KYIV — Russia has agreed to free an additional six Ukrainian children and allow them to reunite with their families in Ukraine following Qatari mediation, Lolwah Al-Khater, Qatar’s minister of state for international cooperation, said Tuesday. The children are among the thousands Ukraine says have been forcibly displaced to Russia or trapped in Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine. The group of six is scheduled to leave Moscow on Tuesday and travel through Belarus to Ukraine, according to an official briefed on the operation.
The mother of one 11-year-old boy in the group is a Ukrainian soldier being held as a prisoner of war in Russia, added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. His father died about a decade ago, and he will now stay with a maternal aunt. Until now, he had been living with relatives in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, the official said.
“Building on the momentum of recent weeks, Qatar continues to play a mediating role between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, successfully facilitating the reunification of six additional Ukrainian children with their families in time for the festive holidays,” Al-Khater said.
The latest family reunifications, she said, are “part of an ongoing initiative led by Qatar in response to requests from Russia and Ukraine to identify and explore potential areas of cooperation.”
“Today’s announcement marks another small yet significant step forward in this collaborative process,” she added.
Photos reviewed by The Washington Post on Tuesday showed several Ukrainian children gathered with Qatari diplomats at their embassy in Moscow.
Qatar has long acted as a mediator between various international parties and is also assisting in releasing hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Doha has maintained ties to Hamas leaders, including hosting them in Qatar in recent years. It has also negotiated to release Americans from Iran and has acted as a key intermediary with the Taliban.
The forced relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia or deeper into Russian-controlled territory has become one of the most fraught issues over the past 22 months of war. Russia has long insisted it is moving children out of front-line areas to protect them, often sending them to summer camps in occupied Crimea or coastal regions of Russia.
Ukraine describes the process of moving children to Russia as an attempt to erase their Ukrainian identity and indoctrinate them with Russian ideologies.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. They are accused of war crimes for deporting and transferring Ukrainian children. Lvova-Belova is among the Russians who have adopted a Ukrainian child since the February 2022 invasion.
The Ukrainian children being released Tuesday are from various backgrounds, the official briefed on the matter said.
One 13-year-old had been staying with his grandmother in a village in Russia. Through the Qatari-led reunification process, he and his mother reunited in Simferopol, a city in Russian-occupied Crimea. The pair then traveled to Moscow and will proceed to Ukraine.
A 15-year-old who was living with his grandmother under Russian occupation in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region traveled to Moscow with a guardian and will reunite with his mother in Kyiv.
An 8-year-old who was living with his grandmother in the occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine was reunited with his mother after Qatar helped facilitate her travel to Luhansk. Qatari diplomats helped escort the pair to Moscow, and they will now return to Ukraine via Belarus.
Two other children, living with their father and adult sister in Russia, will return to Ukraine with their sister to reunite with their mother.
Qatar has facilitated the release of other Ukrainian children from Russia this year, including Bohdan Ermokhin, who is from Mariupol. After Russia’s assault on the southern city last year, he was moved to Russia and issued a Russian passport.
Ahead of his 18th birthday, his Ukrainian lawyer said he was summoned to register with a Russian military office, prompting fears he could one day be drafted and forced to fight against his home country. Russian officials said those fears amounted to exaggeration.
He has since returned to Ukraine to live with his sister.
Hundreds of other children have been freed through the work of private rescue operations, including by the nongovernmental organization Save Ukraine.
Three teenagers who recently fled Russia described in interviews with The Post how Russian authorities systematically tried to keep them inside Russian-occupied territory. All three were from the southern Kherson region and were moved into Russia or Crimea ahead of Ukraine’s liberation of the city of Kherson last fall. Then they became trapped, with Russian authorities complicating their efforts to return home.
Unlike many younger children who are unable to identify themselves or advocate to return to Ukraine, teenagers are more likely to find their own ways to safely escape. But minors are not allowed to cross the Russian border on their own, which means many have required power-of-attorney documents to be prepared by their legal guardians in Ukraine that have allowed them to cross under the guidance of other adults.
Teenagers willing to testify about their forced relocation also threaten Russia’s narrative that they were moved for their own safety and well-being.
2023, Washington Post