Ukraine orphans become pawns in civil conflict as separatists seek to spirit them to Russia

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Tamara Popova and her fellow orphans lead lives filled with uncertainty. But they know one thing: They don't want to be taken to Russia.

The separatist gunmen running this eastern Ukrainian city aren't asking: They're the ones giving orders.

As the battle between insurgent and government troops closes in on the city, the 130 or so children living at Donetsk Orphanage No. 1 find themselves in the middle of a tug of war. The insurgents say the children will be better off in Russia. Ukraine says taking them outside the country would be tantamount to kidnap.

"Normal people would ask our opinion," the 16-year-old Popova said, as other orphans nodded in agreement. "We told them that this was against the law, that we have brothers and sisters here."

The orphanage has children from age 7 into their late teens. It's clean and well-ordered. Pictures of stars from the local Shaktyar Donetsk soccer team hang in one room. Another is decorated with a fairytale tableau. Girls' bedrooms are decked in pink wallpaper and hung with floral pattern curtains.

It's an image of peace undermined by the menace of violence. Men bearing automatic rifles arrived one recent day to lay down the law about moving Russia, terrifying everybody.

Yelena Im, 16, scoffs at insurgent claims they have the orphans' best interests at heart.

"If they act like that when they want to take us — everybody was crying — then I don't know how they will treat us there," Im said. "They took away our passports. We told them to give us back our documents, that we need them. What right do they have to take them? But they don't answer. They just turn around and start screaming again."

Both sides appear to be using the orphans for propaganda.

"Under Ukrainian law, the actions of these scoundrels should be qualified as a criminal offense," Ukraine's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russian, meanwhile, touts the large numbers of child refugees heading toward Russia as proof that Ukraine can't take care of them.

Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's rights ombudsman, claimed Sunday there were 22,000 Ukrainian child refugees in Russia. He urged Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to "defend the most defenseless, the orphans of Ukraine.

"Allow them to leave for Russia!"


Associated Press reporters Laura Mills in Moscow and Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.