This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska called on Kyiv’s allies to move more quickly in their joint effort to force Moscow to return Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war, saying that time is not on the children’s side.
In an interview with RFE/RL in Riga, where she co-hosting a conference titled Russia’s War On Children, Zelenska said Ukraine is working with Western allies on developing legal mechanisms to put pressure on Moscow to release the children back home.
According to official Ukrainian data, more than 19,500 children have been illegally taken and sent to Russia since Moscow launched its invasion nearly two years ago. Zelenska warned that Russia is accelerating the adoption process and that the longer they are there, the deeper the impact on their lives.
“Our main enemy here is time, unfortunately, because, first of all, children grow up. We don’t have a year, or two, or three. We need to understand this. I hope that today’s conversations will encourage our partners to act faster,” she told RFE/RL.
Several Ukrainian children who returned from Russia spoke at the conference to share their stories. Zelenska said it was critical that people hear and see the children to understand the trauma they have gone through and why the rest need to be returned as soon as possible.
The Ukrainian children held by Russia “should not become just statistics,” she said. “Unfortunately, human psychology works in such a way that when you don’t see faces, when you just look at documents, it doesn’t impact you, your soul.”
The International Criminal Court in The Hague last year issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and children’s commissioner Lvova-Belova, charging them with the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia — a war crime under international legislation.
Zelenska called the children who spoke “important witnesses” and said their stories are “evidence” of Russia’s crimes.
“I really hope that what they went through will only remain a page in their lives that they have turned over. They will remember, but it will not be the thing that changed their lives forever,” she said.
As she seeks the return of Ukrainian children from Russia, Zelenska said it would be wrong to force Ukrainian mothers who fled to Western countries with their children to return home while the war is still ongoing.
“We in Ukraine understand that saving a child is the most important thing for a mother. And our dream is for everyone to come back [to Ukraine]. But we understand that this requires peace. We need peace, we need recovery, so that people have a place to return,” she said.