Three brothers lived in the occupation for more than two years. They lost their mother, their home, but managed able to return to the free territory. What was this path like?

Sofiia Korotunenko
Yuliana Skibitska, Kateryna Kobernyk
Three brothers lived in the occupation for more than two years. They lost their mother, their home, but managed able to return to the free territory. What was this path like?

Olexiy, Petro, Anastasia Halilulova, Nadiya and Roma.

Anastasiia Lysytsia / «Babel'»

On April 30, 2024, 20-year-old Olexiy, together with his younger brothers, 13-year-old Petro and 9-year-old Roma, returned to the Ukraine-controlled territories. For more than two years, together with their mother Olena, they lived in an occupation in a village on the left bank of the Kherson Region — about 20 kilometers south of the Dnipro River. The family could not leave earlier — there was not enough money to pay the transporters, besides, Olena did not want to leave her eldest son Vlad in the occupation. He liked living with Russians. In two years, in order to feed his family, Olexiy managed to work in the Crimea and Russia, the younger boys were almost taken to a Russian school, and in April 2024, Olena died of diabetes. A few days later, the manager of the Ukrainian Network for Childrenʼs Rights Anastasiia Halilulova contacted Olexiy and helped the three boys escape from the occupation. Babel journalist Sofiia Korotunenko talks about the long way home and life under Russian laws. The names of all the heroes of the text have been changed due to the safety of their relatives and friends who remained in the occupied territories.


Olexiy is twenty years old. He is tall, stocky, with dark short hair, and speaks the same way as he looks — in a restrained and almost emotionless manner. Since childhood, Olexiy loved sports and large groups of friends. As an ordinary village boy, he worked on the farm from an early age — tended livestock, dug the garden. His biological father Mykola left the family when the boy was two years old. To feed the family, Olena, the mother, sold vegetables and fruits at the market. Later, she remarried. That marriage was also unsuccessful — Olexiy briefly mentions that stepfather Mykhailo drank a lot and quarreled with his mother: "She constantly kicked him out of the house, but he returned."

Petro was born in July 2010. Due to the fact that his mother worked all the time, seven-year-old Olexiy raised him from birth. But the brothers are similar only on the outside — Petro is also black-haired, has a short haircut and doesnʼt like to be photographed, but unlike the hard-working Olexiy, the teenager is more lazy — in the village he either ran around with friends or watched TV. Anastasiia Halilulova, manager of the Ukrainian Network for Childrenʼs Rights, says that Petro has a complex character and it is difficult for him to control his emotions.

In September 2014, Romaʼs third brother was born. He is the complete opposite of Petro: restless, very emotional and loves hugs. From an early age he was engaged in gardening. Olexiy says that Roman is a "pungent boy", and Anastasia gently calls him a gentleman. There is another brother in the family — the eldest, 23-year-old Vlad. But the boys donʼt talk about him: he stayed in the village, he likes living with the Russians.

In February 2022, Olexiy graduated from the lyceum, where he studied to be an auto mechanic. On the eve of the full-scale invasion, he was at home — the lyceum was closed for quarantine due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. And on the 24th, Olexiy, his mother and brothers were talking in the yard, when Olena called and said that "Kherson is Russia now."

"We couldnʼt believe it," Olexiy recalls. "But when their (Russian) tanks started driving along our highway, they realized that the war had started."

Almost all of his friends left the village — many were conscripts or had served since 2014. Among those who remained there, many turned out to be collaborators — they told Russians about army-related families in the village. The family of Olexiyʼs girlfriend Nastya was also among wanted: her father served in the Donbas war, and her brother was studying to be acome policeman. The men were caught and "kept in a pit" for several weeks — basically tortured in one of the basements in the village. Then Nastyaʼs family got a chance to leave, and Olexiy lost contact with her.

In nearby large cities, the Russians mobilized boys who turned eighteen, teenagers were taken on patrol. But the Russian "patriotic movements" did not reach Olexiyʼs village.

"They created various ʼclubsʼ in big cities where this can be good for a PR campaign," Anastasiia explains. "The boysʼ village is small, so itʼs not worth the money they spend on all kinds of youth armies and volunteer companies."

Olexiyʼs family didnʼt leave the village. They hoped that the war would end quickly, and did not want to leave their home and farm. They had to adjust to a new life — buy Russian SIM cards, slaughter all the cattle to feed themselves, accept humanitarian aid. And in April 2022, Olena once again quarreled with Mykhailo and kicked him out of the house forever. Since then, the boys do not communicate with their stepfather.

