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Near Kherson, orphanage staff hid Ukrainian children from Russian occupiers

Misha, who lives in an orphanage near Kherson, sits at a table in an apartment in Stepanivka, Ukraine, on Nov. 19. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

STEPANIVKA, Ukraine — Fifteen-year-old Katia remembers rushing out of the orphanage just in time, minutes before the Russians arrived to take the other children away.

It was Oct. 19, and the occupiers of their village outside Kherson were preparing to leave.

The Russians had first shown up at the orphanage here months earlier, in armored military vehicles with 15 children in tow — Ukrainian orphans they had whisked away from the village of Novopetrivka in the previously-occupied Mykolaiv region, about 35 miles north.

The 15 children had lived here since then, under the care of the orphanage’s headmaster, Volodymyr Sahaidak, 61, and under the supervision of Russian soldiers.

But the Russians didn’t know that about a dozen other local children — including Katia — were also living in the same quarters. Each time the Russians came, the teachers would hide the children in their rooms, Katia recalled, “for nap time.”

Now, the teachers feared the Russians would find those children and take them, too. So a small group of staff members came up with a secret plan to sneak the children out and hide them in their own homes.

As Ukrainians liberate towns and villages previously occupied by Russian forces, residents have shared numerous stories of Ukrainian children taken away.

Where the children are ultimately taken — and the circumstances of their movements — are often difficult to confirm. But many of the children appear to be like Katia and her peers — orphans or children with learning disabilities, who were already in public care. They are the youngest, most vulnerable Ukrainians and wartime for them has been especially perilous.

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One of the teachers at the orphanage, Halyna Kulakovska, 44, had heard stories like these in nearby Kherson city, a regional capital occupied by the Russians in early March. Kulakovska said she had heard of dozens of newborns taken from a nursery in the city, and six college students forcibly evacuated from their dorms. Kulakovska was not going to let that happen to the children in her charge.

Kulakovska and Sahaidak, the headmaster, helped most of the dozen or so Kherson children in their center reunite with relatives and family members. Only three children were left — Katia and two boys, Vlad, 16, and Misha, 9. The Washington Post is identifying the children only by first names to protect their privacy and safety.

Katia, Vlad, and Misha spent 11 days hiding in the home of a staff nurse near the orphanage. But as the Russians prepared to retreat from the area, Kulakovska feared they might catch on to their whereabouts given they were still close by. So she decided to take them into her own home in Kherson city.

“I didn’t have the time to think about it,” Kulakovska said. “There’s a Ukrainian word, treba, that means, ‘You must do it.’ I had to do it. I am responsible for the lives of these kids … we had to protect them.”

Before the war began, 52 children had lived in the pink-walled orphanage, a center for social and psychological rehabilitation in the Kherson suburb of Stepanivka. In Ukraine, parents who feel they cannot physically or financially care for their children can temporarily turn them over to state care.

At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many children were picked up by relatives. Some children who were old enough managed to apply to colleges and leave. But the remaining dozen students were left to live with the sound of constant shelling just one village over.

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During a recent visit by Post journalists, a set of Legos was still laid out on a table in one of the home’s common areas, right next to a cracked window, marking a spot where an explosion sent shrapnel flying toward the orphanage. At the time, six boys were sleeping in the room next to it.

One of them was 9-year-old Misha, who recalled a teacher telling him to quickly drop to the floor.

“It was just a strange feeling,” he said. But he said he wasn’t scared.

The boy’s father is incarcerated and his mother died, his teacher said; though the 9-year-old seems to believe his mother is still alive.

The children grew so accustomed to the sounds of explosions that they knew how to identify if the shelling was close — and if they could keep playing soccer or would have to rush inside. But after the Russians moved into town, the skies suddenly became quieter.

“They felt uncomfortable when it went silent,” one of their teachers said.

Katia vividly remembers the day when the soldiers arrived. Two Russians in military uniform — one of them bald, with a beard — entered the center that day, along with the 15 children from the Mykolaiv region as well as their headmistress and her husband.

The children told them they had been living in a basement for three months, and that three girls from their center had died after being struck by cluster munitions.

The Russians told the orphanage staff they had brought them to get them away from the front line and into safer territory. When they first arrived in Stepanivka, the children thought they were in Russia. They were frightened, not wanting to be hugged or touched, Kulakovska said.

“But once they heard Ukrainian, they could relax,” said Tetiana Drobitko, 56, one of the orphanage teachers. The children watched cartoons for the first time in months. They played puzzles alongside the Kherson children.

But whenever the Russians showed up, the Kherson children rushed to their rooms to hide.

One Monday, a Russian soldier walked into their computer room and was enraged to find a toy ship on which a teenage boy had scrawled a phrase with an expletive that became popular in Ukraine early in the war: “Russian warship, go … yourself.”

In mid-October, when the Russians prepared to evacuate, anticipating a retreat from Kherson, Sahaidak said he knew he could not stop them from taking the Mykolaiv children with them. But at least they could try to prevent the local children from being taken away, he said.

Kherson city was still under Russian control when Kulakovska brought the children to her apartment, located just across the street from a building where she knew Russians lived. So she gave them rules to follow: Always stay close to her whenever they left home. Never mention the orphanage. Avoid talking to strangers, and if anyone asked, say that Kulakovska was their aunt. Even Kulakovska’s neighbors were told that the children were her nephews and niece.

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On Nov. 12, the teacher and three children were walking in their neighborhood when they saw Ukrainian flags in the streets. Kherson was liberated.

For weeks, the teachers and children wondered what happened to the group from Mykolaiv region. They assumed the children would end up in Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014.

During their journey, Sahaidak used the Telegram app to secretly stay in touch with the Mykolaiv children’s headmistress, who was trying to find a way for the children to escape from the Russians. He also worked with an American volunteer to track the group’s whereabouts. On Friday, he was stunned to hear from the headmistress that she and her group somehow managed to get to Georgia.

Sahaidak declined to share additional details fearing that it would endanger their safe return home. But he said he anticipated that the children would soon come back to Ukraine.

Sahaidak said he hoped the children might return here, to the orphanage they called home for months, where their clothes remain in storage in plastic bags.

“They’re our kids, too,” he said.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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