KHERSON, Ukraine — Hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, health staff at a children's hospital in the south started secretly planning how to save the babies.
Russians were suspected of seizing orphan children and sending them to Russia, so staff at the children's regional hospital in Kherson city began fabricating orphans' medical records to make it appear like they were too ill to move.
"We deliberately wrote false information that the children were sick and could not be transported," said Dr. Olga Pilyarska, head of intensive care. "We were scared that (the Russians) would find out ... (but) we decided that we would save the children at any cost."
Throughout the war Russians have been accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories to raise them as their own. At least 1,000 children were seized from schools and orphanages in the Kherson region during Russia's eight-month occupation of the area, say local authorities. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
But residents say even more children would have gone missing had it not been for the efforts of some in the community who risked their lives to hide as many children as they could.
At the hospital in Kherson, staff invented diseases for 11 abandoned babies under their care, so they wouldn't have to give them to the orphanage where they knew they'd be given Russian documents and potentially taken away. One baby had "pulmonary bleeding", another "uncontrollable convulsions" and another needed "artificial ventilation," said Pilyarska of the fake records.
On the outskirts of Kherson in the village of Stepanivka, Volodymyr Sahaidak the director of a center for social and psychological rehabilitation, was also falsifying paperwork to hide 52 orphaned and vulnerable children. The 61-year-old placed some of the children with seven of his staff, others were taken to distant relatives and some of the older ones remained with him, he said. "It seemed that if I did not hide my children they would simply be taken away from me," he said.
But moving them around wasn't easy. After Russia occupied Kherson and much of the region in March, they started separating orphans at checkpoints, forcing Sahaidak to get creative about how to transport them. In one instance he faked records saying that a group of kids had received treatment in the hospital and were being taken by their aunt to be reunited with their mother who was nine months pregnant and waiting for them on the other side of the river, he said.
While Sahaidak managed to stave off the Russians, not all children were as lucky. In the orphanage in Kherson — where the hospital would have sent the 11 babies — some 50 children were evacuated in October and allegedly taken to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, a security guard at the institution and neighbors told The Associated Press.
"A bus came with the inscription Z (a symbol painted on Russian vehicles) and they were taken away," said Anastasiia Kovalenko, who lives nearby.
At the start of the invasion, a local aid group tried to hide the children in a church but the Russians found them several months later, returned them to the orphanage and then evacuated them, said locals.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that Russia is trying to give thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian families for foster care or adoption. The AP found that officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren't wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda, and given them Russian families and citizenship.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, says Russian officials are conducting a deliberate depopulation campaign in occupied parts of Ukraine and deporting children under the guise of medical rehabilitation schemes and adoption programs.
Russian authorities have repeatedly said that moving children to Russia is intended to protect them from hostilities. The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected the claims that the country is seizing and deporting the children. It has noted that the authorities are searching for relatives of parentless children left in Ukraine to find opportunities to send them home when possible.
Russian children's rights ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova personally oversaw moving hundreds of orphans from Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine for adoption by Russian families. She has claimed that some of the children were offered an opportunity to return to Ukraine but refused to do so. Her statement couldn't be independently verified.
UNICEF's Europe and Central Asia child protection regional adviser, Aaron Greenberg, said that until the fate of a child's parents or other close relatives can be verified, each separated child is considered to have living close relatives, and an assessment must be led by authorities in the countries where the children are located.
Local and national security and law enforcement are looking for the children who were moved but they still don't know what happened to them, said Galina Lugova, head of Kherson's military administration. "We do not know the fate of these children ... we do not know where the children from orphanages or from our educational institutions are, and this is a problem," she said.
For now, much of the burden is falling on locals to find and bring them home.
In July, the Russians brought 15 children from the front lines in the nearby region of Mykolaiv to Sahaidak's rehabilitation center and then on to Russia, he said. With the help of foreigners and volunteers, he managed to track them down and get them to Georgia, he said. Sahaidak would not provide further details about the operation for fear of jeopardizing it, but said the children are expected to return to Ukraine in the coming weeks.
For some, the threat of Russia deporting children has brought unexpected results. In October when there were signs that the Russians were retreating, Tetiana Pavelko, a nurse at the children's hospital, worried they'd take the babies with them. Unable to bear children of her own, the 43-year-old rushed to the ward and adopted a 10-month-old girl.
Wiping tears of joy from her cheeks, Pavelko said she named the baby Kira after a Christian martyr. "She helped people, healed and performed many miracles," she said.