A GRANDMOTHER watched in horror as her son’s apartment was blown to pieces by Russian shelling – with her daughter-in-law and four-year-old granddaughter inside.
But when Tatyana Tolstokorova, 55, failed to find the remains of her loved ones in the rubble in Mariupol – it raised horrifying questions.
The gran spent months searching for Pavel, Olga and Nastya in the hopes that they’d escaped unscathed but was stunned when a clip of a young Ukrainian girl appeared online.
It showed orphaned children being introduced to their new adoptive parents in Russia but a girl wearing a frilly purple dress caught her eye – she was sure it was Nastya.
The clip gave Tatyana a glimmer of hope that she had survived the shelling but she would now have to take on Russian authorities to prove the young girl’s real identity.
As part of an investigation by The Sun into Ukraine’s missing children, Tatyana shared her harrowing story.
One that is becoming increasingly more common across occupied regions of Ukraine now under the control of Putin’s ruthless troops.
She told The Sun: “A Russian rocket hit a high-rise building, where my son, daughter-in-law and four-year-old granddaughter lived, actually before my eyes.
“The rocket flew into the entrance of his building. We ran there. I jumped into the burning entrance and wanted to go up to the fourth floor.
“But having run up to the third [floor], I saw that there was nothing further – just a hole.
“There was nothing left…at first we thought they were dead but they were not found under the rubble.
“And then there were a number of strange circumstances that indicate that they may be alive.”
Just six months ago Vladimir Putin’s troops launched his chilling full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Despite the heroic pushback in recent weeks by the Ukrainian army, Russian forces still control parts of eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea.
These ‘lawless’ regions are now rife with war crimes with children being slaughtered and babies as young as one reportedly being raped by sick Russian soldiers.
At least 972 innocent children have been killed or injured since the start of the invasion so far, according to Unicef.
It’s feared that thousands of these children living in Russian-controlled areas have now been deported across the border and placed in Russian families’ homes to cleanse them of their Ukrainian identity.
The Sun’s investigation into Ukraine’s missing children revealed:
- The Ukrainian Government estimate 7552 children have been deported during Putin’s invasion – but numbers are thought to be much higher.
- Children have been forcibly taken from bomb shelters, according to reports.
- Ukrainian children from an occupied town near Kharkiv were transported to a ‘summer camp’ in Russia but never returned.
During a recent security council meeting, the UN also confirmed claims large numbers of Ukrainian children were being kidnapped and taken across the border were credible.
As part of the deportation system, United Nations officials warned that Russian troops were forcing Ukrainian men, women and children through sinister ‘filtration’ camps.
In these camps, civilians are forced to strip naked for body searches while others are interrogated over their allegiances and political views.
In July, a US think tank revealed that 1,000 children from occupied Mariupol had been handed over to Russian families.
The Institute for the Study of War, which branded the move ‘genocide’, cited a now-deleted post that showed that Russians were being offered a lump-sum payment to take in ‘orphaned’ children.
It’s not clear if any of the children were genuine orphans or if any attempts had been made to track down their loved ones.
It’s feared Russia could be using the shady adoption scheme as a coverup to kidnap Ukrainian children, change their names and give them Russian passports.
Under the 1948 Geneva convention, forcibly transferring children and changing that child’s nationality or civil status is considered a war crime.
But just one month after Putin’s invasion, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reported that 2,389 children had been illegally removed from the occupied areas of Ukraine.
By April 2022, Ukraine’s Human Rights commissioner Lyudmila Denisova claimed that that number has soared to more than 121,000 children.
The person tasked by Putin with ‘rehoming’ these ‘war-torn orphans’ is sanctioned Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Children’s Right Commissioner.
The UK Government described her involvement in the deportation of Ukrainian children as ‘barbaric’ after she is said to have ordered 2,000 children to be ‘violently’ taken from the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
She also proposed new legislation that will fast-track the adoption of Ukrainian youngsters and grant them Russian citizenship.
Maria boasts of her work on Instagram after sharing footage of a meeting with Putin.
The president speaks of ‘finding a home’ for ‘every displaced child, regardless of citizenship.’
In another post, she says: “We must accept every child from the DPR and LPR as our own.”
It’s feared her programme, ‘Into the Hands of Children’ which is described as a humanitarian mission to help families in Ukraine with aid, is all part of Russia’s propaganda machine.
In a video posted on her Telegram channel, she is seen visiting an orphanage in the Luhansk region where she claims the children will ‘soon have mothers’.
In another clip, she complains after being sanctioned in the UK and the US but confirms that hundreds of children have already been handed over to Russian families.
In fact, it is Maria’s office that posts the now-deleted video of the girl believed to be little Nastya.
Her office however did not respond to a request by the Sun to confirm the identity of the child.
HUNT FOR NASTYA
Nastya’s grandmother resorted to making a desperate plea for help on a now-deleted video.
The clip, shared on Russia’s version of Facebook VK, shows a group of children making their way from a bus and greeting their new adoptive parents.
It was captioned: “Thirteen little peas, in identical suits, were waiting for us at the porch of the foster home to go to Russia to be with foster moms and dads.
“By the end of the week, 108 orphans from Donbas who received Russian citizenship will have parents.”
