In the middle of Siberia, Roman Vinogradov plays with a group of children, while his wife, Ekaterina, reads a story to the little ones. Of the 16 children in their care, five come from Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.
The couple, met by AFP in Novosibirsk three thousand kilometers from Ukraine, say their mission is simple: to help these "children in need".
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, international organizations have accused the Russian authorities of orchestrating the "forced displacement" of thousands of Ukrainian minors, which President Volodymyr Zelensky called war crimes and crimes against humanity , seeing in it "kidnappings", "forced adoptions" and "re-education" of Ukrainians.
Russia, of course, claims to protect "refugee" children.
"What does stealing mean? I didn't steal from anyone," Vinogradov insists, and the children "don't think they were robbed either."
He and his wife tell AFP how they have found themselves since the summer of 2022 in charge of five Ukrainian children, who have added to their four children and seven others placed in their family.
All are from Lugansk, one of the regions occupied by Russia, and where Moscow sponsored an armed conflict in 2014 by supporting separatists there.
Russian social services "called us to ask: Would you like to take children from Ukraine?" recalls Ekaterina Vinogradova.
“We said: OK, we will welcome them,” continues the 38-year-old woman. "What difference does it make? Children are still children. Their nation doesn't matter," she argues.
The couple has therefore been hosting five Ukrainian children for six months, four girls and a boy aged between three and twelve. All have the same mother, who was deprived of her parental authority, and different fathers.
AFP journalists saw this quintet of Ukrainian half-sisters and brothers having fun with other children, sledding for example, or helping with chores, clearing snow around the house or helping in the preparation of the meal.
According to documents seen by AFP and signed by the authorities of Lugansk, territory whose annexation Moscow is now claiming, the five children were placed in various institutions in the Lugansk region before being transferred to Russia and then placed with the Vinogradovs.
According to Roman, the children no longer remember their mother. "The time will come when they will ask questions (about their past). So we will start researching. Maybe we will organize a meeting", continues Ekaterina.
Roman explains that the children need time to feel secure in their new home.
In kindergarten, "they were worried about whether we would pick them up," he says. "They were asking: when are you coming (to pick us up) and are you really coming or not?".
Under international law, no party to a conflict may evacuate children to a foreign country, except temporarily for compelling health or security reasons.
In a report published on Monday, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a "concerted international effort" to allow the return of these children to Ukraine.
"The return of children illegally abducted by Russian forces should be an international priority," said Bill Van Esveld, associate director of children's rights at HRW.
For its part, kyiv accuses Moscow of lying to hide these minors and make their return impossible.
The Russians "refuse to recognize that these children have been deported. Russia is hiding our children", insisted last week Daria Guerasimchuk, the Children's Commissioner of the Ukrainian presidency.
According to her, Ukraine has identified 43 centers in Russia hosting these minors.
The children are "moved (from town to town) all the time", she told AFP, "we have evidence of the extent of the efforts undertaken by Russia to make family reunification impossible".
According to Daria Guerassimchuk, it is "wrong to say that only orphans were taken to Russia". Of the 16,000 children she accuses Moscow of having sent to its territory, only 138 were in orphanages.
She explains that others were separated from their parents by the war or voluntarily by the Russians who set up "filtration camps" in the newly conquered territories.
Moscow, for its part, assures that it only thinks of the well-being of child victims of the conflict, like its children's officer, Maria Lvova-Belova, who herself revealed in February on television in front of President Vladimir Putin approves of adopting a child from the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol (south).
Ms Guerassimtchouk says that kyiv has therefore endeavored to shelter the children accommodated in institutions in areas threatened by the Russian army.
“We sent these children from homes to foster families so that the Russians could not identify them and move them,” she says. "But it didn't always work."
Volodymyr Sagaïdak, director of a home in Kherson, a southern city retaken in November by the Ukrainian army after nearly nine months under Russian control, told AFP that the occupation authorities questioned him about the children and seized his files.
"Nobody said they wanted to take the kids. But I would say it was a disguised form of deportation, for example saying: Come on, let's go on a trip, let's have fun in Crimea" (southern) Ukrainian region under Russian control since 2014, he explained to AFP during a meeting in January.
A teacher at the foster home, Oksana Koval, said that after the Russian conquest of Kherson in the first days of the invasion, the officials of the center rushed to place the children with relatives or with the staff of the foster home. institution in order to hide them.
Oksana herself took in three daughters.
"The Russians didn't know we had the kids. They were told the parents had picked them up," the 49-year-old recalled.
"Only one thing mattered to us: saving these children."
13/03/2023 13:28:31 - Kiev (Ukraine) (AFP) © 2023 AFP