A monthslong AP investigation was first to show how Moscow has deported thousands of Ukrainian children to be raised by Russian families.

Russia has been open about its desire to turn Ukrainian orphans into Russian citizens with Russian families — the country has promoted adoptions on television, framing them as a generous outpouring for children in need. Whether or not they have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase culture and identity.

Investigative correspondent Sarah El Deeb started work on the story over the summer with Ukrainian journalists Anastasiia Shvets, based in Kyiv, and Lviv-based Elizaveta Tilna, reaching out to dozens of Ukrainians to determine the extent of the issue. The problem, Ukrainian officials say, is that they don't even know the identities of the kids who have disappeared into Russia — many were pulled by Russian forces from bombed-out basements in besieged cities like Mariupol — making it all but impossible to trace them. Moscow producer Tanya Titova and cameraman Kirill Zarubin, meanwhile, reported from the other end, learning how the adoption process worked and locating large groups of Ukrainian children in camps throughout Russia.

El Deeb found a Ukrainian mother in France who had successfully retrieved her children just before they seemed set to vanish completely, while Titova found a Russian foster mother who was adopting Ukrainian children. Together, they told a story that is a flashpoints of the war. Prosecutors say the policy, which many consider a grave war crime, can be tied directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has explicitly supported the adoptions. Titova’s contribution was crucial to the story but had to remain unbylined, as did the visuals from inside Russia. Stringer photographer Jeremias Gonzalez provided photos of the reunited family in France.

Other media have covered the allegations that Russia was taking Ukrainian children for the purpose of making them Russian. But the AP story was the first to show the process start to finish — and prove that many of the children are not orphans at all. Children were taken against their will, fed lies that they weren’t wanted by their parents, used for propaganda, and given Russian families and citizenship.

The story won wide play online and had 2 million impressions on Twitter. In addition, BBC “Newsday” ran a live segment with El Deeb. Most tellingly, the reporting was singled out during a State Department briefing — a rare acknowledgement by U.S. officials of the importance of AP’s reporting in Ukraine.

For documenting a severe breach of human rights with a heart-wrenching story that resonated across audiences, El Deeb, Titova, Shvets, Tilna and Zarubin earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.

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