Ukrainian orphan who suffered the horrors of the Mariupol siege finds a new family

Kiev, Ukraine

When Russian forces invaded their country at the end of February, Vladimir Bespalov and Maria Bespalaya feared their long-cherished dream of starting a family through adoption was over.

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

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

That day, the couple, who lived in eastern Ukraine, posted an appeal on social media.

“We want to adopt any boy or girl, any newborn or child,” it read.

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 seize Ukrainian land, no matter the cost.

Residents were forced underground for weeks while Russian troops pounded the city with artillery. It is now a virtual wasteland, with almost every building damaged or destroyed, and an unknown number of dead under the rubble.

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

Ilya Kostushevich, who was orphaned during the Russian assault on Mariupol, now lives in Kiev.

Their mother was shot down by Russian artillery after she left the house to find food for her family, Bespalov and Bespalaya later learned from the police.

Unaware of his wife’s fate, Ilya’s father went to look for her the next day, only to be killed by Moscow army shelling, police said.

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

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

“The men were drinking alcohol and the children of those neighbors harassed him. He was starving and freezing,” Bespalaya told CNN in a low voice. She is careful not to bring up Ilya’s traumatic experience in front of him, 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 formally 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 is trying to give Ilya as normal a life as they can in wartime.

Like all parents, the new couple is 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 take your mind off the fight and immerse yourself in spending time with your son. We try to create memories of a normal childhood. Work takes time, but we spend all free moments together,” said Bespalov, who as a crucial railway worker was not summoned for military service.

But there is nothing normal about war. After posting their appeal on Instagram, the couple created two free rooms for the possible arrival of a child: one with a white crib and blue bedding, the other equipped with a bunk bed and lots of toys.

Bespalaya had been working in an orphanage for several years and felt ready for the challenge of raising a child, no matter the circumstances.

“I stopped being afraid of adoption. I was sure that we would have a child, and I was sure that I could take care of anyone and deal with their character,” she told CNN.

But that plan was also shattered by the war. Shortly after it began, the couple were forced to flee their home in Slovyansk, a city in the front-line Donetsk region, for Kiev.

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

“But we win a lot more.”

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

The next morning, they began the two-day drive to Dnipro, where Ilya was a refugee, 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 Kiev.

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

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

Despite their happiness as a new family unit, life is tougher for Ilya at night, when the capital experiences blackouts caused by Russia’s ongoing attacks on the power grid, leaving the family without power for hours.

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

But little Ilya is learning to handle. As she played with the couple in a candlelit living room during one of the blackouts, she looked up and said, “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. I know the light will come back on.”

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