Hundreds of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war have been exchanged
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Hundreds of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war were exchanged yesterday. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it is the largest such prisoner swap since the full-scale Russian invasion almost two years ago. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is in Kyiv. Elissa, so who exactly is included in this exchange?
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So on the Ukraine side, there were 230 soldiers and civilians released, among them, soldiers that defended the eastern port city of Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant there. There are Ukrainian soldiers who were captured at Snake Island in the Black Sea. Those were some of the first to be captured in this war, and they became a symbol of Ukraine's resistance. Russia received 248 soldiers, according to the Russian Minister of Defense. Ukrainian officials shared a video of the prisoners arriving back to Ukraine, and you can hear the men asking...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
NADWORNY: ...Are we home? Are we really home?
MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Must feel great to be home. How common, Elissa, are these prisoner exchanges?
NADWORNY: Well, you know, it's actually been a while since Russia and Ukraine did a POW exchange. The last one took place in early August, so that's almost five months ago. In a video message, Ukraine President Zelenskyy said that even though there was a pause in the exchanges, there was not a pause in the negotiations. A statement from Russian military officials say the deal, which was brokered by the United Arab Emirates, followed complex negotiations.
MARTÍNEZ: And what's the reaction been in Ukraine?
NADWORNY: Relief. Jubilation.
NADWORNY: Honestly, some shock. We reached Yaroslava Khadzhi on her way to meet her boyfriend Oleksandr, a border guard and medic who was captured on Snake Island nearly two years ago. She told us she was overwhelmed with emotions.
YAROSLAVA KHADZHI: (Non-English language spoken).
NADWORNY: She's saying we have been waiting for this call about his release for 22 months, and finally, the day has come. Oleksandr will turn 23 years old at the end of this month, and she told us she is so grateful that they're going to be able to celebrate his birthday in his native Ukraine with their families.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Families getting reunited. Always a good thing. Elissa, I've got to wonder, though, and maybe it's just a cynical side of me here, why this exchange now?
NADWORNY: Well, the timing is interesting. You know, in the last several weeks, there have been instances that appear to show that Russia is violating the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. Drone footage posted by Ukrainian military officials claim to show Russian forces executing Ukrainian POWs, a Geneva Convention violation. There have been allegations of Russia using Ukrainian POWs as human shields in combat, another violation. I talked with Karolina Hird from the Institute for the Study of War about this. Let's listen.
KAROLINA HIRD: So the timing of this suggests to me that Russia is very interested in creating this kind of semblance of legality and morality over its very illegal war in Ukraine.
NADWORNY: She said this POW exchange appears to show Russia trying to counter those allegations.
MARTÍNEZ: And, of course, this news comes at a time when Russia's really been hammering major cities just like Kyiv, where you are right now, with large-scale missile attacks.
NADWORNY: That's right. In the last week, Ukraine has faced hundreds of missiles. Air defenses are working, but in a lot of places where civilians live and work, there have been hits, including an apartment building in Kyiv. It was there that we met Iryna Karetnykova, who lives on the sixth floor.
IRYNA KARETNYKOVA: (Non-English language spoken).
NADWORNY: "We've lost everything," she told us. "We have nothing. We are homeless now." And A, when we were talking, her face and her hands were still covered in black soot, and she just kept shaking her head in disbelief.
MARTÍNEZ: Wow. That's Elissa Nadworny reporting from Kyiv. Thank you very much.
NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.