BERLIN, Germany—The mother of Veronika Trubitsyna, 13, and Anastasiia Trubitsyna, 15, died one hour before Russian police forced the sisters to pack their few belongings and move into a nearby orphanage. Without any legal guardians in Russia, they were told they would become wards of the state.
For nine months, the sisters were trapped in a system that sought to feed them pro-war propaganda and encourage them to become Russian citizens. Now out of Russia’s grasp, Veronika spoke with The Daily Beast about the time she spent in Russia. She is one of the thousands of children who have been forcibly transferred to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began in February last year, and one of the few who have escaped.
On March 17, The International Criminal Court (ICC) filed an official warrant for the arrest of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. The two have been accused of war crimes related to the deportation of children from Ukraine and occupied territories to Russia since February last year. But the ICC has no criminal jurisdiction of its own, so as long as Putin and Lvova-Belova remain in Russia and its allied countries, the likelihood the two will be arrested is slim.
Moscow has denied allegations of child abduction, but Ukrainian officials and human rights defenders have called the actions evidence of genocide. The deportations of people to Russia have been recorded since the beginning of the war, when 3.6 million Ukrainians reportedly fled their homes in just one month.
At the time of the invasion, Veroinka was at home with her sister Anastasiia and mother, Agnesa Trubitsyna, in the village of Lysychansk in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, her elder sister Kateryna Trubitsyna told The Daily Beast. Within hours, Lysychansk became a battleground that immediately turned Veronika, a girl who loved to study and read, into a child of war.
“The first days of the war were a nightmare. A week before the invasion, older people started buying everything in the markets and shops. And when the war started, we ran to the pharmacy to buy baby formula and there was almost no more,” said Kateryna. At the time, her youngest daughter was six months old.
Luhansk, now one of the four regions of Ukraine that Russia annexed, has seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting. But Veronika’s mother had first believed that the war would be over quickly, like in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in just over a month. Agnesa asked Kateryna, who lived an hour away in Novokrasnyanka, to come to her home.
“My mother kept calling me and my daughters to her village, always saying that in 2014 the war had bypassed us, and this time it would do the same,” said Kateryna.
Russia’s rapid offensive left Veronika’s family with no time to plan a possible escape to the West, to join Kateryna’s family and their other sister. Instead, the family in Lysychansk was forced to live under the constant chaos of war.
Veronika said her mother began to work on an escape plan, desperate to protect her daughters not only from weapons of war, but also from what might happen to them if Russian soldiers were to find them. Reports that Putin’s army has raped children have emerged throughout the war.
By mid-March, Agnes had taken her two youngest daughters to a nearby kindergarten to dodge the constant shelling. But the dangers of occupation were everywhere, and there was an added concern: the mother suffered from hypertension, and her health was deteriorating.
“We were afraid that at any time, we would be hit. If she [mother] hadn’t got problems with her heart and pressure, she wouldn’t have gone anywhere from home,” said Veronika.
According to Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, a forcible transfer includes cases where people do not have another choice. She told The Daily Beast, “When you hear the term ‘forcible transfer’ for the first time, what comes to mind is that the person has been tied up and thrown into a vehicle and taken somewhere.”
“But the definition of forcible transfer is broader than that. It’s also about transfers of people who do not have a meaningful choice. If the choice is dying under shelling or going to the territory of the occupying state, that is also foreseeable transfer,” she added.
Such was the case for Agnes Trubitsyna when she decided to bring her daughters to Russia, where her mother and brother lived. But going meant leaving behind everything and starting over in a country that refused to acknowledge Ukraine’s independence, and they would be unable to return home.
“There were queues at the border in both directions. We were brought to the border by car, spent the night at the railway station, and then went by train. Our uncle had already bought tickets at the time,” said Veronika. “It was in the Rostov region [Russia]. We went without clothes because we did not have time to take them when we were taken out. Only documents and a phone were among our personal belongings.”
Just days after living with her uncle, Veronika’s family moved in with her grandmother, who lived in Ryazan, a town over four hours away, and even further from Ukraine. “We lived in our grandmother’s house for a week. Then the police came and took us away and put us in a dormitory for displaced people in Ryazan. This was done so that immigrants from Ukraine did not live freely but were able to be observed and forced to make [Russian] documents as soon as possible.”
