Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine — As the war in Ukraine grinds on the government in Kyiv is accusing Russia of kidnapping thousands of children and taking them into Russian-controlled territory. Ukraine says Russia is trying to force the children to become Russian, but as CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay found out, there are people working to rescue the kids and bring them home.
He met Maxim and Ivan in a dorm room with a Ukrainian flag hung proudly on the wall. They were listening to Ukrainian music and wearing traditional Ukrainian clothing, but the two boys were almost forced to become Russian.
“Russian forces took us away,” 16-year-old Ivan told Livesay.
He and Maxim, 15, were living in an orphanage in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol when Russia’s invading forces arrived. The boys tried to flee, but say they were captured by Russian forces and then held with about 20 other children, some as young as eight.
“Were you ever afraid you would never come home?” Livesay asked Ivan.
“I had such thoughts, yes,” he said. “Thoughts that I would not be able to come back to Ukraine until I turned 18 years old.”
Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of systematically stealing the country’s children and stripping them of their identities.
“Russia continues its kidnapping of Ukrainian children,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told the global body in May. “After forcible transfer to Russia, they are illegally adopted by Russian citizens.”
Russian TV has aired images of Ukrainian children in Russian-controlled territory, claiming they have been saved, rather than abducted.
In one clip, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner is seen telling Vladimir Putin personally that Russian citizens “have big hearts, and are lining up to take the children.”
“Very good,” responds the Russian leader, vowing to eliminate any delays in the process.
In another clip from state TV, a senior Russian official proposes placing children like Ivan and Maxim in military boarding schools across the country.
It’s cynical propaganda, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told CBS News.
“It’s very hard” she told Livesay, breaking down as she spoke of the children brought into Russia – some of whom may have had their parents killed by Russia’s invading forces. “It is my destiny to bring them home.”
That is exactly what she’s doing.
One by one, Vereshchuk has been helping relatives and guardians track down their children and then negotiating their return. Many come home after suffering unfathomable trauma.
“One 12-year-old girl had to dig a hole to bury her mother,” Vereshchuk told CBS News. “They tried to bury her brother, too, but his corpse was too heavy for them to drag. I’ve seen small children whose hair has turned white. They simply turned white during this war.”
But such children, like Ivan and Maxim, are the lucky ones, as they’ve managed to escape. In the two boys’ case, it was thanks to their guardian from the orphanage in Mariupol, Anton Bilay.
“I could not leave them behind,” he told Livesay.
Saving them meant crossing into enemy territory, not across the deadly front lines, but through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and then into Russia. It was 70 hours of travel by bus, and he arrived just after dawn.
“I was worried that I could be captured — I know many Ukrainian people don’t pass through Russia’s so called ‘filtration,’ and are held captive. I knew it could happen to me. But the children wanted to return to Ukraine.”
Maxim said he was sleeping when the bus pulled in carrying Anton.
“When I saw Anton, I hugged him, I was so happy,” the boy told CBS News. “We had not seen each other for so long.”
After more than two months in captivity the boys are back in Ukraine, safe in the western city of Khmelnytskyi. CBS News watched as Ivan messaged his friend Filip, another abducted Ukrainian orphan, but one who has not yet been rescued.
He’s been sent to an orphanage in Moscow.
Ivan asked his friend if he still wanted to come home to Ukraine.
“It’s all the same,” Filip responded.
Like so many Ukrainian children, he has no one left to come home to.