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Near Kherson, orphanage workers hid Ukrainian kids from Russian occupiers

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STEPANIVKA, Ukraine — Fifteen-year-old Katia remembers dashing out of the orphanage simply in time, minutes earlier than the Russians arrived to take the opposite kids away.

It was Oct. 19, and the occupiers of their village outdoors Kherson had been making ready to depart.

The Russians had first proven up on the orphanage right here months earlier, in armored navy automobiles with 15 kids in tow — Ukrainian orphans that they had whisked away from the village of Novopetrivka within the previously-occupied Mykolaiv area, about 35 miles north.

The 15 kids had lived right here since then, beneath the care of the orphanage’s headmaster, Volodymyr Sahaidak, 61, and beneath the supervision of Russian troopers.

But the Russians didn’t know that a couple of dozen different native kids — together with Katia — had been additionally dwelling in the identical quarters. Each time the Russians got here, the lecturers would disguise the youngsters of their rooms, Katia recalled, “for nap time.”

Now, the lecturers feared the Russians would discover these kids and take them, too. So a small group of workers members got here up with a secret plan to sneak the youngsters out and conceal them in their very own houses.

As Ukrainians liberate cities and villages beforehand occupied by Russian forces, residents have shared quite a few tales of Ukrainian kids taken away.

Where the youngsters are finally taken — and the circumstances of their actions — are sometimes troublesome to verify. But most of the kids seem like like Katia and her friends — orphans or kids with studying disabilities, who had been already in public care. They are the youngest, most weak Ukrainians and wartime for them has been particularly perilous.

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One of the lecturers on the orphanage, Halyna Kulakovska, 44, had heard tales like these in close by Kherson metropolis, a regional capital occupied by the Russians in early March. Kulakovska stated she had heard of dozens of newborns taken from a nursery within the metropolis, and 6 faculty college students forcibly evacuated from their dorms. Kulakovska was not going to let that occur to the youngsters in her cost.

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Kulakovska and Sahaidak, the headmaster, helped many of the dozen or so Kherson kids of their middle reunite with family members and relations. Only three kids had been left — Katia and two boys, Vlad, 16, and Misha, 9. The Washington Post is figuring out the youngsters solely by first names to guard their privateness and security.

Katia, Vlad, and Misha spent 11 days hiding within the dwelling of a workers nurse close to the orphanage. But because the Russians ready to retreat from the world, Kulakovska feared they may catch on to their whereabouts given they had been nonetheless shut by. So she determined to take them into her own residence in Kherson metropolis.

“I didn’t have the time to think about it,” Kulakovska stated. “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 battle started, 52 kids had lived within the pink-walled orphanage, a middle for social and psychological rehabilitation within the Kherson suburb of Stepanivka. In Ukraine, dad and mom who really feel they can’t bodily or financially care for his or her kids can briefly flip them over to state care.

At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many kids had been picked up by family members. Some kids who had been sufficiently old managed to use to schools and depart. But the remaining dozen college students had been left to reside with the sound of fixed shelling only one village over.

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During a latest go to by Post journalists, a set of Legos was nonetheless laid out on a desk in one of many dwelling’s widespread areas, proper subsequent to a cracked window, marking a spot the place an explosion despatched shrapnel flying towards the orphanage. At the time, six boys had been sleeping within the room subsequent to it.

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One of them was 9-year-old Misha, who recalled a instructor telling him to shortly drop to the ground.

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

The boy’s father is incarcerated and his mom died, his instructor stated; although the 9-year-old appears to imagine his mom remains to be alive.

The kids grew so accustomed to the sounds of explosions that they knew the best way to determine if the shelling was shut — and if they might hold taking part in soccer or must rush inside. But after the Russians moved into city, the skies all of the sudden turned quieter.

“They felt uncomfortable when it went silent,” certainly one of their lecturers stated.

Katia vividly remembers the day when the troopers arrived. Two Russians in navy uniform — certainly one of them bald, with a beard — entered the middle that day, together with the 15 kids from the Mykolaiv area in addition to their headmistress and her husband.

The kids informed them that they had been dwelling in a basement for 3 months, and that three ladies from their middle had died after being struck by cluster munitions.

The Russians informed the orphanage workers that they had introduced them to get them away from the entrance line and into safer territory. When they first arrived in Stepanivka, the youngsters thought they had been in Russia. They had been frightened, not desirous to be hugged or touched, Kulakovska stated.

“But once they heard Ukrainian, they could relax,” stated Tetiana Drobitko, 56, one of many orphanage lecturers. The kids watched cartoons for the primary time in months. They performed puzzles alongside the Kherson kids.

But at any time when the Russians confirmed up, the Kherson kids rushed to their rooms to cover.

One Monday, a Russian soldier walked into their laptop room and was enraged to discover a toy ship on which a teenage boy had scrawled a phrase with an expletive that turned in style in Ukraine early within the battle: “Russian warship, go … yourself.”

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In mid-October, when the Russians ready to evacuate, anticipating a retreat from Kherson, Sahaidak stated he knew he couldn’t cease them from taking the Mykolaiv kids with them. But a minimum of they might attempt to forestall the native kids from being taken away, he stated.

Kherson metropolis was nonetheless beneath Russian management when Kulakovska introduced the youngsters to her condominium, positioned simply throughout the road from a constructing the place she knew Russians lived. So she gave them guidelines to comply with: Always keep near her at any time when they left dwelling. Never point out the orphanage. Avoid speaking to strangers, and if anybody requested, say that Kulakovska was their aunt. Even Kulakovska’s neighbors had been informed that the youngsters had been her nephews and niece.

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On Nov. 12, the instructor and three kids had been strolling of their neighborhood once they noticed Ukrainian flags within the streets. Kherson was liberated.

For weeks, the lecturers and kids puzzled what occurred to the group from Mykolaiv area. They assumed the youngsters would find yourself in Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014.

During their journey, Sahaidak used the Telegram app to secretly keep in contact with the Mykolaiv kids’s headmistress, who was looking for a method for the youngsters to flee from the Russians. He additionally labored with an American volunteer to trace the group’s whereabouts. On Friday, he was surprised to listen to from the headmistress that she and her group one way or the other managed to get to Georgia.

Sahaidak declined to share further particulars fearing that it will endanger their secure return dwelling. But he stated he anticipated that the youngsters would quickly come again to Ukraine.

Sahaidak stated he hoped the youngsters would possibly return right here, to the orphanage they referred to as dwelling for months, the place their garments stay in storage in plastic baggage.

“They’re our kids, too,” he stated.

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