10 Ukrainians held prisoner for years in Russia return home after Vatican mediation

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ten Ukrainian civilians held prisoner for years by Russia arrived in Kyiv overnight Saturday after the mediation of the Vatican, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

They were freed Friday. Some had been captured years before Russia’s full-scale invasion. The pope has said the Holy See has been involved in past prisoner swaps during the Ukraine war.

Among those freed was Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy head of the Mejlis, a representative body of Crimean Tatars that was relocated to Kyiv after Russia seized the peninsula in 2014. He was taken from Crimea, where he lived despite the annexation, one year before the war.

The chief of Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev embraced him after nearly three years of captivity.

Dzhelyal said many Ukrainians remain in captivity: “We cannot leave them there because the conditions, both psychological and physical, are very frightening there.”

The former prisoners, wrapped in blue and yellow flags, reunited with families in Kyiv and called those who couldn’t be there. For some, the separation had lasted many years.

“I really want to hug you. I’ll be with you soon, Mommy,” said Isabella Pekh, the daughter of freed art historian Olena Pekh, through a video call. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet you.”

For almost six years, Isabella Pekh spoke at international conferences and appealed to ambassadors for help in freeing her mother, who was detained in the occupied part of the Donetsk region.

“It was six years of hell that words cannot describe. But I knew I had my homeland, I had people who loved me, I had my daughter,” Olena Pekh said.

Two Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests were among those freed. One, Bohdan Heleta, was detained in 2022 in his church in the occupied city of Berdiansk in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia.

“There are a lot of our men and women there," Heleta said of those who remain imprisoned. "They need help, concrete help. They are waiting for it.”

Pope Francis in an address on Saturday called for the release of all prisoners in the war, and thanked God for the liberation of the two priests.

Zelenskyy in a post on X wrote that “I am grateful to everyone who helped. I thank our team working to free the prisoners. I also want to acknowledge the efforts of the Holy See in bringing these people home.”

According to Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 3,310 Ukrainians have already been released from Russian captivity since Russia's full-scale invasion. Many thousands, both civilians and military personnel, remain imprisoned.


Associated Press reporter Giada Zampano in Rome, Italy, contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine