Deportation of children

Illia from Mariupol was injured and lost his mother to Russian shelling

Ukrainian Illia from Mariupol. Screenshot from SURGe Ukraine video

Illia was nine when Russia started its full-scale invasion in 2022. His mother was killed in Mariupol, and the injured boy was taken to the temporarily occupied Donetsk. There, Russians operated on Illia without anaesthesia and tried to use him for propaganda purposes.

However, his relatives found one of the videos, and thanks to his grandmother Olena’s efforts and the coordinated work of specialized organizations, Illia returned from the temporarily occupied territories.

Witnessing the War informational campaign aims to tell the stories of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through the eyes of Ukrainian children who were forcefully deported, separated from their families, injured, and deprived of their fundamental rights to safety, health, education, and freedom. Deprived of their childhood.

As of May 2024, 1345 children in Ukraine were injured due to Russia’s full-scale war. Ukraine has also identified 19,546 children who were illegally and forcibly deported to Russia, Belarus, and temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Thousands more cases may remain unknown. At the same time, only 388 Ukrainian children have been rescued and reunited with their families.

One such story is that of Illia, shared by the SURGe Project.

Peaceful life that Russia took away

Before Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Illia lived in Mariupol with his mother and brother. Everything was fine in his own words: the boy went to a good school, had friends, and had a home. In February 2022, Russian troops came to the city.

Illia with his mom.
Screenshot from SURGe Ukraine video

“At first, everything was relatively quiet, and then the explosions started. And after that, I realized that the war had already begun,” Illia recalls.

One day, a Russian missile hit the family house, and it was no longer possible to live there. Illia and his relatives had to go to a neighbor’s house to hide for the night. However, the area came under attack once again: due to enemy shelling, Illia received several shrapnel wounds, while his mother received a lethal head injury.

“I realized that my mom was dead when this neighbor came to her and took her pulse. And after that, we all knew that my mother had died… I more or less managed to hold myself together, but it was very painful. Mentally, it hurt me much more than the pain injury brought me,” Illia says.

The neighbor buried the boy’s mother in the yard behind their house. Illia stayed with the neighbors for a while before Russian soldiers came to their place and announced evacuation.

Propaganda treatment

Russians took the boy to the temporarily occupied Donetsk, where he spent a month. In the hospital there, Illia underwent various surgeries and procedures. The first one was to remove the fragment from the child’s body. The procedure was done without anesthesia.

Illia at the hospital in the temporarily occupied Donetsk.
Screenshot from SURGe Ukraine video

Meanwhile, Russian representatives tried to make Illia into “some kind of propaganda tool” while the boy stayed in the hospital. “I was taught to write in Russian, and one day my doctor came to me and said that from now on you will not say “Glory to Ukraine” but “Glory to Ukraine as part of Russia,” Illia notes.

Grandmother comes to the rescue

After Russia started its full-scale war against Ukraine, Illia’s grandmother, Olena, managed to stay in touch with her family in Mariupol only until March 2, 2022.

The next time the woman heard any news about them was after Illia was relocated to a trauma center in Donetsk. The boy’s uncle, who lived in Austria, found a video with Illia published by Russians and sent it to Olena. In that way, the woman learned that her daughter had been killed and her grandson was alone at the hospital.

Illia’s grandmother, Olena.
Screenshot from SURGe Ukraine video

“I realized that my daughter could no longer be brought back, and I realized that Illia had to be freed from Donetsk. And then I’d already begun to dream about how it would be and began to knock on different doors and, thank God, they [a team of governmental and non-governmental organizations – ed.] helped me to do it,” grandmother Olena says.

The woman and her grandson came to Kyiv. There, the doctors of Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital took four shrapnel fragments out of Illia, while eleven more remain. The boy couldn’t walk for some time. “Russian military aggression stole the boy’s entire childhood: his mom, his school, and his home, Olena emphasizes.

He kept to himself, he was afraid of noise, he was afraid of air-raid sirens, he had no memory. He remembered only those moments that were with him in that horror that he went through with his mom in Mariupol,‘ grandmother Olena describes Illia’s mental state.

Illia at the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv.
Screenshot from SURGe Ukraine video

Nevertheless, despite all the horrors he has survived, the boy is already building plans for the future.“I would like to become a doctor and to be the same as our guys on the front lines. Combat medics and ordinary ones – they are real heroes. They are like soldiers, although their work is a little different, but they are all heroes,” Illia says confidently.

Find more stories of Ukrainian children amidst Russia’s full-scale invasion and the up-to-date stats on the matter through the Witnessing the War informational campaign. 

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