- By Nina Nazarova and Kateryna Khinkulova
- BBC World Service
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the outbreak of war caused the separation of the parents of six of their adopted children. And learning that forced adoptions were taking place in Russia, they feared they would never meet again.
When the invasion began, the first thoughts of Olga Lopatkina went to her six adopted children who were visiting the coast, 100 km from home, in a municipal holiday home near the sea.
Quickly it became too dangerous to go pick up to the children, given the heavy bombardment in the cities along the route from their home to where they were.
Olga was faced with an impossible choice: send her husband Denis on a dangerous journey to rescue them or leave the children in Mariupol, where they had gone to rest.
At the time, the city still seemed relatively safe.
“We started to panic and we didn’t know what was the best decision,” she says.
The complete destruction of Mariupol would later become synonymous with the massive bombing of cities carried out by Russia to subdue them.
The brutal reality of the war hit home after just two days, when Olga encountered refugees from the east.
was surprised to see how quickly normal life had deteriorated.
Like many people in Ukraine, Olga assumed the war would be over in a few days or weeks, and hoped that the Ukrainian authorities would evacuate the children to a safe area.
It soon became clear that the conflict was escalating and that the children were in an extremely vulnerable position.
If they weren’t killed by an explosion, he worried about their future under Russian control.
began to emerge reports on the transfer of civiliansboth adults and children, to Russia.
Moscow called these transfers “evacuations,” while Ukraine called them forced deportationsreminiscent of the practices seen under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the 1940s.
The couple began adopting in 2016.
By February of this year, when the war began, they had seven adopted children from 6 and 17 years.
This was in addition to his two biological children.
Olga worked as a music teacher for children and Denis as a miner.
His life was happy and full.
But by early March, the family was fragmented and scared.
The electricity was cut off in the place where the children were due to the shelling, and they could no longer charge their phones, which meant that they couldn’t communicate.
In their own home in the eastern town of Vuhledar, the Lopatkins also took refuge in their basement as the war drew closer.
“They bombed us and they bombed everywhere, it’s scarysays Olga.
They decided to drive to Zaporizhzhia, where they knew that some people from Mariupol were being evacuated, hoping that the Ukrainian authorities will take care of taking the children there too.
But the city was not safe.
No sign of the children, the family decided Ybe further west, to Laeopolis.
There, a new problem arose: the concern that Denis was drafted into the army and called up.
Reluctantly, they decided to flee Ukraine.
Less than two weeks after the war began, Olga, Denis and their three remaining children they had become refugees.
But Olga says she never gave up hope of getting the children back.
The family was in Germany, deciding where to move, when they heard about the children again.
They had been Amongslatedsa part of the Donetsk region controlled by pro-Russian separatists, where they were admitted to a tuberculosis hospital.
social services they told the children that they had been abandoned.
The eldest son, Timofey, 17, was able to charge his phone and send Olga a text message.
He said he had been offered the chance to go out on his own, but he turned it down to take care of his siblings and he was angry that she had left the Ukraine.
“I understood that they couldn’t come looking for us in Mariupol, but that they had gone abroad really hurt me,” she says.
Feeling powerless, Olga kept posting on social media asking for help and information about her children, but she was mostly abused.
A lots of they accused her of not trying hard enough to rescue the children and further criticized her for leaving Ukraine.
The accusations and suggestions that he had abandoned his children they hurt her deeply.
He spoke to the international media to reiterate his message.
“I tried everything I could to make our situation known, hoping someone would listen and be able to help,” he says.
New life in Europe
Meanwhile, the couple had to decide where to settle in Europe.
They chose the small town of Loue, in northwestern France, where they started a new life, with jobs and a Red Cross-subsidized house big enough for all the children.
The mayor of the city invited 10 refugee families Ukrainians to settle, with advantages for families with adopted children.
In early April, Olga and Timofey established the routine of talking on the phone most nights, which helped mend the relationship.
It was a matter of waiting and wishing that the Donetsk social services would agree to release the children, which they eventually did.
But it wasn’t that simple. They would only give them to his legal guardian: Olga.
Plus I would have to go back to the place from which he had just fled.
“She was a refugee who fled the Russian Federation and now she was going to the Russian Federation?” she thought.
For a time, it seemed that they were in a dead end.
Donetsk social services required Olga to send the children’s birth certificates to prove their identity, but she was concerned that this would actually lead to them being put up for adoption again.
This fear had a real basis. Russian television regularly broadcasts optimistic reports about the “evacuation” of civilians from the “liberated” regions of Ukraine.
For its part, Kyiv says the deportations are forced and in the case of orphaned children it amounts to kidnapping.
In May, President Putin issued a decree “simplifying” the issuance of Russian documents to children in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry protested, calling it a violation of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that as many as two million Ukrainians had been forcibly deported to Russia, including hundreds of thousands of children.
Then something unexpected happened.
Showed up a ray of hope.
In June, Olga received a phone call. There was someone in Donetsk who could take her children to Western Europe.
Tatiana, an experienced volunteer in Donetsk who had worked with orphaned children and vulnerable mothers for many years, had a working relationship with the authorities and was willing to help.
Olga and Denis handed over the children’s documents to Tatyana along with a release form, making her their temporary legal guardian.
They had to take a leap of faith, but Olga says it felt good.
The process was also not easy this time.
Until the last moment they did not know that the paperwork was finished and that they would soon be together again.
Tatyana traveled with the children to Russia, then to Latvia and Germany.
Each border crossing was stressful.
“They all have different last names, the original release form was in French, I had to explain our situation over and over again to countless border guards,” says Tatyana.
He took the children to Berlin, where he handed them over to Denis, who took them to his new home in LoueFrance.
The family reunion after four months of uncertainty and anxiety was exceptionally emotional.
Tears mixed with laughter Denis first and then Olga hugged their children still not believing that they were really seeing them.
Olga kept hugging the children, saying: “Let me look at you, let me look at you!you grew up so muchI haven’t seen you in so long!”
Timofey refrained from showing too many emotions: “I’m very happy that everything turned out well, but I’m also older, so I don’t show how happy I am. I’m glad we’re all together again and I kept my word and brought the children to my parents.
Olga will be eternally grateful to the woman she never knew and describes as “our heroine”.
In the immediate plans of the family are A well deserved vacation.
Olga hopes to go to Portugal.
“I’ve never seen the ocean,” she says.
“Of course, we all go together. I won’t lose sight of them again“, Serie.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Lotareva and Alexey Gusev. Photos of Vladimir Pirozhkov.
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