Ukrainian orphan who endured horrors of Mariupol siege finds new family

Kyiv, Ukraine

When Russian forces invaded their country in late February, Vladimir Bespalov and Maria Bespalaya feared their dream of having a family through adoption was over.

“I remember very clearly that morning of February 24,” said Vladimir Bespalov, a 27-year-old railway worker, of the first day of the war. “We thought we were too late. We realized we were already in a state of war and we thought we couldn’t adopt anymore.

Instead, the situation prompted the couple to try to do it sooner, he said. “We were waiting to make more money, get a better car, buy a house and build something to give our kids first. But when the war started, we thought why not adopt a child now and do these things together as a family.

That day, the married couple, who lived in eastern Ukraine, posted a call on social media.

“We want to adopt any boy or girl, any newborn or child,” he said.

Weeks later, that message would reach a volunteer helping those fleeing Mariupol, a southern city that has become emblematic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless campaign to take Ukrainian land, come what may.

Residents were forced into hiding for weeks as Russian troops pounded the town with artillery. It is now a virtual wasteland, with nearly all buildings damaged or destroyed, and an unknown number of dead under the rubble.

Among the survivors was Ilya Kostushevich, 6, an orphan and alone. Both of his parents were killed in the first week of the war.

His mother was shot by Russian artillery after leaving home to find food for her family, Bespalov and Bespalaya were later to learn from the police.

Unaware of his wife’s fate, Ilya’s father went looking for her the next day, but was also killed by shelling from the Moscow army, police said.

Little Ilya told how he was left at a neighbour’s house, where he sheltered in a cold, dark basement with strangers for weeks.

He got so hungry he started eating his toys, Bespalaya said.

“The men were drinking alcohol and the children of these neighbors bullied him. He was starving and freezing,” Bespalaya told CNN in a low voice. She’s careful not to bring up Ilya’s traumatic experience in front of him uninvited, but he told the woman he now calls ‘mom’ all about his terrifying three weeks in the basement, she says .

Bespalov and Bespalaya are now Ilya’s legal guardians. They have been a little family for over six months and plan to officially adopt him as soon as possible. All adoption processes are currently suspended in Ukraine due to martial law.

Ilya, center, found new happiness with Vladimir Bespalov and Maria Bespalaya after losing both parents in the first week of the war.
The couple try to give Ilya as normal a life as possible in times of war.

Like all parents, the young couple are fiercely protective of Ilya, shielding him from the horrors of war as best they can and trying to give him a sense of security and stability.

“You try to distract yourself from the fights and immerse yourself in the time spent with your child. We try to create memories of a normal childhood. Work takes time, but we spend every free moment together,” said Bespalov, who as an essential railroad worker was not called up for military service.

But there is nothing normal about war. After posting their appeal on Instagram, the couple have set up two spare bedrooms for the possible arrival of a child – one a child’s room with a white crib and blue bedding, the other equipped with a bunk bed and lots of toys.

Bespalaya had worked in an orphanage for several years and felt up to the challenge of raising a child no matter what.

“I completely stopped being afraid of adoption. I was convinced that we would have a child, and I was convinced that I could take care of anyone and manage their character,” he said. she told CNN.

But this plan too was shattered by the war. Shortly after the start, the two men were forced to flee their home in Sloviansk, a city in the Donetsk region on the front line, for Kyiv.

“Our stability was gone. we both lost our jobs and our home. We lost all our savings, we lost absolutely everything,” Bespalaya said.

“But we won so much more.”

In April, they finally received the call they had been hoping for, from a Mariupol volunteer: there was a little boy without parents, could the couple take care of him?

The next morning they began the two-day road trip to Dnipro, where Ilya had taken refuge, to meet the boy who would become part of their family.

Maria Bespalaya, Ilya Kostushevich and Vladimir Bespalov sit together on a playground bench in Kyiv.

Once back in Kyiv, they went through a complex four-month process to become Ilya’s legal guardians, which involved talking to therapists, numerous doctor visits, police background checks and a search. government to ensure that the boy had no other living relatives. Various donors, including the Shakhtar Donetsk Football Club, helped provide financial support that enabled the family to find a comfortable home.

“Now we have this love, this love that makes you family. We didn’t have this baby, but our love is real,” Bespalaya said, with Ilya huddled between her and Bespalov on a field bench in game in Kyiv.

Despite their happiness as a new family unit, life is more difficult for Ilya in the evenings, when the capital suffers power outages caused by Russia’s sustained attacks on the power grid – leaving the family without electricity for hours. in a row.

“Sometimes he’s scared,” Bespalaya said. “He’s hysterical, and he’ll tell me it’s like being back in Mariupol, in the dark.”

But little Ilya learns to cope. As he played with the couple in a candlelit living room during one of the blackouts, he looked up and said, “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. I know the light will come on again.

About Chuck Keeton

Check Also

One-Eared Rescue Dog Van Gogh Creates Art With Tongue

A rescue dog creates art with his tongue Van Gogh was recused from a dogfighting …