An orphaned Ukrainian teenager, who was taken to Russia from occupied regions of the war-torn country, has returned home ahead of his 18th birthday after mediation from the UN and Qatar, avoiding potential conscription in the Russian army.
Bohdan Yermokhin was one of 20,000 Ukrainian children illegally taken to Russia since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February last year, according to Ukraine. The practice is deemed a war crime by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
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The teenager, who had been living in the port city of Mariupol with his cousin after both his parents died, was captured by Russian troops in the first weeks of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and put into a foster home in Russia.
Yemokhin tried to return home on his own through Belarus earlier this year but was stopped at the border and sent back.
He appealed to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy for help getting back ahead of his 18th birthday when he risked being drafted into the Russian army.
On Sunday, Yomokhin arrived in Ukraine via Belarus, the Reuters news agency reported.
“I believed I would be in Ukraine, but not on this day”, Yermokhin told reporters 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.”
Zelenskyy welcomed Yermokhin’s return in his nightly video address.
“Many attempts were made to help him. I am happy everything worked out,” he said, expressing thanks to Ukrainian officials, international organisations, and particularly the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, and authorities in Qatar for their mediation.
The ICC claims Russia intends to “permanently [remove] these children from their own country”.
It has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Children’s Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, saying there are “reasonable grounds to believe” they are responsible for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.
Russia denies the allegations, saying it has only sought to protect children from the risk of violence in war zones. The Kremlin says Moscow does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.
About 400 Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war have been returned home.
Yermokhin’s lawyer, Kateryna Bobrovska, has said the teen risked being conscripted into the Russian army after he had been told to report to a draft office near Moscow next month.
She called on Zelenskyy to help bring him home, bringing international attention to the case.
Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s commissioner, said Yermokhin left Russia on Saturday on a plane to Minsk, where he met a cousin, before continuing to Ukraine. She acknowledged that Yermokhin had wanted to be reunited with his relative.
Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said he was grateful Yermokhin was back home after his long ordeal.
“It was a thorny path. Bogdan went through a lot while in Russia, but despite everything, he wanted to be home! Today his wish has come true,” Lubinets said.