'You imagine the worst': Families' desperate search for the missing children of Ukraine

ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson is in Borodyanka, Ukraine, where she spoke to families desperately searching for their children who have gone missing during the course of Russia's war. Ukraine's missing persons charity has reported 10 times the number of annual cases in 2022

The invasion of Ukraine brought with it an immediate barbarity and that senseless violence continues, but the legacy of Russia’s occupation in this country won’t just be measured in the number of mass killings and ruined buildings, but in the disappearances of families, friends and neighbours.

Last year in Ukraine, 182 children went missing. This year, in the three months since the war began, more than 2,200 children have vanished.

The number of missing children in Ukraine stands at over 2,000 since the start of the year. Credit: ITV News

“These are huge numbers nobody could ever be prepared for. The war changed everything.”

That’s what Marina Lypovetska from Ukraine’s main missing person’s charity, Magnolia, told me in Kyiv.

“If your child goes missing during wartime you imagine only the very worst scenarios and the worst situations,” she said.

One of those such situations involves Vladyslav Buryak, known as Vlad. He is 16. It’s thought he was abducted by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint en route from Melitopol to Zaporizhzhia in April. His father is Oleg Buryak, head of military administration in Zaporizhzhia. He believes Vlad was captured because of his job for the government.

Oleg with his son Vlad (bottom right). Credit: ITV News

Vlad had been living in Melitopol with his mother, but Oleg had been trying to persuade them for weeks to leave. He knew from military intelligence that it was getting too dangerous there, and he wanted his kids out. But their grandfather was terminally ill and they wouldn’t leave him behind.On April 8, their grandfather died, so Vlad headed, with a group of friends, to his father in Zaporizhzhia.

“They left Melitopol at 11am, then I got a terrifying phone call that the car had been stopped at a checkpoint in a village on the way. Russian soldiers had approached the vehicle and had checked their documents. They had noticed Vlad on his phone in the back of the car. The soldier asked if he was filming him. An argument between Vlad and the soldier broke out. The soldier grabbed the phone and took Vlad out of the car and into a roadside cafe.”

Many of the missing children "simply can't be found" amid the ruins of bombed-out towns and cities, reports Lucy Watson

The women and children Vlad was travelling with were told to drive on or risk being detained themselves. Oleg does not blame them.

“The [Russians] saw the value of Vlad as a prisoner. I know for fact he’s in a prison cell somewhere in this area but I don’t know where.“

Since Vlad disappeared, those holding him have telephoned Oleg and let him speak to his son.

“The day after [he was taken] I got an alarming phone call and a Russian negotiator spoke to me. They told me their position and gave me their conditions.”

He wouldn’t disclose those conditions to us but has spoken to Vlad again.

“He keeps asking me the same questions over and over again. 'When will they let me go? When will you come and get me?' And for me, it gets harder and harder the more time that passes. It is so hard to explain to him. Out of all of their prisoners, he is the only child among them, and the one who’s been imprisoned the longest."

At this point, tears started to form in Oleg’s eyes.

Lucy Watson speaks to a resident worried about three missing sisters who disappeared from an apartment block. Credit: ITV News

“I am sorry,” he said. “He is my little nerd. He likes computers, he likes animals. He is hoping to be a vet. Mentally, he’s still holding on. He’s not broken yet. He still has hope. We have this saying here, 'adults start the war, the young ones end up paying for it'.”

From one day to the next Oleg doesn’t know if his son is dead or alive, until the phone rings. He doesn’t know how Vlad is being treated, so he can only think the worst.

Before he had to leave us, he had this plea. “I would like to ask the international community to ask questions. Why, in this so-called 'liberation', is a child being held who has never served in the army, never held a weapon, who is still in school? We are not just fighting for our independence here, but for the right to choose how we want to live, who we look up to, what we love. For that, we will sacrifice our lives. This is our right and I want all the civilised world not to forget about us.”

So much of life in Ukraine hangs in the balance. There is no consolation for what is happening here.