KYIV, Ukraine — An orphaned Ukrainian teenager who was taken to Russia last year during his country’s war has returned home after reuniting with relatives in Belarus on Sunday, his 18th birthday.
Bohdan Yermokhin was pictured hugging family members in Minsk in photographs shared on social media by Russian children’s rights ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova.
Andrii Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, confirmed that Yermokhin had returned to Ukraine and shared a photo of him with a Ukrainian flag. Yermak thanked UNICEF and Qatari negotiators for facilitating Yermokhin’s return.
Yermokhin’s parents died two years ago, before Russia invaded Ukraine. At the start of the war, he was taken from the port city of Mariupol, where he lived with a cousin who was his legal guardian, placed with a foster family in the Moscow region and given Russian citizenship, according to Ukrainian lawyer Kateryna Bobrovska.
Bobrovska, who represents the teenager and his 26-year-old cousin, Valeria Yermokhina, previously told The Associated Press that Yermokhin repeatedly expressed a desire to return home and spoke daily about “getting to Ukraine, to his relatives.”
Yermokhin was one of thousands of Ukrainian children taken to Russia from occupied regions of Ukraine. The practice led the International Criminal Court to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin and children’s rights ombudsman Lvova-Belova of committing war crimes in March.
The court in The Hague, Netherlands, issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova, saying it found “reasonable grounds to believe” the two were responsible for the illegal deportation and transfer of children from Ukraine.
The Kremlin rejected the warrants as null and void. Lvova-Belova argued that the children were taken to Russia for their safety, not abducted – a claim widely rejected by the international community. However, the children’s rights ombudsman announced in an online statement on November 10 that Yermokhin would be allowed to return to Ukraine via a third country.
The teenager reportedly tried to return home alone earlier this year. Lvova-Belova told reporters in April that Russian authorities captured Yerkmohin near Russia’s border with Belarus, on his way to Ukraine. The ombudswoman argued that he was being taken there “under false pretenses”.
Before he was allowed to leave Russia, lawyer Bobrovska described the urgent need for Yermokhin to return to Ukraine before his 18th birthday, when he would become eligible for conscription into the Russian army. The teenager received two official warnings to appear at a military enlistment office in Russia, although authorities later said he had only been summoned for record-keeping purposes.
Last month, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said on his Telegram channel that a total of 386 children had been brought to Ukraine from Russia. “Ukraine will work until we return everyone to their homeland,” Lubinets stressed.