Tatyana commented in the video: “…my granddaughter is there, I recognised her. For the love of all that is holy, give me my star!”
She told the Sun: “I got hopeful when I saw a short video posted by the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.
“In the video, Russian families meet orphaned children taken out of Ukraine. Among these children, I saw a girl who is very similar to our Nastya.
“Skinny, the same blonde hair, pigtails. All the relatives and friends I showed this video also said that this is our Nastya.
“We contacted Maria Lvova-Belova’s office and sent them a screenshot from the video and photos of our Nastya. They answered that it was not Nastya.
“But we insisted, and we were offered a meeting in Moscow, to which the girl with the video was supposed to be brought.”
According to The Ukrainian Government website ‘Children of War’, 231 children remain missing, 7552 have been deported, 5613 have been found – while only 55 have been reunited with loved ones.
The Sun spoke with Marina Lypovetska, Head of Missing Children’s Service in Kyiv, for NGO Magnolia – an organisation that offers a hotline for missing children and information.
She believes the numbers are far more shocking and that it could be hard to work out exact figures due to the lack of information from occupied territories.
She said: “We have online channels where citizens can write to us but it is very difficult for them and very dangerous.
“So I think the most worrying situation is the occupied territories, we don’t have access to the information.”
Marina says that the charity recently spoke with a teacher in Mariupol who said a group of orphaned children had been discovered in a bomb shelter and loaded onto a bus by Russian forces.
She said: “When the Russians learned that the children were without parents, they came with a bus and took all those children somewhere.
“There is no information where, but they took all those children who hiding underground and their destiny is unknown.”
The haunting images of other missing children appear on the Magnolia website as their families and loved ones plead for information.
Brothers Maxim, 11, and Artem, 9, were not at home when their mother and stepfather were killed in a Russian strike, neighbours revealed.
One of them who spoke with charity workers said: ” There were some screams, but people were afraid to go outside at night, and already in the morning, on March 8, they saw that a man and a woman were near the entrance with injuries.”
No one knew where the boys could be, but there was an unconfirmed sighting in a Children’s hospital in the Donestk region of Budyoniv in the weeks that followed – they have not been seen since.
Six-year-old Darya Shevchuk, from occupied Mariupol, disappeared with her twin brother Danylo.
Although there is little information regarding their disappearance it’s feared they could have been carried across the border to Russia.
Four siblings from the Luhansk region also vanished along with their father – Demir Dmytrenko, 5, his brothers Ettore, 8, Timofey, 12, and sister Tiana, 14.
They disappeared from besieged Mariupol in the early days of the invasion and have not been seen since.
A report by Sky News also revealed that children from the captured town of Kozacha Lopan, near Kharkiv, had also been rounded up onto a bus by Russian troops.
Parents were told that their children could get a reprieve from the war and constant shelling and spend some time at a Russian summer camp.
Natalia Med was told her 13-year-old Karina would be brought back home along with children from 11 other families in the village.
But when Putin’s forces were pushed out of the region by the Ukrainian counter-attack the youngsters never returned.
When asked what she had a message for her daughter she said: “Daughter I will bring you back for certain.
“I love you and I will definitely get you back and I will never let you go. I’m sorry you have had to wait for so long.”
It’s feared that these camps, taking place across occupied areas, could be part of a sinister plot to change the nationality of Ukrainian children.
Currently, if a relative of a missing child is found, they can approach social services to become a caregiver and it is arranged with the Russian Government for the child to be returned.
Now authorities in Russia are attempting to change the law so the child can no longer be returned to Ukraine and their name and citizenship can be changed.
Marina added said: “They [Russians] can try and use propaganda but we live in a civilization where the internet is accessible, especially children who are not so young, they will remember where they are from, they will remember their own parents.
“It is a war crime because of the massive displacement of people, especially children.”
‘WE WILL FIND THEM’
Tatyana arranged for her friends in Moscow – who knew Nastya well and would be able to recognise her – to meet with Russian authorities.
The meeting was delayed several times and when it finally went ahead the girl never appeared after they were told she’d already been taken to the Russian city of Ufa.
Maria’s office told the grandmother the girl was an orphan named Arina who had been rescued from Donetsk four days prior to the invasion.
Tatyana added: “They said they could only show photos of the girl and the full version of the video. After seeing the photos, Andrey and Galina said it wasn’t Nastya.
Nastya’s grandmother now lives in hope that one day she’ll be reunited with her granddaughter who she fears could still be in the hands of Russian authorities.
She said: “My husband and I are staying in Mariupol. In our burnt-out, almost completely destroyed hometown. There are ruins all around.
“Since it was our house that somehow miraculously survived, we have light, water and even the Internet. But there are only a few such houses in the city. They are talking about how they can give us electricity.
“The picture is apocalyptic: charred partially destroyed houses, and in them in two or three surviving apartments, the light is on… But we try to hold on.
“And believe that we will find Nastya and Pasha with Olya.”
If you have information on a missing child in Ukraine please contact 0-800-50-40-42 or get in touch with Magnolia at www.magnolia.org.ua/uk
https://www.the-sun.com/news/6293262/granddaughter-snatched-putins-troops-forced-russian-cleansed/ My granddaughter was snatched by Putin’s troops and forced to be Russian – there are thousands of kids being ‘cleansed’