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Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners of war for the first time in months. The bodies of the fallen are also exchanged

SUMY REGION, Ukraine: Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners of war on Friday, returning 75 prisoners each in the first exchange of its kind in three months, officials said. A few hours earlier, the two sides also handed over the bodies of their fallen soldiers at the same location.
The Ukrainian prisoners, including four civilians, were returned in several buses that were brought to the northern region of Sumy. When they disembarked, they shouted happily and called their families home. Some knelt down and kissed the ground, while many wrapped themselves in yellow and blue flags and hugged and wept. Many looked emaciated and poorly dressed.
The exchange of all 150 prisoners of war was the fourth exchange this year and the 52nd since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The United Arab Emirates said it helped negotiate the latest exchange.
Both sides have traded blame for what they say is a slowdown in exchanges.
Ukraine has called on Russia in the past for an “all for all” exchange, and rallies calling for the release of prisoners are held across Ukraine on a weekly basis. Vitalii Matviienko, a Ukrainian official at the headquarters coordinating the exchanges, said “Ukraine is always ready.”
Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, said earlier this week that Kiev was making “new artificial demands” without elaborating.
Among those repatriated 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 caught 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. He has never communicated with his family in the more than 800 days he has spent in captivity and does not know where they are now, he said.
“It’s a bit surprising,” Onyschuk added.
Through exchanges, including Friday’s, Ukraine has received back a total of 3,210 members of the Ukrainian military and civilians since the outbreak of war, according to the Ukrainian Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Neither Ukraine nor Russia discloses the total number of prisoners.
Dmitry Kantipenko was captured on Snake Island in the Black Sea in the first days of the war. He was among those released on 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 and son had fled to Lithuania.
The Russians woke him up in the middle of the night without any explanation, he said, and gave him a short time to change before they were on their way. Kantipenko said that shortly before the exchange, they were tortured with electric shocks, and his fellow prisoners, who were standing next to him, confirmed this.
According to UN reports, most Ukrainian prisoners are subjected to routine medical neglect, severe and systematic ill-treatment and even torture while in detention. There are also isolated reports of abuses by Russian soldiers, mostly during capture or transit to places of internment.
At least one-third of Ukrainians who returned home suffered “injuries, severe illnesses and disabilities,” according to the Coordinating Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Among those returned on Friday were 19 Ukrainian fighters from Snake Island, 14 people trapped at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and 10 fighters from the Russian-held city of Mariupol.

A Ukrainian soldier hugs his comrade after returning from captivity during a prisoner exchange in Sumy region, Ukraine, May 31, 2024. (AP)

Among the returned Ukrainians were five women, including Natalija 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 sack over her head and tying her hands, she said.
“I hate them. They took two years of my beautiful life,” she hugged her son on Friday. “I can’t believe he’s grown up like this.”
The captives traveled through small villages before arriving in Sumy, from where they were taken to hospitals for two weeks of rehabilitation. Buses drove past green fields with newly dug defensive lines in preparation for Russian attacks on the area after Moscow’s offensive in the neighboring Kharkiv region.
Ukrainians took to the streets with blue and yellow flags and loudly welcomed the prisoners home.
Earlier in the day, at the same location, Ukraine and Russia also exchanged the bodies of their fallen soldiers – Ukraine returned 212 bodies and Russia returned 45.
Bohdan Okhrimenko, another official at the Ukrainian Prisoner of War Office, explained the stark difference in numbers. “This time the negotiators have agreed to bring back more of our heroes,” he said.
The warring parties only meet when they exchange dead and prisoners, which requires considerable preparation and diplomacy.
Vitalii Matviienko, another Ukrainian official from the POW headquarters, said there were days when the exchanges did not happen because the Russian side changed its mind at the last minute.
Since the war broke out, Ukraine has recovered nearly 3,000 bodies, mostly soldiers, according to the Ukrainian Office for Missing Persons. 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 did not return home alive, but their memory allows us to continue the fight,” Okhrimenko said. “And it gives their families the opportunity to have a proper burial.”

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