UKRAINE/BELARUS BORDER, April 8 (Reuters) – More than 30 children were reunited with their families in Ukraine this weekend after a long operation to bring them back home from Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea, where they had been in occupied territories. Russian forces during the war.
Mothers hugging their sons and daughters crossed the border from Belarus into Ukraine on Friday after a complex rescue mission involving four countries.
Dasha Rakk, a 13-year-old girl, said that she and her sister met in the twin city of Kherson, which was occupied by the Russians last year because of the war, and went to a holiday camp for several weeks. But once in Chersonese, Russian officials said the children would stay longer.
“They said we will be adopted, we will provide guardians,” he said. “When they first told us to stay longer we all started crying.”
Natalia’s mother Dasha said she traveled from Ukraine to Crimea via Poland, Belarus and Moscow to receive her daughters. The Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
“It was very difficult but we would go, we didn’t sleep at night, we slept sitting up,” he said, describing his journey to the camp.
“He was sad to see the children left crying behind the fence,” he said.
Kyiv estimates it has taken nearly 19,500 children to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since Moscow invaded in February last year, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.
Moscow, which controls chunks of eastern and southern Ukraine, denies abducting the children and says they were deported for their own safety.
“Now the fifth rescue mission is nearing its completion. It was special for the number of children to return to us and also because of its complexity,” said Mykola Kuleba, founder of the humanitarian organization Save Ukraine, which helped organize the aid mission.
Kuleba told a Kyiv briefing on Saturday that all 31 children had returned home, saying no one was trying to find their parents in Russia.
“There were children who changed five times in five months; some children say they live with rats and cockroaches,” he said. The children were taken to what the Russians called summer camps from occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Kuleba said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Three children – two boys and a girl – were present in Kyiv in a short time. The Ukrainian soldier said he came home from a previous mission last month, which returned 18 children in total.
The three said they were separated from their parents who pressured Russian authorities to send their children to a Russian summer camp for two weeks in the occupied Kherson and Kharkiv regions.
In summary, the children were forced to stay in summer camps for four to six months and were moved from one place to another.
“We were made like animals. We were locked in a separate building,” said Vitaly, a boy from the Kherson region, whose age is not clear. They were told by their parents that nothing more was missing.
Last month, the International Criminal Court requested the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova on charges of abducting children from Ukraine.
He did not hide Moscow’s plan under which thousands of Ukrainian children were taken from the occupied territories, but presented this as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
Russia rejects the ICC’s allegations, saying it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and that the summons warrants are null and void.
Earlier this week, Lviv-Belova said that his humanitarian commission had acted for the protection of children’s interests in the camp where the military action was taking place and had not moved anyone against their will or their parents or legal guardians, whose consent was always there. they sought, lest they be wanting.
Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer from a Ukrainian NGO called the Center for Regional Rights, said in a briefing that she was gathering evidence to build a case that Russian authorities deliberately prevented the return of Ukrainian children.
“In every history there is a whole range of international violations and it cannot go unpunished,” he said.
Additional reporting by Olena Harmash, edited by Tom Balmforth, David Ljunggren and Francis Kerry.
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