What started as an idyllic family visit to a health resort turned into a nightmarish separation when the Russian occupation of Ukraine disrupted the Lopatkina’s family’s annual health retreat. The six siblings ended up spending four months stranded and held by Russian forces before eventually joining their parents as refugees in France.
When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24, 2022, six of Olha’s nine children were in Mariupol, in a health resort where they were getting their annual health check-ups. When the occupation began, Russian troops blocked the roads in and around the city, locking the children at the sanatorium, and restricting the parents’ access. The family was separated for four months.
“THE NURSE TOLD US THAT THE WAR STARTED”
Olha’s family is from Vuhledar, a mining city in Donetsk region, some 50 miles away from Mariupol. Olha is a music teacher, and her husband Denys – like many local men – worked as a miner.
In 2016, the couple decided to adopt their first child. Then, the second. By 2018, they had already adopted seven children in addition to their two biological kids. The family moved into a townhouse given to them by the authorities and kept on living in their little town. Vuhledar is close to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian proxies since 2014. Despite that, the town remained calm all the way until 2022. As I am writing this, the area around Vuhledar is where some of the heaviest fighting is taking place.
However, back in January of 2022, few in Ukraine believed in the probability of a full-scale war with Russia. So Olha sent six of her children to the resort in the nearby Mariupol. That was not their first trip there. Every year, the children would go there for a few weeks to improve their health. The resort had its own teachers so the kids would not miss classes, too.
A health resort is a common occurrence across Central and Eastern Europe. It is a mix of an all-inclusive hotel, a hospital, and a spa. The visitors stay in the hotel, which has its own medical staff. The doctors check all the visitors, prescribe any necessary medicines and medical procedures, and help them improve their health. Targeted toward improving wellness, the health resorts aren’t necessarily linked to disease, families will go as a preventive measure, like the Lopatkinas who made it an annual ritual. In Ukraine, children from large families and other vulnerable groups can get free passes to stay there.
“I loved that resort so much,” said Tymofiy, Olha’s oldest son. Tymofiy is a senior in high school, and last year’s trip to the resort was supposed to be his last. As he was about to turn eighteen, he would no longer be able to get a free visit to the resort.
As the eldest, Tymofiy kept an eye on his five younger siblings; the youngest was barely six. The children were planning to stay until early March. Two other children were with their parents in Vuhledar, and the oldest daughter was in Western Ukraine for a sports contest when the full-scale invasion started.
At 5 am on Feb. 24, 2022, the nurse woke up the children. She gathered all residents in one room.
“The nurse told us that the war started,” Tymofiy recalled, “She also told us to call our parents so they would take us home. I called mom immediately.”
To get from Mariupol to Vuhledar, the children would have to pass through Volnovakha, a town that was already bombarded from the first day of the invasion. The family could not drive through there, so the parents told the children to wait for an official evacuation.
“During the first days, it was completely fine in Mariupol,” Tymofiy said, “We played videogames, watched movies, relaxed. We still had Internet and electricity, so it was all right.”
An idyllic resort was turning into a refugee camp and bomb shelter.
As the invasion continued, the resort became more and more empty as parents came to pick up their children. Tymofiy and his siblings, however, remained as their family could not get through the fighting. By March, the city of Mariupol was turning into a bloodbath as it became the epicenter of the heavy fighting. On March 1, Tymofiy managed to call his mom for the last time. By then, all the resort management had fled. The children remained with a few of the employees, and soon, more residents from Mariupol started coming to shelter there. The idyllic resort was turning into a refugee camp and bomb shelter.
“We had no heating and electricity,” Tymofiy remembered, “It was me and a few other guys who would go around the territory, cut out some trees, and use the wood for fire. We’d get some water from the nearby Azov sea and boil it. That’s how we cooked, that’s how we washed ourselves, and that’s how we kept ourselves warm.”
The resort was bombed, too, so the children and adults quickly had to move to the basements and only went out to cook food and gather wood.
MONTHS AWAY FROM PARENTS
For Olha and the rest of her family, staying in Vuhledar was bad, too. Russians bombed the town already on Feb. 24. Nearby towns were targeted as well.
“We were scared,” Olha said, “We didn’t know what to do. It was dangerous to go to Mariupol, so we were just agonizing and trying to decide. I was scared to go.”
Olha reached out to the local authorities hoping they would evacuate the children. But they were unable to help.
“We called the children every day hoping that the heavy fighting would end soon,” Olha continued. By March, the family had moved into the basement of their house and were hosting six more people who had fled nearby Volnovakha.
On March 6, the family decided to flee. They quickly packed and moved to Zaporizhya, a city in Southern Ukraine. The next day, they moved to Western Ukraine, where they picked up their daughter. And, a day after, the parents and three children crossed the Ukrainian border. In their white SUV, they traveled to France where they settled as refugees.
Tymofiy and his siblings were still stuck in Mariupol. On March 18, the Russian authorities allowed a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from Mariupol. A local volunteer came to pick up Tymofiy and his family. On that day, around 9,000 residents of Mariupol managed to flee to Ukraine-controlled territory. The Lopatkina kids, unfortunately, were not so lucky.
Russian soldiers recognized the local volunteer who was driving the children. “The soldiers knew the driver was a pro-Ukrainian activist, so they did not let him drive us to safety,” Tymofiy said. The soldiers took his car and made all the passengers leave. “Despite our protests, the soldiers took us, and on the next day, sent us to Donetsk.”
