Before Russia’s war on Ukraine began, Kira Obedinsky was a joyful, loved 12-year-old girl. Now orphaned, injured and alone in a Russian-controlled hospital in eastern Ukraine, she has become an unwitting pawn in Moscow’s information war.
Obedinsky’s mother died when she was a baby. Her father Yevhen Obedinsky, a former captain of Ukraine’s national water polo team, was shot and killed as Russian forces fought their way into the southeastern city of Mariupol on March 17.
Days later, Kira and her father’s girlfriend tried to flee the city on foot alongside neighbors. But after she was injured in the blast from a landmine, Kira was taken to a hospital in the Donetsk region, which is controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Now Kira’s grandfather, Oleksander, fears he will never see her again. He said an official from the breakaway government in Donetsk phoned and invited him to travel there to claim her, which is impossible because of the war.
He says he spoke to the hospital and was told Kira will eventually be sent to an orphanage in Russia.
The Russian government has said it has helped move at least 60,000 Ukrainian people to safety across the Russian border. The Ukrainian government has said around 40,000 have been relocated against their will describing it as abduction and forced deportation.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that over 433,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Russia since Feb. 24, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have said that thousands have been forcibly deported to Russian territory after Russian troops blocked safe passage to Ukrainian-held territory and moved evacuees against their will into far flung parts of Russia.
Speaking to CNN, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of forcing people fleeing Mariupol into Russia.
“Several thousand, tens of thousands, were forced to evacuate in the direction of the Russia Federation and we don’t know where they are, they’ve left no document trail,” the president told CNN.
“And among them are several thousand children, we want to know what happened to them. Whether they are in good health. Unfortunately, there just isn’t any information on this.”
Moscow has denounced claims of forced deportations as lies, alleging that Ukraine has hindered its efforts to “evacuate” people to Russia.
But CNN has spoken to a number of Ukrainians who said they were given only two options: Go to Russia or die. In interviews with 10 people, including local Mariupol residents and their loved ones, many describe Russian and DPR soldiers descending on bomb shelters and ordering those inside to leave immediately.
None knew where they were being taken. Five were ultimately sent to Russia; three have since made it out.
Ukrainian and US officials and independent human-rights monitors also alleged that Russian and separatist troops are processing tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians through so-called “filtration camps” where they are biometrically screened and their phones and documents are confiscated before they are being sent to Russia.
Oleksander said the Russians have also taken away Kira’s documents and said she would be provided with new ones in Russia.
Russian media, which has repeatedly downplayed the brutality of the conflict in Ukraine, has shown video of Kira talking happily about how she’s sometimes allowed to call her grandfather.
This is “proof” that she wasn’t abducted, according to one Russian TV presenter, who dubbed the claim another “Ukrainian fake.”
Meanwhile, Oleksander has received an audio message from Kira telling him not to cry. But the young girl who has lost her family, her freedom and her home in Russia’s war, cannot stop her own tears.
“I haven’t seen you for so long”, she says. “I want to cry.”
CNN’s Nathan Hodge, Yulia Kesaieva, Eliza Mackintosh, Oleksandra Ochman, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Katie Polglase, Teele Rebane, Anastasia Graham-Yooll and Amy Cassidy contributed to this report.