A boom of artillery fire shook the ground as Olena opened the gate to the Kherson Children’s Home.
She barely flinched.
Russian positions are just across the Dnipro River and Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, is under regular attack.
Like many Ukrainians during this war, Olena prefers not to share her last name. She has worked at the orphanage for more than 17 years.
Olena said she loved all the children at the home, but she was closest to Arkasha. “Of course, everyone has their favorite, but he was mine,” she said.
Five-year-old Arkasha’s locker is orange – with a sticker of a rooster on it. His name is neatly printed in Cyrillic script.
Inside the rooms, there are paintings of bunnies holding balloons, floating through the sky; play areas for toddlers; cupboards stacked with toys. In the bedrooms, sparkling clean cots and tiny bunk beds with brightly colored mattresses.
But the 48 children who lived here are gone – seized by Russian officials during the city’s months-long occupation.
“I feel emptiness, emptiness. Everything has stopped,” said Olena. “The children were happy. They had everything!”
Hidden in a basement
When the war began in February last year, the staff at the children’s home came up with a plan.
They spirited all the children, mostly under 5, to the Holhofa church on the other side of town, Olena recounted.
The church and caregivers from the home kept the children safe and warm in the basement. They hid them to keep them safe from the fighting and to escape the Russians, said Olena.
Kherson fell to the Russian forces in the early days of the war. The invading troops moved swiftly over the Dnipro River; it was the first major city to be taken and the only regional capital.
“Yes, the children were here,” Victor, the 74-year-old caretaker of the church, told CNN. “But after the Russians occupied this city, they started asking questions.”
After a few weeks, he said, agents from Russia’s security service, the FSB, came to the church and demanded that the caregivers transport the children back to the orphanage.
The caregivers felt they didn’t have a choice. And it was then that Olena realized that the Russians wanted to take the children away.
“They kept saying, ‘these are our children,’” she said of the FSB agents.
In October, Russian officials informed the orphanage that they were coming for the children.
“They warned us to collect their clothes. The Russians called in the evening and said we should prepare the children for the next morning. The buses arrived at eight,” she said.
Just over a week ago, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, saying they were criminally responsible for the “unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.” The Kremlin condemned the ICC decision.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said at least 15,000 children had been taken out of Ukraine. Rights groups say many of them were coerced into leaving their parents and taken to so-called summer camps.
In occupied Kherson, the Russians didn’t hide their actions in taking the children from the Kherson Children’s Home.
In fact, they widely advertised the move and used it for propaganda purposes. Eventually, the incident could be used as evidence in a war crimes trial.
Shared on Telegram, the footage of that October morning shows bewildered children being shunted onto buses – away from their beloved nurses.
Olena said the nurses wrote the children’s names on their jackets or on their hands – so that at least they would be called by their real name wherever they went. The organizers said they were taking them to occupied Crimea. It’s not clear exactly where they ended up.
Ukrainian investigators have said orphans taken from occupied territory also ended up in Russia, where they were given citizenship and handed to Russian couples.
“They do not deserve our children. They should bring them back. They do not deserve them,” said Olena.
Faked medical records
The Russians didn’t stop with the orphanages, they scoured Kherson for children to take.
Collaborators and Russian officials came repeatedly to the Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital asking for a list of orphaned babies and children that should be taken, said Dr. Olha Piliarska, a pediatric anesthetist.
According to Piliarska, staff at the hospital hid some orphans in the ICU basement and faked medical records for other children, indicating conditions including convulsions and fluid on the lungs.
She showed CNN a ventilator like the one in which they put a healthy baby, she said, and turned on some lights to make it appear that it could not be moved safely. They were all terrified that they would be found out, she recalled. Piliarksa and hospital administrators say they managed to save 15 children – three were taken away by Russian officials.
“We understood that they would not forgive us for this. We knew that there would be a serious retribution,” she said.
One nurse at the hospital took such efforts to thwart the Russians’ actions a step further.
Tetiana Pavelko kept going back to see a newborn called Kira, who’d won her heart. “From the beginning, I really loved her. She was such a beautiful child,” she told CNN.
Pavelko begged the hospital doctors and administrators to keep Kira off the list of children that collaborators regularly checked.
“Every day, the list was updated. And they made that list twice a day. I made sure that Kira was never on that list,” she recalled.
When Ukrainian soldiers took back Kherson from the Russians in November, Pavelko was allowed to take Kira home. She has started adoption proceedings, she said.
She, her partner and Kira live in a single-story house in Korabelny district, on the southern edge of Kherson. The neighborhood faces regular shelling from Russians across the river.
But Pavelko says that this awful war has brought her a gift.
“Kira means everything to me. Probably she is the meaning in my life in the first place. I don’t even know, to be honest, I can’t imagine my life without Kira,” she said.