When Russian forces invaded their country in late February, Vladimir Bespalov and Maria Bespalaya feared that their long-standing dream of starting a family would end through adoption.
“I remember the morning of February 24, very clearly,” said Vladimir Bespalov, a 27-year-old railway worker, of the first day of the war. “We thought it was too late. We realized we were already at war, and we thought we could no longer adopt.”
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, build something to give our kids first. But when the war started, we thought why not adopt a child now and bring these things together as a family.”
On that day, the couple, who lived in eastern Ukraine, posted an appeal on social media.
“We want to adopt any boy or girl, any new baby or child,” the statement read.
Weeks later, that message reached a volunteer helping those fleeing Mariupol, a southern city that has become a symbol of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless campaign to seize Ukrainian territory, no matter the cost.
Residents were forced to work underground for weeks while Russian forces bombarded the city with artillery. It is now almost a wasteland, with almost every building destroyed or destroyed, and an unknown number of dead in the rubble.
Among the survivors was 6-year-old Ilya Kostoshevich, an orphan and lonely. His parents were killed in the first week of the war.
His mother was hit by Russian artillery after she left home in search of food for her family, and Bespalov and Bespalaya later learned from the police.
The police said that Ilya’s father, unaware of the fate of his wife, went to look for her the next day, but was also killed in the bombing of the Moscow army.
Little Ilya told how he was left in a neighbor’s house, where he had been sheltering in a cold, dark basement with strangers for weeks.
Bispalaya said he was so hungry that he started eating his toys.
The men were drinking wine and the children of these neighbors were bullying him. He was starving and freezing,” Bispalaya told CNN in a hushed voice. She is careful not to bring up Elijah’s agonizing experience undisturbed before him, but he told the woman he now calls “Mama” all about his three terrifying weeks in the basement, she says .
Bespalov and Bespalaya are now the legal guardians of Elijah. They have been a small family for over six months, and plan to officially adopt him as soon as possible. All adoptions are currently suspended in Ukraine due to martial law.
Like any parent, the young couple fiercely protects Ilya, protects him from the horrors of war as best they can and tries to give him a sense of security and stability.
“You try to take your mind off the fight and indulge yourself in spending time with your child. We try to create normal childhood memories. Work takes time, but we spend every free moment together,” said Bespalov, who was not called up for military service as a railroad worker.
But there is nothing natural in war. After they posted their appeal on Instagram, the couple created two spare rooms for the arrival of a potential baby – one a nursery with a white crib and blue bedding, and the other equipped with a bunk bed and plenty of toys.
Bespalaya worked in an orphanage for several years and felt ready for the challenge of raising a child, no matter the circumstances.
“I completely stopped being afraid of adoption. I was confident that we would have a child, and I was confident that I could take care of anyone and handle their personality,” she told CNN.
But this plan, too, was shattered by the war. Soon after its beginning, the couple were forced to flee their home in Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk front-line region, to Kyiv.
“Our stability is gone. We both lost our jobs and our home. We lost all our savings, we lost absolutely everything,” Bispalaya said.
“But we won a lot more.”
In April, they finally received the call they had been hoping for, from a volunteer in Mariupol: There was a young child without parents, can the couple take care of him?
The next morning, they began the two-day car journey to Dnipro, where Ilya was sheltering, to meet the boy who would become part of their family.
Once back in Kyiv, they went through a complex four-month process to become Elijah’s legal guardians, which included talking to therapists, several doctor visits, police checks, and government research to ensure the boy had no surviving relatives. Several donors, including the Shakhtar Donetsk football club, helped provide financial support that allowed the family to find a comfortable home.
“Now we have this love, this love that makes you a family,” said Bespalaya, with Ilya cuddling between her and Bespalov on a bench in a stadium in Kyiv, we did not have this child, but our love is real.
As happy as they are as the new family unit, life is more difficult for Ilya in the evening, when the capital suffers from blackouts due to constant Russian attacks on the power grid – leaving the family without electricity for hours at a time.
“Sometimes he gets scared,” Bispalaya said. “He’s hysterical, and he’ll tell me it’s like going back to Mariupol, in the dark.”
But little Ilya is learning to adapt. As he played with the couple in the candlelit living room during one of the blackouts, he looked up and said, “I’m no longer afraid of the dark. I know the light will come on again.”