Near Kherson, workers at the orphanage hid Ukrainian children from Russian invaders


STEPANIVKA, Ukraine — 15-year-old Katia recalls storming out of the orphanage just in time, minutes before the Russians arrived to pick up the other children.

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

The Russians first showed up at the orphanage here months ago, 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, some 35 miles to the north.

The 15 children have lived here ever since, under the care of the orphanage’s director, Volodymyr Sahaidak, 61, and under the supervision of Russian soldiers.

But little did the Russians know that about a dozen other local children – including Katia – also lived in the same neighborhood. Every time the Russians came, the teachers hid the children in their rooms, Katia recalled, “for a nap.”

Now the teachers feared that the Russians would find these children and take them with them. So a small group of associates devised a secret plan to smuggle the children out and hide them in their own homes.

As Ukrainians liberate towns and villages previously occupied by Russian forces, residents have told numerous stories of Ukrainian children being 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 and most vulnerable Ukrainians, and the wartime has been particularly dangerous for them.

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One of the orphanage’s teachers, Halyna Kulakovska, 44, had heard stories like this in the nearby city of Kherson, a regional capital that was occupied by the Russians in early March. Kulakovska said she heard about dozens of newborns being taken from a daycare center in the city and six college students being forcibly evacuated from their dormitories. Kulakovska would not do that to the children in her care.

Kulakovska and Sahaidak, the headmaster, helped most of the dozen or so Kherson children at 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 identifies the children by their first names only to protect their privacy and security.

Katia, Vlad and Misha hid in a nurse’s house near the orphanage for eleven days. But as the Russians prepared to withdraw from the area, Kulakovska feared they might find out their whereabouts as they were still nearby. So she decided to take her to her own house in the city of Kherson.

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

Before the war began, 52 children lived in the Pink Orphanage, a center for social and psychological rehabilitation in the Cherson suburb of Stepanivka. In Ukraine, parents who feel unable to provide for their children physically or financially can place them in temporary state care.

At the beginning of the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, many children were picked up by relatives. A few kids who were old enough managed to apply to colleges and go. But the remaining dozen students had to live with the noise of constant shelling just one village away.

Ukraine faces an uphill struggle to extend its victories on the battlefield

During a recent visit by Post journalists, a Lego set still lay on a table in one of the home’s common areas, right next to a broken window, marking a spot where an explosion had hurled shrapnel towards the orphanage. At that time six boys slept in the next room.

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

“It was just a weird feeling,” he said. But he said he wasn’t afraid.

The boy’s father is imprisoned and his mother has died, his teacher said; although the 9-year-old appears to think his mother is still alive.

The children became so used to the sounds of explosions that they could tell when the shelling was close – and whether they could keep playing football or rush into it. But after the Russians moved into the city, the sky suddenly became calmer.

“They felt uncomfortable when it got quiet,” said one of their teachers.

Katia vividly remembers the day the soldiers arrived. Two Russians in military uniforms – one of them bald, with a beard – entered the center that day, together with the 15 children from the Mykolayiv region, their principal and her husband.

The children told them that they had lived in a basement for three months and that three girls from their facility had died after being hit by cluster munitions.

The Russians told the orphanage staff they had brought her to take her away from the front lines and to safer territory. When they arrived in Stepanivka, the children thought they were in Russia. They were scared, didn’t want to be hugged or touched, Kulakovska said.

“But as soon as 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 together with the Kherson children.

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

One Monday, a Russian soldier entered their computer room and was furious to find a toy ship on which a teenager had scrawled a phrase containing an expletive popular in Ukraine at the beginning of the war: “Russian warship, go… yourself.”

In mid-October, as the Russians prepared to evacuate and expect 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.

The city of Kherson was still under Russian control when Kulakovska took the children to her apartment, which was directly across from a building where she knew Russians lived. So she gave them rules to follow: Always stay close to them when they leave the house. Never mention the orphanage. Avoid talking to strangers and if someone asks you, say that Kulakovska was your aunt. Even Kulakovska’s neighbors were told that the children were her nephews and niece.

Secret Cherson resistance fighters undermined the Russian occupying power

On November 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 the Mykolaiv region. They assumed the children would end up in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

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

Sahaidak declined to share further details, fearing it would jeopardize their safe return home. But he said he expected the children to return to Ukraine soon.

Sahaidak said he hoped the children would return here, to the orphanage they called home for months, where their clothes are kept in plastic bags.

“These are our children too,” he said.

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