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Thousands of Ukrainian children have been forcibly deported to Belarus in an alleged war crime that could implicate president Alexander Lukashenko.
Some 2,150 Ukrainian children as young as six are estimated to have been taken to at least four camps in Belarus since September 2022, with the number expected to reach 3,000 by autumn this year. Some are alleged to have been given military training.
Evidence linking these crimes to Mr Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials has been submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC), The Telegraph can reveal.
“We want to show the world that such activity [being] organised precisely by Mr Lukashenko is a war crime,” said Pavel Latushka, head of the opposition group National Anti-Crisis Management, which submitted the accusations.
“In our opinion, [he] is the main [individual] responsible for the forcible displacement of these children to Belarus … he directly gave instructions on organising the financing of these processes.”
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, already face an ICC arrest warrant, announced in March, for the alleged forced deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children into Russia.
The ICC’s investigation could now widen to include Mr Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials. The court said it assessed information received, and was “duty bound to protect the confidentiality” of such communications.
It comes weeks after Mr Lukashenko, described as Europe’s last dictator, cut a deal with the Russian president to host the troops from the Wagner militia that led a mutiny against the Kremlin.
Mr Lukashenko, increasingly believed to be a puppet leader of a Russian vassal state, has also this month taken delivery of Russian tactical nuclear warheads in a further threat to Europe and the West.
Moscow began systematically transporting children from Ukraine into Russia in the weeks before it invaded in late February 2022.
The practice has continued and the Ukrainian government now estimates that more than 19,500 children have been forcibly transferred by Russian authorities.
Only 361 of them have been returned to Ukraine, Darya Herasymchuk, the Ukrainian presidential commissioner for children’s rights, told The Telegraph.
More than 100 criminal cases have been filed in Ukraine regarding the illegal forced deportation of children, including to Belarus and Russia, the Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office said.
Purported orphans are “evacuated” from eastern Ukraine by Russia into holding camps. Some of those children are then “adopted” into Russian families. Other children are sent to “holiday camps” by Russian-aligned officials, never to return.
Some of the children held in Belarus are believed to have been sent on to Russia, including in the far eastern reaches of the country, nearly 4,000 miles from Ukraine.
Ukrainian children being held in Belarus typically travel through Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city two hours from the Ukrainian border – from where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief, recently launched his armed rebellion.
From there, they are transferred by train to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, then taken by bus to various facilities, including at least four locations identified by researchers and human rights lawyers.
Camps of lost children
One document seen by The Telegraph is signed by Dmitry Mezentsev, chairman of a Russian-Belarusian body and former Russian ambassador to Belarus. It requests the co-operation between the Belarusian and Russian state railway operators to organise the “transportation of the children of Donbas for rehabilitation to the brotherly Belarus”.
The document has been submitted to the ICC as evidence by the National Anti-Crisis Management, run by a group of exiles who oppose the Belarusian government.
The organisation has also submitted other material, including Belarusian state media reports that explicitly state the movement of children by order of Mr Lukashenko.
Three “camps” are in the Minsk region, including the Ostroshitsky Gorodok Sanatorium, the Zubrenok national children’s educational and health centre, and Dubrava children’s camp, owned by the Belarusian state fertiliser company Belaruskali.
A fourth location is the Golden Sands Sanatorium in the Gomel region.
Families searching for missing children “may not even know their children are in Belarus”, said Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer at the Regional Centre for Human Rights, a Ukrainian NGO.
One video submitted to the ICC as evidence shows the Gruzdev sisters, Belarusian pop singers, speaking to Ukrainian children at what is believed to be the Dubrava camp.
“So that we live in peace, so that Biden dies, God forgive me, so that Zelensky dies too, and Putin prospers and takes control of all of Ukraine,” the sisters say to dozens of children seated in the audience.
The number of children to be deported into Belarus is expected to top 3,000 this autumn, according to internal documents and Belarusian state media reports.
Russia says it is legally removing children from the threat of war. Authorities offer money to incentivise parents to “adopt” Ukrainian children.
The Telegraph has also found that children detained in holding camps in Russia are forced to undergo re-education and beaten if they refuse to comply.
Ukrainian children are often told they are Russian, forced to learn the Russian national anthem, spoken to only in Russian, and taught to denounce Ukraine before being adopted or fostered.
In rare cases, there have been instances of children undergoing training in the use of firearms and military vehicles. Mr Latushka’s group has also alleged that children held in Belarus are being taught how to use weapons.
Human rights activists have highlighted concerns regarding Ukrainian boys in their late teens – if they turn 18 after being forcibly deported to Russia, or Russian-occupied areas, they would fall in the mandatory age range for conscription.
“The situation is very dangerous for teenagers; if they are 17 years old, and boys, it is catastrophic,” said Ms Rashevska.
“After turning 18, they will be transferred as cannon fodder for this war; this is the Russian strategy.”
The Belarusian government did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Lukashenko in June said that he had offered to Mr Putin to host children in Belarus.
The Belarusian leader said he has reached out to Putin and they agreed to fund the children’s stay in Belarus from the state budget.
“This is how we started taking them here,” Mr Lukashenko said Tuesday. “We help improve their health and they leave. They actually don’t want to leave.”