked, because they were looking for swastika tattoos, claiming we were ‘Nazis’. Actually, I have a tattoo, in French: it says ‘La vie est belle’. The Russians went mad: they said this was German and proved I must be a Nazi.’

Eventually, via the Red Cross, she and Sviatoslav were released, and they now live in Berlin – though she was in Kyiv during the week of my stay, and kindly stood in as an interpreter for any interviews I did with children.

Anna told me she learned that her husband had been injured in the final battle, but, in the 19 months since Kirilo and the other ‘Azovstal defenders’ had surrendered to the Russians, ‘I have heard nothing from him or about him. I do not even know if he is alive or not. But if he is not . . .well, to die defending those you love is the best of deaths.’

And their child? ‘I think he has PTSD, he puts his hands over his ears whenever there is a loud noise. But in other ways he seems very wise, like he is 75 years old.’

Later, I visited a rehabilitation centre for children, which has been treating youngsters whose lives have been devastated by Vladimir Putin’s war.

There, I met Elena Matveenko and, in a separate room, her grandson Ilya, now 11. Elena, who will be 65 next month, told me how her daughter had been killed in the Russian bombardment of Mariupol, and that the Russians had not only ‘taken her body away’, but also Ilya, alive, though badly injured.

I visited a rehabilitation centre for children, which has been treating youngsters whose lives have been devastated by Vladimir Putin's war, writes Dominic Lawson

I visited a rehabilitation centre for children, which has been treating youngsters whose lives have been devastated by Vladimir Putin’s war, writes Dominic Lawson 

He was transported to the city of Donetsk, held by Russian separatists, where he was meant to be turned into a good little Russian. She knew nothing about where he was until her nephew in Austria rang her to say he had seen Ilya in a Russian video, which declared that the boy had been ‘rescued’ from the supposed Nazis of Mariupol.

Somehow, she was put in touch with that mysterious billionaire and former owner of Chelsea football club Roman Abramovich, who then acted, following negotiations with officials from Ukraine and Russia, to return Ilya to his grandmother in April 2022.

That was a sort of miracle, Elena told me, adding that ‘Ilya returned on Easter Day’. But Ilya’s own account – which I witnessed as he was being interviewed by a Ukrainian documentary team – was almost unbearably tragic.

It seems that his mother had died in his arms, as they hugged each other close.

‘Our house was bombed, destroyed, we were in the ruins, and a neighbour said we should spend the night at her house.

‘But when we ran across to it, another rocket hit, and fragments went into my leg, it was torn apart down to the tendons.

‘Another fragment got Mum in the head, but she helped me. She could still walk, while I was hopping on one leg. Then we just lay together there in the neighbour’s house. But that evening, my mum died. Just like that. Well, because of blood loss. And the next day the Russians came and took me. And they operated on my leg, but not completely under anaesthetic, it was very painful.

‘Then they wanted to brainwash me or something like that. I was told to write and speak only in Russian. A doctor came to see me and said, ‘You will not say ‘Glory to Ukraine’, but ‘Glory to Ukraine as part of the Russian Federation’.’ It was very strange.’

But for the Kremlin, this is not strange at all. Putin has long been haunted by his vast territory’s demographic decline, especially among those described as ethnically Russian: according to a report by the Warsaw Institute, in recent years ‘the death to birth ratio has been as much as 2.5 to 1 for ethnic Russians’.

This, as well as Putin’s belief that Ukrainians are just Russians who have been duped into believing otherwise, helps explain the programme of mass abduction of Ukrainian children from captured territory: the figure runs into the tens of thousands, mostly held in a network of at least 43 camps providing ‘re-education and adoption facilities’.

It is for this that the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Putin and his ‘Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights’, Maria Lvova-Belova.

In the same building in which I met Ilya and his grandmother, I also interviewed Lvova-Belova’s Ukrainian opposite number.

This is Daria Gerasymchuk, President Zelensky’s adviser on Children’s Rights. The 36-year-old Gerasymchuk, a pocket battleship of a woman who has always worked in this field, forcefully explained the Russian strategy to me: ‘After killing the parents, they take the children to the Russian Federation. They brainwash the children they have seized, in special camps for this purpose. Then they are put in Russian families.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky thanks people for their support of Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky thanks people for their support of Ukraine 

‘They want to kill the future of Ukraine. They want Ukraine to be a country without a future, because our children are our future. This is a form of genocide. Overall, about 745,000 children who were in sovereign Ukraine are now in Russian-held territory.

‘And Russian officials, some of whom have been given abducted children whose parents have been killed in the war, say how good they are for having rescued them!’

I raised with Gerasymchuk the issue of Putin’s desire to reverse Russia’s own population implosion, as a reason for this.

‘Yes, I agree, they want to solve Russia’s demographic problem, by taking Ukrainian children. But there is a military aspect to this, too. Boys of 14 to 17 years old in Russia are encouraged to go into so-called ‘national patriotic camps’, a sort of youth army. They need more young men to be made into future soldiers, to fight against Ukraine.

‘So stolen Ukrainian children will be brainwashed to fight Ukrainians. Because Russia does not have enough young men to fight its wars.’

Russia has also tried to wreck Ukraine’s future, not just through its child abduction policy, but also in sheer destructiveness: notably by its sabotage of the Khakovka dam in June. Though designed to hinder the planned Ukrainian counter offensive, this also had the effect of wrecking vast tracts of farmland. It has been described as ‘ecocide’.

In Kyiv I met 16-year-old Daryna Bryzgalova, from the port city of Kherson, who told me how the country cottage that she and relatives treasured as a holiday home ‘was destroyed by the waters released by the Kakhovka dam explosion. We had some lovely cherry trees, apricot trees, grape vines. All destroyed.

‘And all the animals in my favourite zoo, hundreds of them, were drowned. I had so many happy visits there.’

In Kherson, when under Russian occupation (it was subsequently recaptured by Ukrainian forces), this child also saw what Anna Zaitseva experienced: ‘Sometimes the Russians would stop a bus and get everyone to take their clothes off to see if they had ‘Nazi tattoos’ on their bodies.’

It’s dreadful to think what effect all this has on a child.

But Daryna seems to be one who somehow can take in her stride such horrors as constant bombardment (which Kherson still endures). ‘I’m so used to missile attacks. You know by the sound which is one of ours, and which theirs. And if you hear a whistling sound, that’s good news, because it means it’s not right on top of you. I’ve become an expert on artillery sounds.’

In a way, my young friend Yehor has also become an expert. In the family apartment, he showed me a list on his smartphone of every air raid alert from the moment the Russians launched their attempt to make the home he has only known as an independent country once again a subordinate satrapy of Moscow. He scrolled on and on…

When we walked through the streets together with Yehor’s parents one evening last week, the air-raid sirens sounded yet again. As it happens, our destination was a basement restaurant, so a safe place to be. Yehor said nothing, but I sensed his anxiety. Later I asked if he had been frightened.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but if you say out loud what it is you are scared of, then it will happen. So you…’ and then he did a motion of drawing his finger across his lips.

I found it difficult to hide my own emotion, at that point. Not least as it is obvious that Putin will be doing his malevolent and spiteful best to make the Christmas holiday period a particular form of hell for the people of Kyiv – especially knowing that so many refugee Ukrainian mothers and children will be returning home for this festival that celebrates the creation of a family.

Now I am safely back in England, and about to enjoy the cosy pleasures of Christmas with my own family. Not since the Blitz, when my late father was roughly Yehor’s age, has our own capital endured what Yehor now faces.

But since Christmas is a time when we devote our thoughts above all to the joy of children, this year please think of the children of Ukraine. I know I will be — and of one in particular.