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Ukrainian families cross Europe to plead for prisoners held by Russia

By Thomson Reuters Jun 15, 2024 | 12:03 AM

By Felix Hoske and John Revill

LUCERNE, Switzerland (Reuters) – Svitlana Bilous travelled half way across Europe – from her home in Ukraine to a Swiss mountaintop resort – to stand on the sidelines of an international peace summit on Saturday and tell the world about her missing husband.

During the day’s events, she will join scores of other relatives of Ukrainian soldiers waving banners and shouting slogans and trying to raise awareness of the troops who have disappeared on the battlefield.

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

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 invaded 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.

“I must do everything in my power to get my husband back,” Bilous, 34, from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, told Reuters as officials arrived ahead of the summit

She has had no information on him since he went missing in April last year, but she holds on to the hope he is alive.

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

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

The International Committee of the Red Cross (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 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 will address a side event organised by the Ukrainian Society of Switzerland.

“We want to remind the world that Russia is not adhering to the Geneva Convention when dealing with Ukrainian prisoners of war who are being held in horrific conditions,” one of the society’s board members, Sasha Volkov, said.

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

Volkov said many of the prisoners of war were held in ordinary Russian jails alongside criminals. Others were “in limbo”, with relatives unsure whether they were alive or dead.

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

The global organisation has said it has received “concerning reports of torture and killing of POWs” and has demanded information on and access to any prisoners held.

“Not knowing what happened to a loved one is excruciating, and these families – all families – have the right to know what happened to their relative,” ICRC spokesman Jason Straziuso said

(Reporting by John Revill and Felix Hoske; Editing by Dave Graham and Andrew Heavens)