“Mum, come and get me.”
These were the words Natalya Zhornyk had been desperately waiting for.
Weeks earlier, Russian troops had arrived at a school in Kupiansk near Kharkiv in Ukraine – the school Natalya’s 15-year-old son Artem went to every day, like a normal schoolboy.
They took Artem and a dozen of his schoolmates away.
Natalya told reporters that for weeks, she had no idea where he was.
She did not know if he was still alive.
Then, at last, Artem was able to contact her.
“Mum, come and get me.” That is what he told his mother on the phone.
It took Natalya months to find her son, to get him back.
She managed to travel to the place in Russian-occupied Ukraine where he was being held and took him home – finally, back into her arms.
Artem’s and Natalya’s story is one of many.
Since the start of Russia’s war of aggression, Russian authorities have transferred and deported thousands of Ukrainian children – to Russian-occupied territory and to Russia itself.
Those who have been able to return – like Artem – describe shocking experiences:
How they were forced to speak Russian and to sing the Russian national anthem in Russian children’s homes.
How their names and ages were changed in order to erase their identities, in order to make sure their parents will never find them again.
How they were threatened with being adopted by Russian families.
Since I have learned about these crimes, I cannot stop imagining how I would feel if these children were my own two little daughters.
And I know that colleagues from Africa, Asia and Latin America feel the same.
During the recent visit to Ukraine and Russia by a delegation of African heads of state and government, they made it very clear that with regard to these children, humanity must come first.
So let us work on this issue, especially as I am aware that we are not all on the same page about every aspect of this war here in this room.
But humanity is what unites us.
All of us have experienced the tragedy of war in our regions.
But when an aggressor does not even stop at children, tragedy turns into horrendous inhumanity.
Recognising this, the African colleagues proposed the return of the deported children as a first confidence-building measure.
I want to wholeheartedly echo their proposal:
I would like to invite all of you to join forces with international organisations, Ukrainian authorities and NGOs to investigate Russia’s deportations, and together find ways to bring the children back home.
Despite all our differences, one conviction should be beyond debate:
The deported children belong with their parents.
They need to be returned home, home to Ukraine. Now.
To Russia, I would like to say: You can fool yourself – but you cannot fool the world.
Because the world, in the last 500 days, has been to Bucha, to Irpin, to Kharkiv.
The world has seen Russian atrocities. The world has spoken to the mothers like Natalya, whose children your government has taken.
The horror of the deported Ukrainian children is the tip of the iceberg of the unspeakable suffering that Russia’s war has brought to so many children around the world.
By bombing roads, blocking ports and laying mines in grain fields in Ukraine, Russia has been adding fuel to the fire of a global food crisis.
As a result, families on every continent struggle to make ends meet – and children go to bed hungry every night.
And now, with its announcement that it is withdrawing from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Moscow is threatening even more people with starvation.
By helping to bring down global food prices, this initiative has been a lifeline for the weakest and the most vulnerable around the world.
As the Secretary General has pointed out, this morning after Russia’s withdrawal, we immediately saw wheat prices jump.
This is about humanity. This is about us.
I therefore call on Russia to:
Stop using hunger as a weapon.
Stop abducting children.
Stop your illegal war on Ukraine – in the name of humanity.