The family was allegedly not allowed to move out of the hostel, but they tried to adjust to their new life as Ukrainians trapped in Russia. In April, the sisters were enrolled in school. Speaking of that time, Veronika said, “When a new child comes to school, it is always alarming. And they immediately understood that we are Ukrainians and began to morally abuse us.”
“They told us the same thing about the liberators, the Nazis, that Ukraine had no chance. There was nothing we could do but remain silent. Some teachers did not pay attention to us, and all the others and the children said, ‘Why are you stuck here? Go back to your Ukraine.’ I wanted to go to my home to Ukraine. But we could not go. We had no money,” she added.
Ridicule from peers was a pain that the sisters could manage. They knew how to brush off comments as they came in. The threat that Veronika and Anastasiia feared the most was their mother’s health. “The peak of her illness was in Ryazan. She was getting worse and worse every day,” said Veronika.
On July 13, 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Russia to “immediately halt its systematic ‘filtration’ operations and forced deportations in Russian-controlled and held areas of Ukraine. The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime.”
Blinken estimated that “Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia.” Making Veronika’s family one of the hundreds of thousands that were forcibly deported in the months following the invasion.
On April 4, 2022, another Ukrainian woman, Anna, was left with no other choice but to leave Mariupol and travel to Russia to seek medical attention along with her 27-year-old autistic son and 70-year-old mother. “There was no communication, food ran out, and most importantly, there was no access to water sources. We had no other choice. Only on the territory of the Russian Federation, Mariupol was the ring. We were forced to enter the territories controlled by Russia,” she told The Daily Beast.
“We were deported to Russia since it was impossible to live permanently in these [occupied] territories. There was no medical care. Evacuation to Ukraine was not organized,” she added.
Anna’s family spent three days on a train from Ukraine to Tikhvin, a city near St. Petersburg. As they traveled through Russia, Anna said they were told, “We saved you from the Nazis. They also said so on T.V. that they pulled it out of the clutches of Nazis.”
Once arriving in Tikhvin, the family was taken to a camp outside of the city, where “800 people, 200 children,[and] many old people were living.” The family lived at the camp for 20 days before they managed to escape with the help of volunteers. But while Anna’s family received medical treatment, Veronika and her sister took on a new role.
The Trubitsyna sisters said that eventually, they took on the role of nurse for their mother. The girls cooked meals, went to the pharmacy to collect their mother’s medication, held her as she went to the restroom, and bathed and clothed her.
“At the beginning, in autumn, she almost did not get out of bed,” Veronika said. “She had strong cardiac asthma, and her legs hurt so much that she could not walk. And her blood pressure was always 220-180,” a blood pressure level that is considered a crisis, where stroke or a loss of kidney function can occur.
The teenager said that on Dec. 6, her mother was admitted to a hospital after surviving a stroke. Though she was treated, it was not enough. On Dec. 16, doctors allegedly discharged the mother, despite swelling to her abdomen, legs, and arms. Then, just one day later, while Veronica was collecting medication at a pharmacy, her mother apparently suffered a heart attack.
“I could not stand up for myself.”
There is no clear timeframe for when Agnesa’s heart finally gave up, but it was not until some time had passed that neighbors were said to have found the mother lying on the ground. Running back to the hostel was not quick enough, and by the time Veronica said she arrived, medics were already providing CPR.
“We sat in the room for two hours, begging the lord not to take my mother away,” said Veronica. When the doctors left the house without giving Veronika and Anastasiia an explanation, Kateryna called the hospital. It was only then that the sisters said they found out their mother had died.
“An hour after the death of our mother, [the orphanage employees] came from the children’s house and took us away. They did not say anything, only that we are minors and we do not have the right to live alone without a guardian,” said Veronika. “Our uncle buried our mother. We were present at the funeral. The director of the orphanage brought us there.”
According to Kateryna, their grandmother and uncle were not told anything as Veronika and Anastasiia were taken away, only that “they said they could not legally take the girls from [the orphanage].”
On Wednesday, Lvova-Belova briefed a UN meeting that Russia called to counter claims that Moscow had deported Ukrainian children. Lvova-Belova claims Russia has taken in five million Ukrainians, including 700,000 children, since the invasion, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
Lvova-Belova said all of the children had been taken with parents, relatives, or legal guardians, except for 2,000 from orphanages in the Donbas region. Of the orphans, Lvova-Belova said about 1,300 were returned to children homes in Ukraine, 400 were sent to Russian orphanages, and 358 were placed into foster homes to date.
