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Ksenia Koldin, shown in Kyiv earlier this month, was separated from her brother Serhiy when their foster parents in a Russian-occupied town in the Kharkiv area sent him to a summer camp deep inside Russia.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

As Ksenia Koldin drove deeper into Russia, the 18-year-old had a single thought: She needed to leave the country as quickly as possible. But she wasn’t going home to Ukraine without her brother.

Finding her 11-year-old brother Serhiy – one of thousands of Ukrainian children who have been illegally deported to Russia since Vladimir Putin launched his war on this country – had already been an eight-month ordeal for Ksenia. And the hardest part was yet to come.

When Russian troops first entered their native Kharkiv region last year, Ksenia and Serhiy only had each other. Six months before the invasion, they had been taken away from their mother, an alcoholic, and placed with a foster family in Vovchans’k, a city right on the border with Russia. It was a home, but it wasn’t a family, Ksenia says. Their foster parents, she believes, had only adopted them so they could receive additional money from the government.

As Ksenia was falling asleep on Feb. 23, 2022 – the night before Mr. Putin’s wider war began – a photo frame crashed onto the floor beside her bed. She believed it was an omen. “I felt that something bad was about to happen,” she recalls.

She and Serhiy were awakened a few hours later by the sounds of the first Russian tanks and trucks rumbling through Vovchans’k, facing little initial resistance as they headed for the city of Kharkiv, an hour’s drive southwest.

At first, residents of Vovchans’k, which had a prewar population of 17,000, tried to avoid the invading army. But as they ran low on food, they eventually had to emerge from their basement shelters to buy groceries. While shops in Vovchans’k were closed, those across the border in the Russian city of Shebekino were open.

Gradually, Ksenia says, many in Vovchans’k came to accept the Russian occupation, along with the Kremlin’s fictional narrative that they had been “liberated” from a “fascist” government in Kyiv. Russian was always the lingua franca in Vovchans’k, and rubles gradually began to replace the Ukrainian hryvnia as the main currency. “We began to get sucked in,” Ksenia said bitterly.

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Ksenia got this tattoo in Vovchans’k during the Russian occupation.

Things got truly sinister when it came to the city’s remaining children. First, Ksenia, because she was technically an adult, was forced to move out of the foster home. She enrolled in a hairdressing school across the border in Shebekino, not because she had any interest in becoming a stylist, but because the school had a dormitory where she could live.

In the summer of 2022, Russia began a co-ordinated program to bring children – particularly those living in orphanages and foster homes – from across the occupied areas of Ukraine to summer camps inside Russia, hundreds of kilometres away.

An unknown number of those children have since been adopted into Russian families. The process has led to The Hague-based International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants for Mr. Putin, as well as Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, on the grounds that they “bear criminal responsibility for the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children.”

A report published by Ms. Lvova-Belova in July said 700,000 Ukrainian children have moved to Russia since the start of the invasion. The vast majority of those arrived in Russia with their families, the report said, although 1,500 orphans from the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine had also been resettled, 380 of whom had since been adopted by Russian families. The report made no mention of the Kharkiv region, or other parts of Ukraine that were temporarily under Russian control in 2022.

Save Ukraine, a non-governmental organization that helps Ukrainian families find and rescue children deported to Russia, believes the numbers are higher, the problem larger. In addition to kids sent to summer camps in Russia and occupied Crimea, there are some 1.5 million Ukrainian children who have spent the past nine years – since Russia seized Crimea and installed pro-Kremlin “separatist” governments in Donetsk and Luhansk – living under occupation while reading and watching Russian propaganda.

“The most horrible thing, in my opinion, is those kids who were teens in 2014. They have become grown adults and are fighting on the Russian side in this,” said Olha Yerokhina, press officer for Save Ukraine. “For kids, every day counts. Every day, we are losing these kids. They are becoming adults and they already have brainwashed minds.”

