A Ukrainian teenager who was taken to Russia from an occupied city during the war and prevented from leaving the country earlier this year on Sunday returned to Ukraine.
Bohdan Yermokhin, who turned 18 on Sunday, appealed to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this month to help bring him back. In March, he tried to leave Russia for Ukraine via Belarus, but was stopped and sent back.
“I believed I would be in Ukraine, but not on this day,” Yermokhin said, while eating at a gas station after crossing into Ukraine. “This is a very pleasant gift, to put it in the right way. The emotions are overwhelming, all good, with the notion that Ukraine needs me.”
Zelenskiy welcomed Yermokhin’s return in his nightly video address.
“Many attempts were made to help him. I am happy everything worked out,” he said, thanking Ukrainian officials, international organizations, particularly the UN Children’s Fund, and authorities in Qatar for help in mediation.
Ukraine says that 20,000 children have been illegally transferred to Russia since Moscow’s invasion on Feb. 24 last year, with some being put up for adoption.
Kyiv says this is a war crime, an allegation denied by Russia, which says it was protecting children in a war zone.
Yermokhin — an orphan from Mariupol, which was captured by Moscow’s troops during the first year of the war — was taken to Russia and placed in a foster family in the Moscow region.
On Sunday, reporters in Kortelisy, a Ukrainian village near the border with Belarus, saw Yermokhin driven into Ukraine from the border in a van.
Asked if he was glad to be back in Ukraine, Yermokhin said: “Yes.”
“We were in constant contact with Bohdan and he’s already in Ukraine with his cousin,” Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak wrote on Telegram, announcing Yermokhin’s return.
Mariam Lambert of the Dutch non-governmental organization Orphans Feeding Foundation said they have been working with Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman and Zelenskiy’s office on the return of children deported to Russia, including Yermokhin, since August.
Yermokhin’s lawyer, Kateryna Bobrovska, has said the teen had been told to report to a draft office near Moscow next month and warned he could be conscripted into the Russian army.
In a statement, Children’s Rights Commissioner for the President of Russia Maria Lvova-Belova said he had been summoned to update his military registration and that “all Russian citizens of his age receive a summons of that kind.”
Lvova-Belova said Yermokhin left Russia on Saturday on a plane to Minsk on his way to Ukraine and that he had met a cousin in the Belarusian capital.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, accusing him and Lvova-Belova of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
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