Red Cross visits POWs ‘on both sides’ of Ukraine war

Published June 15, 2023
A Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer Caesar is seen near the front line in the newly liberated village Storozheve in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 14. — Reuters
A Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer Caesar is seen near the front line in the newly liberated village Storozheve in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 14. — Reuters

GENEVA: The Red Cross said on Wednesday it had visited 1,500 prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine, often sharing desperately longed-for news with their families.

The International Committee of the Red Cross stressed the importance of access to both Russian and Ukrainian POWs.

The ICRC said such visits are vital for checking detention conditions, offering support and sometimes books, hygiene items and other personal necessities, and also to relay information between the prisoners and their loved ones.

“For the prisoners of war and their families who have been able to share news, the impact is... immeasurable,” Ariane Bauer, ICRC’s regional director for Europe and central Asia, told reporters.

The ICRC and its partners have so far delivered around 2,500 personal messages between POWs and their families in the Ukraine conflict, she said. The organisation said it had also helped provide around 5,500 families with information on the fate of their loved ones in the conflict.

Tension over visits

Visiting POWs is core to the ICRC’s mission enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, which define the laws of war.

The organisation has faced repeated criticism by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the ultra-sensitive subject of POW visits.

He has accused the Red Cross of not pushing hard enough to gain access to Ukrainian troops captured by Russian forces.

The organisation sees it as a vital part of its mandate to “access prisoners of war on both sides”, ICRC president Mirjana Spoljaric told reporters last week. “We are progressing,” she added.

The ICRC says it has had access to POWs held by Russia, including in recent weeks, but does not break down how many it has visited on either side.

The ICRC never reveals such numbers, nor any details on the conditions it finds in detention centres as part of its unrelenting commitment to neutrality.

Bauer acknowledged that in times of conflict, and particularly in the context of the Ukraine war, that commitment is often “misunderstood”.

“Neutrality is not a moral position. It’s a tool that helps us work and helps us get access to prisoners of war, to populations in difficult situations,” she said.

‘Massive needs’

Zelensky also last week criticised what he saw as a lack of help from the Red Cross following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam.

Juerg Eglin, head of ICRC’s delegation in Ukraine, insisted to journalists that the Ukrainian Red Cross had responded “from day one”, with significant support from ICRC. But he acknowledged that “expectations do not always match what we are able to deliver right away”.

Speaking from Kherson where he had been inspecting the flood damage, he said teams were bringing in desperately needed aid, despite the danger of continued shelling and mines displaced by the water.

He pointed out that there are “tens of thousands of people downstream” of the dam spread between the Ukrainian and Russian-held areas, which would face “massive problems and massive needs”.

So far, the teams have only been able to respond on the right side of the river, held by the Ukrainians, but Eglin stressed that ICRC had “offered our support and help on the other side as well”.

He said the organisation had made “concrete requests” about access to the Russian-held areas, but did not provide more details.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2023

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