But Ukraine’s United Nations Representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya, wrote in response to the conference that “Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported over 19,500 Ukrainian children from their homes within Ukraine to Russia. No amount of disinformation spread by the Russian Federation can deny the truth of the matter, nor shield individuals from accountability for these crimes.”
“Adoption is not acceptable during an armed conflict. That goes without saying,” said Lokshinia.
Putting up a fight
At the orphanage, the sisters said they were part of a small number of Ukrainian children who lived amongst Russians in an eight-person bedroom equipped with four bunk beds, two wardrobes, and a table at the orphanage. They were allegedly fed four times daily, but only allowed three showers a week. While the children said they had two teachers who were sympathetic to their circumstances, they claim two others fed them pro-Russian propaganda and tried to convince them to turn away from Ukraine forever and claim Russian citizenship.
It was Anastasiia who remained strong when Veronika had felt all was lost. At 15, she gained a reputation for standing up against any abuses that children or teachers tried to inflict, becoming a fearless protector of her younger sister, Veronika told The Daily Beast.
“We were not bullied as all the children in the house, as well as the teachers were all afraid of my Nastya. When they said something to us that we didn’t like, they had no desire to mess with us. I could not stand up for myself,” she said of her older sister.
In Ukraine, Kateryna spent every waking moment trying to find a way to get to Russia and save her younger sisters. Russian police allegedly told her, however, that the sisters could only be reunited if Kateryna had been approved for guardianship, which took time.
“I was afraid, but I tried to be brave.”
There was also uncertainty about how to fund the trip to Russia, and whether it would work. Kateryna could have been trapped the second she crossed into the country. It took a bank loan of €1,600 ($1,750), and help from the non-governmental organization SOS Children’s Towns of Ukraine to get Kateryna to Russia. Once there, she said, “I was afraid, but I tried to be brave. I didn’t show that I was afraid.”
SOS Children’s Village is a non-governmental organization that has operated globally since 1949, and in Ukraine since 2003. Before the war, they worked to aid vulnerable families, helping parents with career guidance and psychological support for families, in addition to advocating for institutional change in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, they have increased their staff, opened children’s spaces, and, since September 2022, have helped 80 children escape Russia.
Press Manager Serhiy Lukashov described the case of Veronika and Anastasiia as a “very tragic story.”
“Their mother died on the territory of the Russian Federation, and the older sister had to go after the sisters. We were contacted by the Ministry of Reintegration to Ukraine with a request to help,” he told The Daily Beast. “We paid for the road in the amount of €1,600. We do not communicate with any individual or legal entity in the Russian Federation and Belarus.”
Lukashov described the emotional toll of NGO’s work as “very difficult.”
“Our employees, who work directly with the beneficiaries, are very morally exhausted. They experience the tragic stories of children and their families,” he said. People are constantly stressed and trying to help. It is especially difficult with injured children and children who have lost their parents.”
On Jan. 31, Kateryna finally made it to Russia. She had the guardianship papers in hand and had traveled from Ukraine, to Poland, to Belarus and lastly to Russia. But Veronika said many at the orphanage did not want her and Anastasiia to go. Instead, they insisted, “We should take Russian citizenship, that we would be better off in an orphanage than somewhere in Ukraine. We didn’t listen to anyone. We were just happy to be with a loved relative,” Veronika said.
The days were long on the return to Kyiv, including overnight stays at train stations. The entire trip took Kateryna 10 days, and she feared that anything could go wrong. “I was afraid, but I tried to be brave. I didn’t show that I was afraid,” she told The Daily Beast, though she “only felt relief” about being reunited with her sisters.
Back in Ukraine, the family had no money left, and no way to collect the funds their mother had left for the two girls. The Russian death certificate they were given was without an Apostille stamp, an international certification comparable to notarization.
Kateryna pushes her younger sisters to study and work hard, hoping to pave the way for success even during the Russian invasion.
“I think that after the loss of a loved one, you still need time to get away from grief and gather all your thoughts,” said Veronika. “She did not show her emotions, her fear. She was very confident in herself and us. We remember our mother very often, only love and gratitude to [her] that she raised us exactly as we are.”
Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration of The Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine declined multiple requests for an interview.