Prices in stores have tripled. Olexiy started working at the market as a "runner" — he bought vegetables from local residents and resold them at a higher price to traders from Crimea. The boy was often stopped by Russian patrols at the market — they checked his phone and asked if the military was hiding in the village. In the summer of 2022, it became clear that the occupation will take a long time. The family was thinking about how to travel, but everything came down to money — the carriers charged at least €200 per person. This is an unaffordable amount for a family. Therefore, in December of the same year, Olexiy went to Crimea to earn money in order to feed his family and collect funds for its departure. He remembers that he was afraid to leave his mother alone — she was often sick due to high blood pressure and asthma attacks. There was no medicine, and the Russian "volunteers" distributed help only to those who applied for a Russian passport.

"She was like a friend to me. We could have a heart-to-heart and laugh," Olexiy recalls. "She trusted me and let me go to the Crimea."

It was not the older boys who stayed at home as a housekeeper, but eight-year-old Roma. Olexiy says that he always came home with bags of food: "And Petro and Vlad sat and waited for me to bring them something." When Olena was very ill, her neighbor Anya took care of the boys, Olexiy calls her "second mother". The woman still lives in occupation because she does not want to leave her home and household.

In January 2023, Russians came to O and threatened to send the boys to school. Roma went to the first grade at school, and Petro to the seventh. Most of the teachers left at the beginning of the Russian invasion, so they were replaced by local handymen or high school students. The boys studied at school for about a week.

"There was a missile hit near the school. The teachers ran away, and the frightened children sat in the school,” — recalls Olexiy. His mother told him about this. "After that, the mother wrote a statement that she would not let her children go to school any more, and the Russians stopped bothering them."

Petya and Roma say almost nothing about how they lived in the occupation without Olexiy. Anastasiia believes that they saw much more than they say.


The first time Olexiy went to the Crimea by bus to earn money. At the border between the Kherson region and the peninsula, the Russians carefully checked the belongings of all passengers. Olexiy was detained, taken to one of the offices in the administration building, where a border guard and several psychologists were sitting. They checked the documents and spent about an hour asking whether the boy or someone from his family had served, whether there were soldiers in the village, and why he was going to Crimea. Then they took his phone. Before leaving, Olexiy erased a lot from it and deleted all "dangerous" phone numbers. But this didnʼt help — the border guard used a program that found deleted data. The boy had many military friends, so the interrogation lasted several hours. The border guard asked their callsigns, in which city and military unit they served.

"Psychologists can see from you whether you really donʼt know anything, or you just donʼt want to report to the military," Olexiy recalls. "If they notice that you are hiding something, they start threatening you with beatings or deportation to Ukraine."

Olexiy was detained at the border for about nine hours. In the end, the Russians returned him documents and personal belongings.

"Then the border guard told me: ʼYou are lucky that you came to me, Iʼm calm. If you were to meet another young man, you would be kicked out and sent to the pit," Olexiy tries to speak calmly, but he is worried, and his voice changes noticeably. "Many young boys were punished, forced to dig trenches or taken to the basement and beaten there."

The next day, Olexiy arrived in Simferopol. He worked in the market — a merchant he knew brought vegetables from the Ukrainian villages, and Olexiy sold them. Within a month, he quit his job and got a job as a construction handyman in an Uzbek company that built stores in Crimea and Russia. They paid well — about 60 thousand rubles in cash per month. Later, Olexiy helped his friends from the village to join his building brigade.

"The Uzbeks have always protected us. If someone from Russia came, they always supported Ukrainians,” — recalls Olexiy. "When we got to know the Crimean women at the club, they were always happy that we were ʼtheirsʼ — from the Kherson region."

Olexiy returned home once every two or three months. He always came with gifts and sweets for his brothers and medicine for his mother. Every time he was interrogated at the border, he got used to it over time and gave standard answers. With his arrival in the village, the neighbors got together and came for a coffee. Olexiy jokes: "They didnʼt let me go to Crimea until I met everyone in the village."

Olexiy worked in construction for about a year. Then he got a job in a warehouse. At first he was a stock picker, later a night shift supervisor.

Anastasiia Lysytsia / «Babel'»

In April 2024, Olena died. Olexiy was at work at that time — he worked in the warehouse as a night shift supervisor. He came back to bury his mother.

"I always tried to come to an agreement with her. I said that I was collecting money so that we could leave,” says Olexiy. “I asked her to leave Vlad, because you have to think about the little ones. But she didnʼt want to leave the village without him, she believed that she should take care of him like a child."


