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 taken from areas occupied by Russian forces during the war.
Mothers hugged sons and daughters as they crossed the border from Belarus into Ukraine on Friday after a complex rescue mission involving travel across four countries.
Dasha Rakk, a 13-year-old girl, said she and her twin sister had agreed to leave the Russian-occupied city of Kherson last year because of the war and go to a holiday camp in Crimea for a few weeks. But once in Crimea, Russian officials said the children would be staying for longer.
“They said we will be adopted, that we will get guardians,” she said. “When they first told us we will stay longer we all started crying.”
Dasha’s mother Natalia said she had travelled from Ukraine to Crimea via Poland, Belarus and Moscow to get her daughters. Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
“It was heartbreaking to look at children left behind who were crying behind the fence,” she said.Kyiv estimates nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since Moscow invaded in February last year, in what it condemns as illegal deportations.Moscow, which control 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 organisation that helped arrange the rescue mission.