The Army’s experience drives Ukraine’s Vereshchuk to secure the release of prisoners

  • Vereshchuk hopes to free all Ukrainian prisoners of war
  • Fights tears that talk about treating female prisoners of war
  • Says Ukraine just wants to be part of Europe

KYIV, April 11 (Reuters) – It’s the five years that have been in the Ukrainian army that drive Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk’s passion to secure the release of every prisoner of war detained in Russia.

Now in charge of negotiating prisoner exchanges with Russia and humanitarian corridors out of besieged cities, Vereshchuk, 42, fights back tears as she describes the treatment of some female soldiers she has managed to bring back to Ukraine.

It is a brief glimpse of the toll her work takes, but is quickly replaced by her overriding anger over the Russian invasion and the devastation it has inflicted on her country, which she says just wants to be part of Europe.

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“If I kept a weapon on the battlefield, I would probably have rescued 10 to 20 people. And now I can rescue female officers from prison,” she told Reuters in an interview when asked if she would rather fight.

On Saturday, she announced on Telegram’s messenger service the third prisoner exchange with Russia, which secured the release of 26 Ukrainians, including 10 women.

Out of about 1,700 soldiers and civilians she says are currently detained by Russia and pro-Russian separatists, it is the 500 women and their treatment that worry her most.

“They force them to stand, do not let them sit down. They shave their heads, they force them to undress every day for control. They humiliate their human dignity. I know facts about rape, I saw spines that were been beaten, she said, pausing while her eyes filled with tears.

“They want us to be scared. They want us to cry and be victims. But we are not. Our girls and women … ask us to continue fighting for our victory,” she said. in one of the few brightly lit rooms in the president’s administration, where sandbags piled up against the windows stop the light.

Moscow says it provides Ukrainian prisoners of war with “everything necessary” and “highly qualified medical care” in accordance with international law. In return, Russia accuses Ukraine of torturing its prisoners of war, a claim rejected by Kiev, which also says it maintains international agreements.

‘RARE OPPORTUNITY TO WIN’

Comfortable in her fatigue, Vereshchuk says her top priority is to ensure the release of not only Ukrainian soldiers but also of hundreds of civilians, including priests, journalists and activists, who she says are being held in cells along with criminals.

But this presents difficulties. Moscow will only exchange like-for-like, but Kiev says it has no Russian civilians.

“Russia wants to use these people as an exchange fund.”

“The Russians could not forgive that we wanted to be like Europe,” she added.

Vereshchuk, like President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, calls for more sanctions against Russia to give Ukraine a chance to win the war, which Moscow describes as a “special operation” aimed at demilitarizing and “de-Nazifying” its neighbor.

She became Minister of the Occupied Territories of Eastern Ukraine at the end of last year and has spent time talking to the people of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have been ruled by pro-Russian separatist administrations for eight years.

Vereshchuk is convinced that these territories will be returned to Ukraine “sooner or later”. But for now, she must focus her efforts on evacuating as many people as possible from eastern Ukraine, where Moscow is now concentrating its attacks.

She does not know how long she has to get people out of places that may soon be under attack, but has learned some lessons in the southern port of Mariupol, which is now surrounded by Russian troops and has almost been razed.

“This responsibility lies with Russia,” she said, denying that there was much more the Ukrainian government could do to help save a population in Mariupol that she says amounted to more than half a million before the war. Ukraine has so far evacuated 120,000 people from Mariupol, but 100,000 are still stuck there, she added.

But Vereshchuk remains hopeful of a possible victory: “Right now, for the first time in Ukrainian history, we have a rare chance of winning.”

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Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, further reporting by Stefaniia Bern Editing by Gareth Jones

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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