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.
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