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'On Both Sides': How One Family Is Being Torn Apart By Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

An anti-war demonstration in Kazan, Tatarstan's capital -- millions in Russia have family ties to Ukraine.
An anti-war demonstration in Kazan, Tatarstan's capital -- millions in Russia have family ties to Ukraine.

"I remember that it was hot. And there was lot of fruit," said Adelia, a 23-year-old final-year university student from Russia's Tatarstan region, when asked about the vacations her family took in her childhood to visit her grandparents in the Zaporizhzhya region of southern Ukraine.

Now her phone calls with her mother's parents are often punctuated by the sound of exploding shells in the background. It is hard to talk about anything but the war, she says.

But talking about the war itself is also difficult. Adelia's Ukrainian grandmother is sure that the shelling is coming from Russian forces, while her ethnic Russian grandfather blames the Ukrainian military. "My grandfather says they try to avoid talking about politics so as not to argue," Adelia said. "They are focused on surviving."

Adelia's extended family is one of millions that straddle the border between the two countries and have been profoundly affected since Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Her name and those of all her relatives have been changed for this story by request, for fear of repercussions for discussing the war in Ukraine candidly.

"The split in my family is becoming pronounced," Adelia said.

In addition to her grandparents, Adelia has an aunt, uncle, and cousin who lived in Kyiv when the war started. In the early days of the war, Adelia's aunt and cousin sought refuge abroad, ending up in Germany. Men were not allowed to leave the country, so Adelia's uncle remained in the capital.

"He wasn't called to military service, and he has no desire to volunteer," Adelia said, adding that he remains in relative safety in Kyiv.

She said that these relatives had long dreamed of emigrating to Europe and would most likely try not to return to Ukraine.

'He Will Never Be The Same'

Adelia's relatives on her father's side live in Russia. One of them is an officer in the Russian Army, whose unit was transferred to the Ukrainian border in January. Adelia says he has not been able to share any of his personal opinions about the war.

He is not in a combat zone himself, although he is in Ukraine. His job, Adelia says, is to arrange for the repatriation of the bodies of Russian servicemen killed in action.

"He says there are a lot of bodies. They bring in 200 or 300 a day," she said -- numbers that correspond roughly to U.S. statements that more than 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the two-month-old war. The Russian military has not released a death toll since March 25, when t said that 1,370 of its soldiers had been killed.

Seeing the bodies brought her brother to tears for the first time in many years, Adelia says. "We are sure he will return from the war a completely different man," she told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities. "These are the first real combat operations that he has participated in."

Back in Russia, he has a wife and three small children waiting for his return. The children have been told that he is away "on business."

'Hoping Everyone Survives'

The war has taken its toll on Adelia as well. She studies at an institute connected with a state agency in a large Russian city. She knows that students can be expelled from any Russian university for expressing opposition to the war and fears that punishments could be even more severe for students of institutes like hers that are tasked with preparing state officials.

So she carefully curates her social-media presence and keeps her head down. "I won't be going to any demonstrations or protests," she said.

"Sooner or later, this war will end," she said philosophically. "Most likely, the conflict will return to a smoldering state. But the relations between our two countries will definitely never be the same."

Her family, she fears, will also never recover. "It is an impossibly difficult situation when members of your family are on both sides of a war," she said. "But there's nothing we can do except hope that everyone survives."

"And that the house in Zaporizhzhya that I remember from my childhood is not destroyed," she added.

Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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