DETAINED IN DONETSK
Donetsk is the biggest city in Donbas, an industrial region in Eastern Ukraine, parts of which have been under Russian occupation since 2014. In Donetsk, Russian proxies established the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
It was Eleonora Fedorenko, a spokesperson for children’s rights in the so-called republic who ordered children to be brought to Donetsk instead of going on to Ukraine-controlled territories.
“Eleonora would come to see us with journalists from Russia Today,” Tymofiy said, “They would bring presents and record everything to show on Russian TV. They would never come without cameras.”
Later, the recordings were used on Russian TV channels for propaganda purposes: children were shown as survivors rescued by Russian troops. The Russian journalists did not mention that the children were in Donetsk against their will.
“It was impossible to live there,” Tymofiy said, of his time in Donetsk. “We had a better experience in Mariupol under bombs than there. Everyone tries to leave because it’s absolute trash, it’s hard to explain. All men have been sent to the Russian army, only handicapped people are left behind. Half of them are sent to fight, and the others are sent to rebuild the destroyed Mariupol.”
But at least when Tymofiy reached Donetsk, he was finally able to call his mom again. “I was very mad when I learned that she left Ukraine without us,” he said, “I sent her a very angry text. She started calling and explained that they were waiting for us, but they had to flee. So I calmed myself a bit.”
By that time, Tymofiy and his siblings were placed in the Donetsk Tuberculosis hospital.
“The authorities in Donetsk reached out to me demanding children’s documents,” Olha said, “They told me they wanted to give my children passports of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. I told them I wouldn’t send them any kids’ documents, but I did show them the proof that my husband and I were the legal guardians of the children.”
“The authorities also told me that if I would not show up personally, they would make children these new passports and give them for adoption to other people,” Olha added, “They kept telling this to the kids every day.”
According to Ukraine’s National Information Bureau, around 12,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia. Most of them are orphans who were separated from their legal guardians and relatives during the Russian occupation. Many children lost their parents recently, during Russian strikes on the now-occupied cities, and some children were separated from their parents during the so-called filtration process when their families were trying to flee the war zone.
These children are now placed for adoption in Russia as the Russian parliament passed a new law to speed up the adoption process of Ukrainian children. Many are stranded in Russia while their relatives in Ukraine are denied any communication with them and cannot return them home.
For Olha, rescuing the children was a dilemma. The Donetsk authorities refused to give children to anyone else as a proxy, even when she requested that her brother, who was still in Ukraine, serve as an intermediary guardian. But at the same time, Olha could not leave France where she was registered as a refugee.
“It didn’t make sense: here I am, a refugee, fleeing Russia, and then, I return to Russia to get to Donetsk?” she asked, “I didn’t even have an international passport at that time. If I left, I’d lose my status, so I wouldn’t be able to come back. Then what? Go to Russia and live there with half of my family? If I went to Donetsk, I would not be able to go back to Ukraine or the EU, so my options would be to stay there or mainland Russia. That was a bad perspective.”
Donetsk authorities remained unresponsive to Olha and her pleas. The children remained in Donetsk for two months. They could only leave the hospital grounds for a few hours and make a daily call to the parents. Along with the siblings, there were other orphans and children separated from their families in the hospital.
Olha, who was trying to start a new life in France, was slowly losing hope of ever reuniting with her children. However, at the end of April, she received a message from an acquaintance that there was a local volunteer in Donetsk willing to help her.
“I WAS PLANNING TO RUN AWAY”
“I still can’t believe such people exist,” Olha said, “Kind and selfless.”
Olha was describing Tetyana Nosach, a Donetsk local activist and founder of shelters for women. Tetyana has been living in Donetsk her whole life. When Russian proxies occupied her city in 2014, she moved to Kyiv for a year. But, she missed Donetsk, so she decided to return and stayed there despite the full-scale invasion. She kept her shelters for women there, too.
Tetyana learned about Olha and her children through social media. She reached out and said she could transport the children from Donetsk to Europe if Olha agreed to send her the notarized permission.
“I thought I’d never see my mom again, and I was planning to run away from the hospital when Tetyana showed up,” Tymofiy said, “She told me to wait because the authorities would catch me right away. She promised to help.”
Together with Tetyana, Tymofiy and his other siblings appealed to the local authorities. With Olha’s documents in hand, Tetyana demanded that the children be released from the hospital and given to her. The authorities refused. Tetyana appealed again. This time, all the children went with Tetyana to a special meeting with the authorities. The kids attested to how much they missed their families, and the authorities finally agreed.
Tetyana gathered Tymofiy and his siblings and booked a bus trip for them to go to Moscow. Then, from Moscow, they went to Riga, and from Riga, to Berlin. There, Tymofiy’s father met them. Tetyana returned to Donetsk while the family drove to France.
“Dad cried, we all cried,” Tymofiy recalled.
The family is now reunited and lives in France. “It was an amazing sensation,” Olha recalled when she saw her kids after many months, “I could not hold still.”
The whole family has temporary protected status in France, which is granted to Ukrainians who fled Ukraine after Feb. 24. It gives them the right to work and stay in the European Union for the duration of the war.
Olha and her husband have started working in their small town: Olha became a seamstress and learned how to sew even though in Ukraine, she worked as a music teacher. Her husband works as an electrician, and all their children are going to school. They dream of traveling to see the ocean and they all miss Ukraine.
Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine. All photos by Sofiia Lasarova from the village of Horenka in Bucha district, Kyiv region, Nov. 19, 2022.