Ukrainian families cross Europe to plead for prisoners held by Russia


  • World
  • Saturday, 15 Jun 2024

Svitlana Bilous, a 34-year-old civic activist and the wife of a Ukrainian soldier missing in action, and Illia Illiashenko, a Ukrainian former prisoner of war who was captured by Russian forces in Mariupol in 2022, look at posters before their bus tour to Switzerland to advocate for Ukrainian soldiers in Russian captivity, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 12, 2024. REUTERS/Charlotte Bruneau

LUCERNE, Switzerland (Reuters) -Svitlana Bilous crossed half of Europe - from her home in eastern Ukraine to Switzerland - to highlight the plight of her missing husband and other prisoners held by Russia during an international summit on the Ukraine war.

She joined scores of other relatives of Ukrainian soldiers who waved banners and shouted slogans during a demonstration on the sidelines of the summit that sought to draw attention to the fate of troops who have disappeared on the battlefield.

Many do not know if their loved ones have been killed or taken by Russia as prisoners of war.

"I must do everything in my power to get my husband back," Bilous, 34, who is from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, told Reuters as officials arrived ahead of the weekend talks.

Since her husband, Anatoliy, went missing in April last year, she has only heard that he is alive but had no direct contact with him.

She carries the shoulder patch from his uniform with her at all times and prays for his safe return every day, she said, calling for Russia to adhere to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

"We want specific actions regarding the return of prisoners of war (and) admission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to all places of detention," she said.

Russia is not invited to the summit in Buergenstock near Lucerne, at which Ukraine will present its plan to end the war that started with Moscow's full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The families want the other world powers there to find ways to press Moscow to hand over information, improve the conditions of any captives and, as soon as possible, send them home.

Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the Geneva Conventions covering the treatment of prisoners.

Ukrainian officials said in February about 8,000 people - civilians and soldiers - are in Russian hands.

The ICRC says it is trying to get information on the fate of 28,000 people - soldiers and civilians on both sides - who have lost contact with their families.

'THE SAME DREAM'

On Saturday afternoon, about 250 people gathered in the centre of the town of Lucerne, many wrapped in Ukrainian flags, wearing traditional clothes and carrying pictures of missing brothers, husbands or sons, and sharing their own stories.

"All of us have the same dream," said one of the women. "We want our relatives to be found and returned from captivity."

The banners carried by Bilous and fellow protesters read "Stop Russia torturing and killing Ukrainian PoWs" and "Russia is hiding Ukrainian PoWs".

Russia has repeatedly denied carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, including the torture of PoWs.

It says its forces are careful to comply with international law. Cases where Russian soldiers are alleged to have committed serious crimes in Ukraine have been and continue to be prosecuted by Russian courts, it says.

In Buergenstock, returned Ukrainian prisoner of war Illia Illiashenko was due to address a side event organised by the Ukrainian Society of Switzerland.

Illiashenko, a sergeant in the coastal troops of Ukraine's border guard was captured during fighting in his home town of Mariupol, and held in three different camps.

The 21-year-old, who used the call-sign Smurf - was held for 10 months before being returned in a prisoner exchange.

"There is constant physical and psychological pressure in Russian captivity. They try to break your personality, you as a human. And they do it with effective methods," said Illiashenko, who was beaten and burned while in captivity.

After the conference, the families will travel to Geneva to meet ICRC officials.

For Bilous, fears about her husband's fate have been on her mind constantly for the last 14 months.

"I'm clinging to the idea that my husband is still alive ... that's what keeps me going. If I could send him a message, it would be simply that I love him."

(Reporting by John Revill and Felix HoskeEditing by Dave Graham, Kirsten Donovan and Helen Popper)

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