For nearly two years, Scripps News International correspondent Jason Bellini has been following the story of Denys, a Ukrainian orphan and a central character in our extensive coverage of the children Russia has stolen from Ukraine.
Bellini has an exclusive report from Warsaw, Poland, on the remarkable rescue of Denys from Russia.
Scripps News crews met Denys at the Warsaw Hotel, where he spent his first night of freedom after enduring a week-long journey from Moscow. He is there after a secretive rescue by Save Ukraine, an organization dedicated to extracting Ukraine’s stolen children from Russia.
“I was insanely happy,” Denys told Bellini when asked how he felt when he crossed into Poland and knew he was out of Russia. “I realized that just now, when I crossed the border, I started a new stage of my life.”
Bellini first met Denys just one week into Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine—almost two years ago.
His orphanage in the southern city of Kherson was caught in the middle of the chaos.
Denys, the oldest at the orphanage, spoke for the group. He was a Ukrainian patriot, lashing out at the Russian occupiers on social media.
In a TikTok video he posted, Denys said, “I live in Kherson, and it's really scary. They kill, they rape, they steal people. And Putin doesn't care. Therefore, I will, without hesitation, say that I am for Ukraine.”
But within months, as the war raged on, Russian soldiers targeted orphanages in Ukraine. Security cameras captured the moment they came to Denys' orphanage.
The younger orphans would be sent into hiding and saved. But the older boys, including Denys, were taken to Russian territory.
After months of no word on his fate, there was a startling discovery. Denys was seen in a Russian propaganda video posted online, wrapped in a Russian flag.
“I want to serve in the army. I am ready to serve Russia,” he said in the video.
“And where did you get such a desire?” the reporter in the video asked.
“Russians are generally very kind people. And the Ukrainians are ready to tear you apart,” said Denys.
Today, Denys admits it was all propaganda.
“I would say it's, it's propaganda,” he said. “I mean, they told me what to say.”
However, he stopped short of blaming Putin or Russia for the war.
“It doesn't matter who attacked first; it doesn't matter who struck first. What matters is who suffers. War is always bad. And it doesn't matter what the objectives of the war are,” said Denys.
The head of Save Ukraine said Denys is the victim of Russia’s systematic indoctrination of Ukraine’s stolen children.
“Is he, in your mind, a victim of a war crime?" Bellini asked.
“Yes, 100%. He does not understand yet," he responded. “He’s hugely brainwashed. I don't want to judge him. He needs some time be recovered, to be deprogrammed.”
That will come in the future. For now, Denys is on his way to Germany, where he will finally be able to see his grandmother, separated from him by the war.
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