POLITICS

Russia and Ukraine exchange POWs for the first time in months. Bodies of fallen are also swapped

May 31, 2024, 8:11 AM

SUMY REGION, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners of war on Friday, each sending back 75 POWs in the first such swap in the past three months, officials said. A few hours earlier and at the same location, the two sides also handed over bodies of their fallen soldiers.

The Ukrainian POWs, including four civilians, were returned on several buses that drove into the northern Sumy region. As they disembarked, they shouted joyfully and called their families to tell them they were home. Some knelt and kissed the ground while many wrapped themselves in yellow-blue flags and hugged one another, breaking into tears. Many appeared emaciated and poorly dressed.

The exchange of the 150 POWs in all was the fourth swap this year and the 52nd since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The United Arab Emirates said it helped negotiate this latest exchange.

The two sides have traded blame for what they say is a slowdown in the swaps.

Ukraine has in the past urged Russia to swap “all for all” and rallies calling for the release of POWs take place across Ukraine weekly. A Ukrainian official at the headquarters coordinating the exchanges, Vitalii Matviienko said that “Ukraine is always ready.”

Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights ombudsperson, said earlier this week that Kyiv was making “new artificial demands,” without elaborating.

Among those who were returned home to Ukraine on Friday was Roman Onyschuk, an IT worker who joined Ukrainian forces as a volunteer at the start of the Russian invasion. He was captured in March 2022 in the Kharkiv region.

“I just want to hear my wife’s voice, my son’s voice. I missed his three birthdays,” he said. In the more than 800 days he spent in captivity, he never communicated with his family and he doesn’t know what city they are in now, he said.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Onyschuk added.

With the exchanges, including Friday’s, Ukraine has gotten back a total of 3,210 members of the Ukrainian military and civilians since the outbreak of the war, according to Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for Treatment of POWs.

Neither Ukraine nor Russia disclose how many POWs there are in all.

Dmytro Kantypenko was captured on Snake Island in the Black Sea in the first days of the war. He was among those freed Friday and said he called his mother to tell her he was back in Ukraine.

“I’ll be home soon,” he said, wiping away his tears. He learned that his wife had fled to Lithuania with their son.

The Russians woke him up in the middle of the night without any explanation, he said, giving him a short time to change his clothes before they were on their way. Kantypenko said they were tortured with electroshock shortly before the exchange, and his fellow POWs standing beside him confirmed that.

According to U.N. reports, the majority of Ukrainian POWs are subject to routine medical neglect, severe and systematic mistreatment, and even torture while in detention. There have also been isolated reports of abuse of Russian soldiers, mostly during capture or transit to internment sites.

At least one-third of Ukrainians who returned home suffered “injuries, severe illnesses, and disabilities,” according to the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of POWs. Among those returned Friday were 19 Ukrainian fighters from Snake island, 14 people captured at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and 10 fighters from the city of Mariupol that was captured by Russia.

Five women were among the returned Ukrainians, including Nataliia Manuilova, who was a cook in the Azov regiment and spent more than two years in captivity. The Russians took her from her home in Mariupol, pulling a bag over her head and tying her hands, she recounted.

“I hate them. They took away two years of my beautiful life,” she said, hugging her son on Friday. “I can’t believe he’s grown up like this.”

The POWs traveled through small villages before reaching Sumy, from where they were taken to hospitals for two weeks of rehabilitation. The buses moved past green fields with newly dug defense lines preparing for Russian attacks in the area following Moscow’s offensive in the neighboring Kharkiv region.

Ukrainians with blue and yellow flags took to the streets and loudly welcomed the POWs home.

Earlier in the day and at the same location, Ukraine and Russia also swapped bodies of their fallen soldiers — Ukraine returned 212 bodies and Russia 45.

Bohdan Okhrimenko, another official at the Ukrainian POWs offices, explained the sharp difference in numbers. “This time, the negotiators agreed to bring back more of our heroes,” he said.

The warring sides only meet when they swap their dead and POWs, which require considerable preparation and diplomacy.

Vitalii Matviienko, another Ukrainian official from the POW headquarters, said there were days when the exchanges didn’t happen because the Russian side would change their mind at the last minute.

Since the outbreak of the war, Ukraine got back nearly 3,000 bodies, mostly of servicemen, according to Ukraine’s missing persons office. About 1,300 of them have been identified.

Sometimes it takes weeks before the bodies are identified and returned to their families for burial.

“They haven’t returned home alive, but their memory allows us to continue fighting,” said Okhrimenko. “And it gives their families a possibility for proper burial”.

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Associated Press reporter Vasilisa Stepanenko in Sumy Region, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Russia and Ukraine exchange POWs for the first time in months. Bodies of fallen are also swapped