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Ukrainian children, abducted by Russia and then returned, are speaking out

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two years ago now, it didn't just take territory. It separated thousands of Ukrainian children from the only home they've ever known, relocating them to Russian-occupied territory or to Russia itself. Most of those children have not returned. Some who have are young adults now, and they're speaking out.

Where were you when the invasion began?

KSENIA KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) I was living in a foster family in the town of Vovchansk, which is in Kharkiv Oblast, living there with my younger brother. I was finishing school the last year before you go to university, and I was 17 years old at the moment.

ROSTISLAV LAVROV: (Through interpreter) When the war started, straight away, my grandma died, and then my mother, she was taken by the Russian military to some sort of medical facility, a facility they wouldn't tell me what was it.

FADEL: How old were you?

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) I was 16 years old. So I was absolutely alone after that moment that my mother was taken.

FADEL: That's Rostislav Lavrov, who was moved to Russian-occupied Crimea, with Ksenia Koldin, who was taken to Russia and separated from her brother. I caught up with them after their testimony about this to U.S. lawmakers. At least 19,000 children are still gone, according to Ukrainian officials, but the real number is believed to be much higher. They're sent to Russian foster families, technical schools, military training and so-called summer camps with the intention of turning them into Russian citizens. Ukraine's prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, testified via video recording to that same group of bipartisan lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDRIY KOSTIN: We are talking about the next generation of Ukrainians. We are talking about the fate of each and every child, some being as young as 1 year old, who will grow up not knowing who they are.

FADEL: He, along with other international officials, sounded the alarm about Russia's determination to brainwash these kids into hating Ukraine. Rostislav Lavrov is living proof. He may be 18 right now, but he still has the wonder of a child on this visit to D.C.

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) The road was very difficult, but when I'm actually here, it's like you're in a movie.

FADEL: Lavrov is from a village in southeast Ukraine. When the Russian military occupied, they took his mom. Months later, they came for him, sent him to Russian-occupied Crimea. There, he refused all efforts to indoctrinate him.

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) So every morning, I would listen to the Russian anthem. We were told that Ukraine is not going to exist anymore, that you are not needed anywhere. You're - nobody waits you anywhere back home. And then we were told, like, you need to leave, and you need to go to a different place where you're going to study.

FADEL: How long, total, were you kidnapped?

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) Almost exactly a year, like, up to a day.

FADEL: His captors confined him to a small cell when he refused to sing the Russian national anthem.

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) It's 6 by 6 feet. There's a small balcony with grates on it. There's a small wardrobe. There's a toilet. You're not allowed to use the phone. You're not allowed to go anywhere.

FADEL: Russian authorities tried to erase his past. They replaced his Ukrainian birth certificate with a Russian one, but he never gave up on getting home. A friend's mom and the charity Save Ukraine helped him. Mykola Kuleba of Save Ukraine has located and rescued hundreds of Ukrainian children and teens.

MYKOLA KULEBA: We need everything. We need rescue more children. We need provide recovery for these kids - housing, food, health. These kids received traumas, and we have to help. We have to recover them and reintegrate into Ukrainian community and provide an educational program.

FADEL: And so that takes months, years.

KULEBA: Yeah. It's a lot of time.

FADEL: Yeah.

KULEBA: That's why Ukraine asked United States provide the support, because it's very expensive, and our child welfare system collapsed because of war.

FADEL: Ksenia Koldin was also rescued by Save Ukraine. She was determined to return home with her brother. He was sent to what Russians called a rest and recreation camp.

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) The promised two, three weeks that we were told that we going to get separated for we, were actually separated for 900 miles away from each other.

FADEL: Wow.

KOLDIN: And it turned out to be nine months.

FADEL: How old is your brother?

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) He's 12 now.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. So that must have been really difficult, separating from your little brother like that.

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) I must say, those were the worst nine months of my life.

FADEL: She says at the school where she was forced to study, they tried to make her take Russian citizenship.

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) We were brainwashed into saying that if Russia wouldn't have invaded, then Ukraine would have invaded first.

FADEL: What was going through your mind?

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) So I would just not say anything. I would just sit thinking to myself, glory to Ukraine. My country is going to prevail and win. Yeah, you can say whatever.

FADEL: She told me she was scared that her brother was starting to believe. Some similar things he'd been placed with a Russian family. And the foster mother?

KOLDIN: (Through interpreter) She kept saying like, there's no future in Ukraine. There's - it's run by Nazis. This family was actually very pro-Russian. They were actually propagating on him this propaganda. And when they realized that I was on my way to get him, they actually shut down all the communication with me. So I would tell him that he's the only person, really, of my relatives. I would not promise him anything about what's going to be in Ukraine, like, but I would tell him that if we're going to be together, it'll be all right. Part of me wanted to cry, but I actually did not let myself. All of this just worked because he said, yes, let's come back to Ukraine.

FADEL: Ksenia Koldin got her wish. They returned home together. Sitting next to her, I asked Rostislav Lavrov how he was doing after being rescued.

LAVROV: (Through interpreter) So I, myself, is all right. I would want my mother to come back to Ukraine and be healthy.

FADEL: Do you have any news of her?

LAVROV: Nyet.

FADEL: He's still waiting. They're sharing their stories to remind the world that other Ukrainians, and most urgently, the more than 19,000 children who were taken, still need help. And now Russia is fast-tracking citizenships for those forced to Russia or occupied territories. Ukrainians say it's to erase any documentation of their true identities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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