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Children who went to a Russian-organized summer camp walk to a bus in Ukraine's Volyn region this past April, after returning to Ukraine via the border with Belarus.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

In Vovchans’k and other Ukrainian cities, the summer camps in Russia – which were supposed to last just three weeks – were sold as a way to give kids a break from life near a front line that was starting to draw close again in August, 2022, as Ukrainian troops pushed to liberate the Kharkiv region. Ksenia said that while it was easy to see that children sent to Russia would likely never return to Vovchans’k, her foster parents were unbothered about co-operating. In all, she says, about 10 to 12 kids she knew were sent off to summer camps across the border.

“People became collaborators. That’s how my brother ended up in that summer camp. People agreed to work with the Russian authorities,” Ksenia said. “I tried to convince our foster mom not to send my brother, but I couldn’t. She gave parental permission for him to go.”

Less than two weeks after that fateful decision, Ukrainian troops liberated the entire Kharkiv region, including Vovchans’k. But by then, both Ksenia and Serhiy were in Russia.

For the next eight months, they lived apart, Ksenia at her vocational school in Shebekino and Serhiy with a new foster family in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar. But Ksenia – who felt she was surrounded by “zombies” in Shebekino who believed whatever they saw on Russian state television – was desperate to get out of Russia. “I made a firm decision to get back to Ukraine, but I also made a promise to myself that I would only go back with my brother.”

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This past July, people walk past a damaged building in Shebekino, the city where Ksenia studied hairdressing at a vocational school.AFP via Getty Images

In Shebekino, she met another young Ukrainian woman whom she had known from Kharkiv, who told her about how Save Ukraine was working to reunite deported Ukrainian children with their families. She reached out to the group – which has rescued 176 Ukrainian children so far – and they helped her prepare the documents to legally leave Russia along with her brother.

All she had to do now was go find him – and persuade him to leave Russia with her. When she first called him to say the documents were ready, Ksenia says Serhiy was happy to hear it and ready to go home. But then, she says, his new foster family began trying to persuade him to stay.

“They told him different things, from ‘there is a war there’ to ‘people are homeless in Ukraine and you’ll have no future there.’ Different types of propaganda,” she said. “The hardest moment came when he said he didn’t want to leave. I needed to convince him.”

After a while, the foster family stopped letting her speak to Serhiy.

In mid-May, Ksenia, along with a volunteer from Save Ukraine, made the 1,000-kilometre drive from Shebekino to Krasnodar. The Serhiy she met at the end of her journey was almost unrecognizable. “I wouldn’t say he’d been physically tortured, but he looked like an alien person. He wasn’t pleased to see me.”

Finally, a local social worker convinced Serhiy’s foster family to let Ksenia speak to him alone. She says he acted like he had been “brainwashed,” and proclaimed that he was happier living near the summer camp with his new foster family. But eventually – unexpectedly helped along by the Russian social worker – Serhiy and the foster family agreed that he would return to Ukraine for a month, just to see what life was like there now. Ksenia silently vowed that she would never let him return to this place or these people.

The drive back to Ukraine – the details of the route are a closely guarded secret – took a night and a day, with Serhiy sleeping nearly the entire time. Ksenia only relaxed when they crossed back to Ukraine with more volunteers from Save Ukraine. “I realized that the oxygen smells better on this side of the border,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview in Kyiv, giving a rare smile at the memory.

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Ksenia navigates dark corridors at her temporary home in Kyiv, provided by the Save Ukraine network.

Ksenia says her brother, who is with yet another new foster family in the Ukrainian capital, was initially angry with her for yanking him out of an idyllic summer camp life and returning him to a city where air-raid sirens, and explosions, are sometimes daily occurrences. She had promised to buy him a quad bike if he came back to Ukraine with her – something she never had the money to buy for him.

But she doesn’t blame her brother, who she says is finally starting to appreciate what she did for him. The fault lies in Moscow, with the likes of Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova. “They manipulate children. They drug them because they have this mission to increase the population of Russia, and the easiest way to do that is by taking children.”

Now 19, Ksenia has abandoned hairdressing and begun studying journalism. She concluded that the collaborators who sent her brother away to a summer camp in Russia didn’t understand what they were really doing – and she wants to help fight back against the misinformation that almost robbed her of Serhiy.

“People in the occupied areas have no information,” she said. “I want to help break through this wall – and to show them how things are in reality.”

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