A middle-aged man shuffles through Kherson’s central square — just another face in a war weary crowd. He walks like a man who has endured a brutal occupation — like everyone here. As he passed a line of people waiting for aid, a woman called out — "en-heroy," meaning "you’re a hero."
She’s right. His name is Volodymyr Sahaidak, and he’s the reason Newsy went to Kherson, down a battle scarred road full of checkpoints and land mine warnings. Newsy wanted to meet him in person and the children he saved.
Sahaidak is the director of a home for orphans and other wards of the state — ranging in age from four to 15 years old. Newsy first met him via video conference in March, hiding with 50 kids in a crowded room from the invading force of Russians.
In a later call, we heard from a sixteen year old named Denis — one of the older boys there — who spoke for the group.
"The older children help the younger ones," he said. "They try to focus their attention on activities, games, cartoons, but all of them, including the younger ones, know what is happening in their country.”
At the end of that call Newsy's Jason Bellini told Volodymyr he would do his best to get to Kherson, although at the time the chances of that seemed remote.
This became possible just days ago, after the Ukrainian counteroffensive forced the Russians to abandon Kherson.
For months, Sahaidak guarded the orphanage. He showed us the room where he slept alongside a few staff. Their home was now with the orphans they had vowed to protect.
But the war raged on, and finally the Russians came.
They forced Denis and the other teen boys to go to Crimea. The Russians had also taken documents about the children.
Sahaidak knew he must hide every single child. But it took time — months to spirit them away, some with distant family, a few local volunteers and others with staff.
We met Misha, Katya and Vlad. They’ve been living with their teacher, Halina Kulakovska. She took them into her small apartment with no electricity. Her gas stove was the only heat and her small porch served as the refrigerator.
She and the children hid in fear, because orphans had started disappearing in Kherson.
Sahaidak took Newsy to a church that was supposed to be a sanctuary for 46 orphans — all babies and toddlers. But the Russians found them and took them away.
There is no accurate count of how many of Ukraine’s children have been taken to occupied Crimea and Russia. Ukraine says 8-11,000 but reports out of Russia this week suggest it could be tens of thousands.
Among them is Denis — the 16 year old who spoke on behalf of the little ones all those months ago.
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