Artyomovsk locals reveal how Ukrainian forces targeted civilians and took children during the 'battle for Bakhmut'
Since Russia began its military campaign in Ukraine in February 2022, Western media and the authorities in Kiev have bombarded the world with accusations of “war crimes,” including kidnapping children and targeting civilians.
But the testimonies of recently evacuated civilians from Artyomovsk (also known as Bakhmut) – like those of civilians in Mariupol and other areas – once again suggest Ukraine is guilty of the very war crimes its officials level at Russia.
In late April, survivors of Ukrainian bombing in Artyomovsk spoke to myself and my colleague Christelle Néant about the horror they had endured on April 11, when Kiev's forces blew up the ground floor of their apartment building, burying the civilians sheltering in the basement below. Seven of the seventeen civilians in that basement died almost immediately, including a seven-year-old child.
From the hospital where he was being treated for a broken hip, a man named Sergey said Ukrainian forces, “or rather, [World War Two-era Nazi collaborator Stepan] Bandera's army,” blew up the building deliberately. “On April 10, they started throwing grenades into every room. We could hear the grenades rolling around.”
He said the soldiers had used a blowtorch to weaken the infrastructural pipes and ensure floor slabs would collapse when the explosions occurred. His wife and his mother were killed. His six year old son, Kolya, just barely survived.
Néant also met and interviewed another of the survivors, Yulia, who just two days prior to the explosion had given birth. By some miracle, her newborn survived. Néant and I later interviewed Vladimir, the father of Sergey's wife. He described finding his daughter with her skull cracked open. Unable to help her, he dug for his grandson and found him pinned down by debris, wheezing, but alive, and was able to free him.
Horrific as the days leading up to April 11 were, they weren't the first time Kiev's troops had subjected the local population to terror. According to all those we spoke with, Ukrainian forces had been shelling their area since February 2022.
“We were shelled every day by the [radical far-right organization] Right Sector and Azov,” Sergey said. Two others in the same basement, Evegny and Lyubov, said Ukrainian forces had for one month routinely fired on the apartments, “to weaken the walls, so that they could be easily destroyed one day.”
Vladimir, likewise speaking of Ukraine's deliberate shelling of the city, said, “It was all presented like all of the destruction was done by the Russians, but I honestly am telling you now that 98% of destruction in our city has been done by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Whether or not his estimation is accurate, it speaks to how routinely Ukrainian forces were bombing him and other civilians there.
‘White Angels’ taking children
Apart from being deliberately targeted by Ukrainian forces, some Artyomovsk civilians claim they also faced another threat – Ukrainian operatives abducting children. According to four people we spoke with, Ukrainian military police tried to take away local kids.
They call these people “White Angels.” These are special police crews that Ukrainian sources describe as evacuation teams. In early April, Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories (which is what Kiev calls the formerly Ukrainian regions which opted to become part of Russia: the Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, as well as Crimea) announced that 126 children would be “mandatorily evacuated” in 21 unspecified localities of the Donetsk region.
This is, apparently, what these crews are doing – even against the wishes of the parents. According to the ministry, “evacuated children accompanied by one of the parents or a legal representative will be provided free shelter, social guarantees, humanitarian and psychological assistance.”
However, not all families want to leave their homes with the “evacuators.” Ukrainian media report that some parents instead choose to hide their children from the White Angels, and in these cases the police teams try to convince them to leave.
The locals we spoke to tell a different story – that of children being taken away with or without their own or their parents’ consent.
“They were hunting our kids, and we were hiding them around the buildings,” a man named Evgeny said. “We had been hiding our kids for a whole month. It was freezing cold. My wife was pregnant then. Another boy was hiding with his mom.”
He and Lyubov spoke of a district of Artyomovsk where people went to get humanitarian aid. According to them, a 14-year-old boy was outside while his parents sought aid. “Some people came and took him away. The neighbors were shouting at them. And they said, 'He’s not supervised, he's not being cared for properly.' And that was it. We don't know his fate now.”
Sergey said he and his wife had been hiding their own son. “They were taking children away. They would come at 6pm, sometimes at 10pm. They were looking for one particular boy in one basement, so they would turn up there.” The men he saw wore black shoes and camouflage.
Some even believe the “evacuators” are neither police nor volunteers. “They called themselves volunteers, but they were not, they were the SBU [Ukraine’s successor to the Soviet KGB] or maybe some other organization that collects information,” Vladimir said. “They had a list of people, they knew who lived where and how many people were there.”
“Volunteers came in a car, gave out some boxes, gathered information, and then with this information, people in uniform would come running and looking for children.”
In Néant's interview with Yulia, the mother spoke of a boy who the “evacuators” had been seeking. Yulia said, “It was February and the White Angels started coming, then other groups came. They said that the Supreme Rada had decreed that we had no right to be here and that we were exposing our child to active hostilities. There's a boy next door, his name is Maksim. Five times they came to see him, they wanted to find him.”
Vladimir confirmed this. “The family lived in a dormitory, in a basement. They made raids on them, they came in the morning, at lunchtime, in the evening. They insisted on taking the children away without their parents' consent.”
More recently, an 11-year-old girl spoke of how White Angels – who introduced themselves as military police – came to the basement she was sheltering in with a photo of her, looking for her, and saying they needed to take her away, because “Russia killed her mother.” The girl said they came back looking for her a week later. Her mother was, the girl said, alive, and with her.
According to earlier testimony by an Artyomovsk civilian, cited by RIA, children were being taken to resorts and recreational camps on Ukrainian territory. “If the parents consented, they could go with their children. If not, the children were taken away.”
These testimonies could be the first of many revealing how civilians had to hide their children to prevent Ukraine from abducting them – which is, ironically, exactly what Kiev has accused Russian forces of doing.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.