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Eleven Ukrainian children taken to Russian-held territory to be reunited with families in Qatari deal

It is the third – and largest – group of children that Qatar has helped return to their families in Ukraine. Their ages range from two to 16

Bel Trew
Chief International Correspondent
Monday 19 February 2024 16:33 GMT
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Some of the children at the Qatari embassy in Moscow
Some of the children at the Qatari embassy in Moscow (Qatar Foreign Ministry)

Eleven Ukrainian children taken to Russian-controlled territory will be reunited with their families in Ukraine in a deal negotiated by Qatar.

This is the third – and largest – group of children that Qatar has helped return to their families in Ukraine as it positions itself as a key mediator, not just in the Middle East, but in other major conflicts across the world.

Several of the children, who are aged between two and 16 years old, have special medical needs and require medical assistance, Qatari officials said on Monday.

Ukrainian officials say that more than 19,000 Ukrainian children have been illegally taken to Russian-occupied territory or to Russia itself since Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022. So far, just under 400 have been returned home, while the whereabouts of many others remain unknown.

Russia’s children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova has said in televised interviews that Moscow has “evacuated” as many as 700,000 Ukrainian children to Russia, and that many have been adopted by Russian families. Ms Lvova-Belova and President Putin are both subject to International Criminal Court arrest warrants for the unlawful deportation of children.

The 11 children Qatar is helping bring back to Ukraine on Monday are being hosted at the Qatari embassy in Moscow as they wait to be escorted back to their families.

“For over six months, Qatar has been working closely with its Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, making progress on the reunification initiative but also looking for ways to build trust in other areas,” said Lolwah al-Khater, Qatar’s minister of state for international cooperation. She added that Doha now has a “firmly established’ mechanism in place to bring children home safely.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visits the frontline positions of Ukrainian troops in northeastern Ukraine. The war is about to enter its third year (Ukrainian presidential press service/AFP via Getty)

“This initiative reinforces Qatar’s position that dialogue is the only way to build understanding, even between adversaries. We will continue to mediate between the two sides as long as it is requested, with the hope that it can eventually lead to a de-escalation in the conflict.”

The 11 children ended up in Russian-controlled territory for different reasons, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tore through some of their hometowns.

Two of the youngest, aged just five and six, were living in a care home for children with disabilities at the start of the war, and were taken by Russian officials during the offensive to a facility in Russian-controlled Crimea.

A 10-year-old and two teenagers ended up on their own in Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions when their mothers died last year. They are now being reunited with their wider families who are in Ukraine.

The family of another teenage boy were killed as they tried to evacuate from Luhansk in the east. The 16-year-old will be reunited with his aunt in Ukraine.

A 14-year-old boy is expected to be reunited with his mother, who was a Ukrainian prisoner-of-war in 2022 but has since been released.

The youngest are twins aged just two years old, who were placed in a children’s home in Russian-occupied territory by their parents, who were struggling financially. Their uncle, who is in Ukraine, has since taken custody of them.

Qatari minister Ms Khater said it was “heartwarming” to see the children safely reunited with their families in Ukraine, and pledged to continue to mediate for as long as it is requested.

A Qatari official said Qatar had received a request from Ukraine to assist in bringing the children home, and that the Gulf country was “committed” to the safe return of children to Ukraine.

There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side. But Ukrainian senior officials, including the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, have said in past interviews with The Independent that they were working on international cooperation with third countries to help retrieve the children, and that they believed the removal of children to Russia was part of a deliberate attempt to erase Ukrainian culture and identity.

Ukrainian officials have said they have evidence that some of the children are taken to “re-education” camps to learn the Russian language along with Russian culture and history. The Independent uncovered evidence of children with disabilities being given Russian passports.

Last summer, Ms Zelenska told The Independent that she believed the illegal transfer of children was one of the most “terrible and most disgusting crimes of this war”.

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