“It was heartbreaking”: Ukraine children returned after alleged deportation

More than 30 Ukrainian children have been reunited with their families. (Representative)

Ukraine/Belarus Border:

More than 30 children were reunited with their families in Ukraine at the weekend after a lengthy operation to bring them back home from Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea, where they were held by Russian forces during the war. Transported from areas with

Mothers hug sons and daughters as they cross the border from Belarus to Ukraine on Friday after a complex rescue operation that traveled across four countries.

Dasha Rakk, a 13-year-old girl, said she and her twin sister had agreed last year to leave the war-occupied city of Kherson and move to a holiday camp in Crimea for a few weeks. But once in Crimea, Russian officials said the children would stay longer.

“They said we would be adopted, that we would find guardians,” she said. “When they first told us we’d be living longer, we all started crying.”

Dasha’s mother, Natalia, said she had traveled from Ukraine to Crimea via Poland, Belarus and Moscow to get her daughters. Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula since 2014.

“It was very difficult but we kept going, we didn’t sleep at nights, we slept sitting up,” she said, describing her journey to the camp.

“It was heartbreaking to see the children left behind, who were crying behind the fence,” he said.

Kiev estimates that some 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since Moscow’s invasion in February last year, which it condemns as illegal deportations.

Moscow, which controls parts of Ukraine’s east and south, denies abducting the children and says they were taken for their own safety.

“Now the fifth rescue operation is nearing completion. It was special because of how many children we managed to bring back and also because of its complexity,” said Mykola Kuleba, founder of the Save Ukraine humanitarian organization.

Kuleba told a Kiev briefing on Saturday that all 31 children brought home said no one in Russia was trying to find their parents.

“There were children who changed their residence five times in five months, some children say they were living with rats and cockroaches,” he said. Kuleba said the children were taken from occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson regions to live in summer camps.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

arrest warrant

Three children – two boys and a girl – were present at the media briefing in Kiev. Save Ukraine said they brought home a total of 18 children on a previous mission last month.

All three said they were separated from their parents, who were pressured by Russian authorities to send their children to Russian summer camps for two weeks from the occupied parts of the Kherson and Kharkiv regions.

The children at the briefing said that they were forced to stay at the summer camp for four to six months and were moved from place to place during their stay.

“We were treated like animals. We were locked in a separate building whose age was not clear,” said Vitaly, a child from the Kherson region. He said that he was told that his parents no longer wanted him.

The International Criminal Court last month issued arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine.

Moscow has not hidden a program under which it has taken thousands of Ukrainian children from occupied territories, but presents it as a humanitarian operation to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.

Russia rejected the ICC’s allegations, saying it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and declared the warrant invalid.

Lvova-Belova said earlier this week that her commission acted on humanitarian grounds to protect the interests of children in the area where the military action was taking place and that no one should harm them or their parents or legal guardians. were not transferred against the will, whose consent was always sought unless they were missing.

Katarina Rashevska, a lawyer for a Ukrainian NGO called the Regional Center for Human Rights, told the briefing that they were gathering evidence to make a case that Russian authorities deliberately prevented the return of Ukrainian children.

“Every story covers a whole range of international violations and cannot go unpunished,” she said.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)