'Now we have that love, that love that makes you a family. We did not have this baby, but our love is real,' Bespalaya said.
The Ukraine-Russia War, like any other war, has displaced thousands of children. One such child was 6-year-old Ilya Kostushevich whose parents died in the first week of the war. The young boy was left terrified for the next three weeks in the basement of a neighbor's house.
6-year-old Ilya Kostushevich lost both his parents to Russian shelling in the first week of the war.— CNN International PR (@cnnipr) November 14, 2022
He eventually found hope and a home with a young couple now living in Kyiv. @SalmaCNN has the heartwarming story: https://t.co/3pRXd4yyGF pic.twitter.com/9m4OTVRCmY
Meanwhile, Vladimir Bespalov and Maria Bespalaya feared that the war meant the end of their long-held dream of starting a family through adoption. "I remember that morning of February 24, very clearly," Bespalov, a 27-year-old railroad worker, told CNN 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 could no longer adopt."
Instead, the situation pushed the couple to adopt sooner. "We were waiting to earn more money, have a better car, buy a house, and build something to give our children first. But when the war started, we thought why not adopt a child now and accomplish these things together as a family," he said.
1/ A child from Mariupol gave a letter to Boris Johnson— Oriannalyla 🇺🇦 (@Lyla_lilas) May 27, 2022
6-year-old Ilya Kostushevich lost his parents in Mariupol. They died during rocket attacks by Russian troops on the city: the street and the area where they lived were completely destroyed. pic.twitter.com/KzxxDZbt8S
The couple posted an appeal on social media. They wrote that they want to "adopt any boy or girl, any newborn or child." Weeks later, this message reached a volunteer who was helping those fleeing Mariupol, a southern city in Ukraine where residents were forced underground for weeks as Russian troops pummeled the city with artillery.
In April, Bespalov and Bespalaya received a call from the volunteer. They informed the couple of a little boy with no parents and asked whether they would they like to take care of him. The very next morning, Bespalov and Bespalaya started their two-day car journey to Dnipro, where the child was sheltering.
STATEMENT: Save the Children welcomes the safe evacuation of children and their families from the dark, cold bunkers of besieged #Mariupol. “Children in Mariupol have witnessed unthinkable violence. We must stop this war on children.” – Pete Walsh, @SCIUkraine Country Director— Save the Children Global Media (@Save_GlobalNews) May 3, 2022
Following his parents' death, little Ilya was underground in a cold, dark basement with strangers for weeks. During this time, he got so hungry, the young boy started to eat his toys, Bespalaya said. "The men were drinking alcohol and the children of those neighbors bullied him. He was starving and freezing," she added.
Once they welcomed Ilya into their life and returned to Kyiv, the couple had to go through a complicated, four-month process to obtain legal guardianship. This included meeting therapists, multiple doctor visits, police background checks, and an investigation from the government to ensure that the child did not have any living relatives. As their story spread, donors helped the family find a comfortable home to raise their new son.
⚡️Real Madrid footballer Luka Modric met with seven-year-old Ukrainian Ilya Kostushevich after the match against Shakhtar in the Champions League. pic.twitter.com/nCiRnXGYWl— FLASH (@Flash_news_ua) October 12, 2022
Ilya has been with his new family for more than six months now. Although the couple wants to adopt him, they are unable to do so right now as all adoption processes are suspended in the country due to martial law. Meanwhile, they are trying their best to keep Ilaya away from the horrors of war and to give him "memories of a normal childhood."
"Work takes time, but we spend every free moment together," said Bespalov. "Now we have that love, that love that makes you a family. We did not have this baby, but our love is real," Bespalaya said.
However, life is still not easy for them. The capital experiences rolling blackouts due to Russia's sustained attacks on the power grid which leaves the family without electricity for hours at a time. "Sometimes he gets scared," Bespalaya said. "He is hysterical, and he'll tell me it's like being back in Mariupol, in the darkness."
But Ilya is learning to cope with it. While playing with the couple in the living room lit by candles, he looked up and said, "I am not afraid of the dark anymore. I know the light will turn back on."