As Putin continues his onslaught on Ukraine, a small group of American veterans is out on the streets of the country rescuing orphans in besieged areas and transporting them to safety.
The children, who were forced to fend for themselves amid the harsh conditions of war, are brought from the front lines of the battle to Lviv, a far west city in Ukraine where refugees had been flooding into Poland. There, they can be screened, evaluated, and be given medical assistance if needed.
Retired Army Green Beret Jeremy Locke, along with his team, the Aerial Recovery Group, a team of US war vets, have rescued over 460 orphans since they began operations in Ukraine. The team expects to have at least another thousand orphans that still need evacuation.
“But the numbers will change depending how the war unfolds,” he said. According to Locke, rescued children range from four years old to young teens. “They’re just so young, confused, and scared. They’re too innocent, and we want to protect that innocence as much as possible.”
Locke, who has a track record of five deployments to Iraq and Syria, talked about the brutality of a war zone, let alone for a child. “I’ve been in combat five years of my life, and it is no place for a kid. It is not even a place for an adult.”
According to Locke, the kids they evacuate have different physical and emotional conditions, depending on where they come from.
“One group of kids we brought out, they had been in a shelter or in a cellar for about a week, and it took us two attempts to get them. The first attempt, the shelling, was just too bad. We had to put them back in the shelter and come back 48 hours later. And in the meantime, three of their teachers were killed, so they were in pretty bad shape. They were hungry and cold and tired, and they were very quiet. They were in shock,” he explained.
Locke shared that he feels terrible when they are forced to leave kids in shelters and come back another time when it is much safer to transport them on the road.
“We do have a responsibility to make sure they are not hurt or killed when we move them,” he said.
“At least if they are inside a bunker or whatever, and there is shelling or whatever happening above them, they are in relative safety. They may not have much food and all that stuff, but we have to be sure when we go get them that we’re not taking them out of a place of safety and putting them in harm’s way. So that’s what is really difficult about the job,” Locke added.
Aerial Recovery has coordinated with the Ukrainian government, which helps them locate where the children are. The group immediately opted to take the kids out of the conflict hotspots in the east, but they did not cross any international borders.
To ensure the safety of the children during their transport, Aerial Recovery taps various logistical networks and cooperates with other non-government organizations.
“They’re all banding together and willing to give up anything to protect their country. And in their country, those are their children,” said Locke.
Locke noted that his team as Aerial Recovery is a humanitarian organization, which means that they do not carry weapons. Nonetheless, they continue to put their lives at risk for the sake of helping these children.
He also mentioned that the Ukrainians are the ones performing the high-risk recovery operations and humbly says that “this is definitely not a group of Americans coming in and rescuing the day.”
“I’ve been a lot of places where the governments just don’t want to accept help, or they’re arrogant, or they have pride. They (Ukraine) are not putting their pride before their kids,” Locke said.
Children Lost in Transport
Over 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country in search of safety from Russian bombardments. Of these 3.5 million individuals, 1.5 million were said to be children, as reported by UNICEF last March 15. This opens the possibility for children to fall victim to trafficking and exploitation.
“The war in Ukraine is leading to massive displacement, and refugee flows – conditions that could lead to a significant spike in human trafficking and an acute child protection crisis,” said UNICEF’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Afshan Khan.
“Displaced children are extremely vulnerable to being separated from their families, exploited, and trafficked. They need governments in the region to step up and put measures in place to keep them safe.”
There have been unverified reports of some Ukrainian males kidnapping fleeing children to use them to escape from Ukraine. All Ukrainian men between 18-60 years old are prohibited from leaving the country if they are to be conscripted to fight. One exception, however, is when they have three young children.
“We also have some reports of criminals taking orphans from orphanages in Ukraine. Crossing the border pretending that they are relatives to the child and then using them for trafficking purposes,” said EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.
“And you know, trafficking in human being is the most profitable crime ever… If you traffic children, you can sell them again and again and again. And again,” she added.
Therefore, rescue efforts like Aerial Recovery work closely with Ukrainian and Polish authorities to ensure these already traumatized children are spared from further harm after being evacuated. So far, 460 orphans have been rescued as of March 21, with more children to go.