Ukraine returns 31 children from Russia after alleged deportation

More than 30 children were reunited with their families in Ukraine this week after a long operation to bring them back from Russia, where they had been taken from occupied areas during the war, a humanitarian group said on Saturday as quoted by Reuters.

Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia since Moscow invaded in February last year, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.

Moscow, which controls chunks of Ukraine’s east and south, denies abducting children and says they have been transported away for their own safety.

“Now the fifth rescue mission is nearing its completion. It was special regarding the number of children we managed to return and also because of its complexity,” said Mykola Kuleba, the founder of the Save Ukraine humanitarian organization.

According to Reuters report, the group helped the Ukrainian relatives of children who had been taken to Russia with the logistics, transport and planning needed to embark on the long journey to fetch their children and bring them back.

A grandmother who had been due to reunite with two of her grandchildren died suddenly on the trip and the children had to remain in Russia, Kuleba, Ukraine’s former commissioner for children’s rights, told a media briefing in Kyiv.

Kuleba said that all the children who have been brought back to Ukraine by Save Ukraine had said that no one in Russia was trying to find their parents in Ukraine.

“There were kids who changed their locations five times in five months, some children say that they were living with rats and cockroaches,” he said. The children were taken to what Russians called stays in summer camps from occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Kuleba said.

According to Reuters’ report, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report says that three children – two boys and a girl – were present at the media briefing in Kyiv. Save Ukraine said they were returned to Ukraine on a previous rescue mission last month that returned 18 children in total.

The three children said they had been separated from their parents who were pressured by Russian authorities to send their children to Russian summer camps for what was billed as two weeks, from occupied parts of Kherson and Kharkiv regions.

The children at the briefing said they were forced to remain at the summer camps for four to six months and were moved from one place to another during their stay.

“We were treated like animals. We were closed in a separate building,” said Vitaly, a child from Kherson region whose age was not clear. He added that they were told their parents no longer wanted them.

The International Criminal Court last month issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine.

Moscow has not concealed a program under which it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia from occupied areas, but presents this it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone, Reuters reported.

Russia has rejected the allegations of the ICC, saying it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC and calling the warrant against Putin and Lvova-Belova null and void.

Lvova-Belova told a news conference earlier this week that her commission acted on humanitarian grounds to protect the interests of children in an area where military action was taking place and had not moved anyone against their will or that of their parents or legal guardians, whose consent was always sought unless they were missing.

Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer from a Ukrainian NGO called Regional Centre for Human Rights, told the briefing they were collecting evidence to build a case that Russian officials deliberately prevented return of the Ukrainian children back to their country.

“In every story there is a whole range of international violations and it cannot go unpunished,” she said.