“They’re coming to kill us,” “we’ve had no food for two days,” “we were bombed today,” “we just want to live” – all these phrases were said by children caught up in the middle of the heaviest fighting in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Irpin during the Russian occupation that lasted the month of March 2022.
Mass murders, rapes, and torture were happening on a daily basis in the region North of Kyiv. Ksenia Brodovska is a financial business owner in Ukraine. She gathered a team of women and together they rescued more than 300 children from living in occupation. She took them to a small hotel she owned in the Carpathian mountains in Western Ukraine, where they’re receiving online schooling and psychological support.
GS News: You have been helping to evacuate women and children from Bucha and Irpin from the very first days of the war. Can you tell us whom you have rescued?
Ksenia Brodovska: We’ve managed to evacuate around 300 children since the first days of the all-out war — in Bucha, Irpin, and other hotspots near Kyiv. These kids were between three months and 14 years old. These people went through horrible stuff.
One 24-year-old woman that we evacuated, for example, was raped by three Russian soldiers. She was hiding in a basement with her three-year-old son. The Russians commanded that she leave the cellar and make some food for them. Then they hinted that they wanted sex.
When she refused, they took the child up by the throat and said “then we will twist your child’s neck”.
The three Russian soldiers ended up raping her for the entire night. The youngest of them was 19. In the morning, the woman took her son and ran away to avoid being shot down. When we picked her up, she couldn’t sit or walk.
I remember a story about a four-year-old boy, Tymosha. He hid from these horrors but he still heard and saw what was going on: the non-stop shelling and explosions. We took him to a safe place but for the next couple of days he couldn’t sleep and kept saying: “Mum, they’re coming to kill us,” and “Mum, I really want to live…”
Many children ended up alone in the first days of the war because their parents worked abroad. With others, the babysitter would be killed by the Russians or would flee the war, leaving the children behind. One child saw the Russians enter their home, interrogate their mother and then nearly kill her. That’s why I and other women tried to evacuate these women and children who were right in the middle of this hell.
How did your rescue operation start?
I knew that Russia could start an all-out war against Ukraine so I prepared for it. I have a small hotel and a restaurant in a mountain village of Vorokhta in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, in the west of Ukraine. I went there before the war started and got the hotel ready in case there would be people fleeing the war. I planned to go to Canada myself.
When the war started, I was on my way from the Ivano-Frankivsk region to Kyiv.
Women started calling me asking to help pick up their child because the child was not able to get out on their own for different reasons.
These women later were approached by their friends, and this is how our women’s rescue mission for children started. We founded our organisation called “Kihot” [Editor's note: Claw]. Why this name? Because just like cats, we had to quietly make it to the place we needed, and retrieve the child. Also because I love cats. I have a cat in my office. One of the rescued children knew about my love of cats and drew them for me every day. And this is after she spent three weeks in a cellar, with tanks by her home and a mobile crematorium that the Russians brought with them. I promised to her that when we have peace, I will organise an exhibition of her cat drawings.
How would you conduct your rescue operations?
My dad is a military man. He often gave me books about how to survive war. I knew these areas very well because that’s where I spent my childhood. At first, I would coordinate the evacuation efforts with mothers and special services. They would advise me on which routes were safe. They would tell me when it was unsafe, and I would park and switch my lights and engine off so that the Russian soldiers wouldn't see me.
This was a very dangerous road. Every car trying to take it for evacuation would be shelled.
Later I went with other women. There were only women in our team, no men. The children who were waiting for evacuation in Bucha and Irpin would message me every morning: “Good morning – we’re still alive!” “Good morning, we were bombed today!” “Good morning. We had no food today or yesterday.”
Often we would be walking at night, and the Russian tanks would be 100-200 metres away from us. Once we managed to form a caravan of cars, which allowed us to evacuate 100 children. Our task was to evacuate as many children as possible. Often the kids would go into the boot because there was just no space in the backseat. We would take them to my hotel in the Carpathians [Editor’s note: a mountain range west of Ivano-Frankivsk] and later they would go abroad with their mothers.
What problems did you face in the first weeks of the war when you were in your hotel?
The hardest thing in the first weeks was to find food – we had to eat the leftovers from the children’s places. The shops had restrictions as to how much one person could buy. We would walk around the village and beg: “Please, give us anything!” Later we would get help from the locals: they brought varenyky [Editor’s note: Ukrainian dumplings], milk, and other food to us. Volunteers gave us dry rations for the children. If the Russian soldiers were to make it across the country into the Ivano-Frankivsk region, my plan was to flee with everyone to the shepherds’ houses high in the mountains, where we would live on those dry rations.
Some children saw people get shot – the trauma led to their inability to eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom.
I’m a teacher by trade, and my goal was to return the children to their normal lives as soon as possible. A psychologist worked with them, and we restarted online school. The children were being entertained, and they had uplifting books for reading. I made sure the children drew. The entire hotel was plastered with children’s drawings. At first, children would draw a devil, a balck sky, and things like that in dark tones. Then they started making yellow-and-blue drawings and using light tones. They wrote: “My Ukraine is the best!”, “I love my homeland!” and “We stand against the war!”
Tell me about your life and your plans for the future. Will you continue with Kihot?
I’m a Ukrainian woman to the bone, born and bred in Kyiv. Four days a week I head the biggest financial company in Ukraine, and on Wednesdays I teach economics at a specialised school. I often get asked why I’m still in Ukraine. I couldn’t do it any other way. We will continue the work of our women’s organisation, Kihot. It’s already quite well-known abroad! Some children will be coming to us for rehabilitation.
What helped you get through your rescue operation?
This might sound cheesy but my team and God. I couldn’t have done it without the two.