Olenaʼs close friend Nadia left the occupation in April 2022 with her military husband and children. Now she is 33 years old, she calls Olexiy and his brothers "her children", hugs her tightly and smiles in all the photos.

When Nadiia found out about Olenaʼs death, she decided that she should get the boys from the occupation. The woman turned to the Minister of Reintegration Iryna Vereshchuk. She handed over the familyʼs data to the Ukrainian Network for Childrenʼs Rights. Its manager, Anastasiia Khalilulova, wrote to Olexiy and promised that she would take him and his brothers out. After that, they deleted the correspondence and Olexiy went back to Crimea.

In two weeks, Anastasiia prepared the route and agreed with the carriers who would take the boys by car. She recalls: everything was done in a hurry — Olexiy had an expired Ukrainian passport, and he principally did not want to get a Russian one. Meanwhile, Petro and Roman, who were left without a mother, could be sent to Russia for "adoption" by the Russians at any moment.

"The most difficult thing was to agree with Olexiy. I chose a day when everything was perfect. And he tells me that he will be busy and in general it is necessary to wait until the salary. I thought I would tear him apart,” jokes Anastasia. "I had to ask Nadia to call and influence him."

Olexiy left the warehouse, called his brothers and asked them to pack their things. He said that he was taking them to his place in the Crimea. He decided not to tell the truth, so that they would not accidentally slander the neighbors. The boys took a small backpack with belongings and documents. Favorite toys were left at home.

Olexiy and his brothers leave the occupation.

Anastasiia Lysytsia / «Babel'»

It is possible to leave the territory controlled by Ukraine only by a long way through Russia, and then through Europe. At every Russian checkpoint, Olexiy repeated the legend: he was going to see a friend in Mariupol as he offered a good job. He took the brothers with him, because they need to get Russian birth certificates. The guys do not tell the details of the route — it can harm those who want to repeat it.

"It was only on the Russian border when Petro and Roman suspected that we were going to Ukraine," Olexiy recalls with a smile. “I said we were going to Aunt Nadiaʼs, and they were very happy. When they entered Ukraine, Roma saw the Ukrainian flag and immediately started running, tried to climb over the fence, stuck there — we took it from there together with the border guards. Even there he left a mark."

Roman runs to the Ukrainian flag on the Ukrainian border.

Anastasiia Lysytsia / «Babel'»

For the first month in Kyiv, the brothers lived in the Childrenʼs Village — they rested all day long, played video games and visited various activities. Roman found friends there easily. In May, the boys went to rehabilitation in Truskavets — there they met Anastasiia Halilulova for the first time.

"I think we started getting closer in Truskavets when they felt my care live," says Anastasiia. “Petro and Olexiy rarely went to any events, they are not yet ready for such a thing. We watched movies and ate goodies together almost every night."

In June 2024, Olexiy and his brothers moved to a modular town near Kyiv. Now they live in a two-room apartment next door to Nadiia and her children. Anastasiia says that they are always together, they live as a big family.

"Here I am no longer afraid that I will be interrogated. I am free," says Olexiy.

A school is being built in the town, where Petro and Roman will study from September. In July, special courses will begin for the boys to catch up with the Ukrainian program. According to Anastasiia, after the death of his mother, Petro is in a depressed state of mind. She worries that the boy will not want to study and will not catch up with his peers.


Now Olexiyʼs life revolves around his brothers. He is still concerned about their safety. From various donors who offer help, he asks for things not for himself — only for them. At meetings with a psychologist, he asks how to properly educate, how to support and help adapt. And on June 6, Olexiy took custody of the boys. He says, otherwise they would have been taken away from him.

"This is a very difficult decision, although Olexiy does not show this. No matter who he lives with or marries, Roman and Petro will always be with him until they turn 18,” explains Anastasiia. |The saddest thing is that the boys do not understand this and sit on his neck. He is very kind, and they take advantage of that."

The boys are returning to normal life slowly. They started smiling only recently.

"The longer our children stay in Russia or under occupation, the more time they need to feel at home and safe," says Anastasiia. "I donʼt want even one child to remain with the Russians."

The boys are waiting for de-occupation to return home. Anastasiia says the apartment is not for them. They miss the farm, their own house, garden. They are sad, but they pretend that everything is fine.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Ukrainian Network for Childrenʼs Rights has already returned 109 children from the temporarily occupied territories and Russia. It needs your support.