“I entered the wolf’s den, I had to overcome my fear because I was the only person who could save my grandson.”
Ukraine’s super gran: ‘I went into the wolf’s lair to save my grandson’
When Olena Matvienko’s daughter was killed in a missile strike and her grandson stolen by Russian soldiers, she risked everything to bring him back. This is her story.https://t.co/ZNbksD8iGg
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) September 23, 2023
Ilya’s mother was dead. The missile strike that killed her left the child bleeding, with shrapnel lodged in his legs.
Saying they were carrying out an “evacuation”, Russian soldiers stole the nine-year-old from his home and smuggled him across the border into occupied Donetsk in March 2022.
He might never see his family again.
But as bombs rained down on Ukrainian cities and fighter jets whizzed by in the sky, his grandmother set out on a desperate rescue mission.
This is the story of a brave grandmother who crossed four borders and risked everything to bring her beloved grandson home.
Shelter in the dark
“Mariupol was booming, it was on the rise,” says 64-year-old Olena Matviyenko. The city she once called home was beautiful, she recalls, like a fairy tale.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Olena remembers thinking it wouldn’t last long.
But then came the bombs and the soldiers.
Ukrainian grandmother Olena Matvienko rescued her nine-year-old grandson Ilya from Russian-occupied Donetsk, after he was stolen by Russian soldiers from his home in Mariupol under the guise of an ‘evacuation’
Full story 👉 https://t.co/9OgYFvoYd8 pic.twitter.com/5G69B8qVLg
— Sky News (@SkyNews) September 23, 2023
Olena lived in Western Ukraine, far from the Russian offensive. But her daughter and grandson in Mariupol were not so lucky.
Vast areas of the city were razed to the ground. The once high-rise apartment blocks have now been obliterated and the green parks are now black. The rest was quickly occupied, with the notable exception of the stoic defense of the steel mill.
In central Mariupol, Olena’s daughter Natalia and grandson Ilya hid in the basement with several others as explosions rocked the building.
For 12 days they sheltered in this dark cellar, cooking what food they had on a fire outside.
“My daughter died last night”
When they eventually ran out of supplies, they were forced to leave. They walked five miles to the outskirts of the city where they lived. When they reached their street, they saw that their home was nothing but a pile of rubble.
Intense shelling shook the streets around them and the two sought shelter in the building next door. It’s been six days.
Then on March 20, a rocket hit the building where they were hiding and everything went up in smoke and dust.
Olena Matvienko’s daughter was killed and her grandson, Ilya, was left bleeding, with shrapnel embedded in his legs following a missile strike near their home pic.twitter.com/lyYWd3Rfn2
— Sky News (@SkyNews) September 23, 2023
“My daughter was wounded in the head, and my grandson had shrapnel in his right thigh, and the left one was torn,” says Olena.
She spoke to Sky News from her home in Uzgorod in western Ukraine. There are toys on the shelves. Behind her, Ilya is playing.
“My daughter died last night. They buried her in front of the house we lived in.”
The next morning the Russians came.
Stolen in enemy territory
The soldiers separated the adults from their children and sent them to District 17 in the center of Mariupol.
Just hours after losing his mother, Ilya was abducted from Ukraine into Russian-controlled territory, as many other children have been. Thousands of them never returned.
Amid Ukraine’s startling gains, liberated villages describe Russian troops dropping rifles and fleeing
“They just dropped rifles on the ground,” Olena Matvienko said as she stood in a village littered with ammo crates and torched vehicles.https://t.co/6k28Z0ZwER
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) September 12, 2022
In a hospital in Donetsk, doctors treated Ilya until at one point they began to consider amputating his leg, but instead they did two skin grafts.
There was talk of taking him to Moscow with other children. But Ilya told the Russians that he did not want to go anywhere and that he would wait for his grandmother.
Meanwhile, Olena was frantically trying to find out what happened to her daughter and grandson. Eventually, someone she knew broke the terrible news.
“I was hysterical at first. The pain was unbearable,” she says.
“But the thought that my grandson is somewhere in Donetsk, alone with no one, helped me overcome and brace myself.”
“So I started thinking about what I could do to get him back to Ukraine.”
“I was the only person who could save Ilya.”
Olena wrote to organizations, agencies, to everyone she could think of, asking for help to get Ilya back.
In the end, he received a response from the office of the President of Ukraine, written by Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
A plan was concocted and Olena had to go get her grandson. The details, including the route by which she reached Ilya, are kept secret.
It was dangerous. Olena left free Ukraine and headed for the parts of the country that have been outside Kiev’s control for nearly a decade.
“I was scared. I didn’t want to be there. I was entering the wolf’s den, but I had to overcome my fear because I was the only one who could save my grandson.”
“All I could think about was how to get Ilya back to Ukraine.”
“It took about six days to reach the city of Donetsk.” Olena crossed four borders and finally, on April 21, reached her grandson Ilya, who was still in the hospital.
“I cried when I saw it,” she said. “At first he couldn’t believe it was me. He was very happy afterwards and we hugged.”
Ilya still had shrapnel in his legs and could not walk, but they managed to leave the hospital together.
The long journey home
They traveled from the hospital in an ambulance, but ran into trouble at the border between the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia.
“They didn’t want to let me in because I came from the western part of Ukraine,” Olena said. “But when I showed them my passport and it said Mariupol, they let me through.”
They asked her if she was surprised that they let her and Ilya go. “Honestly, yes. I was very surprised.”
Their route home is also being kept secret, but we can report that they traveled to Moscow by car. From there they managed to fly to Turkey, then to Poland, and from there by train to Kiev.
Finally, after weeks of anxiety, their journey was over. They returned to free Ukraine.
“It was a great relief when we finally crossed the border into Ukraine: we were home.”
“Yes, all my possessions were destroyed. But I came home with my grandson.”
Meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky
However, Ilya still could not walk and spent some time in a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Doctors removed four more pieces of metal from his leg.
There they were visited by Volodymyr Zelensky. Olena looked proudly at her grandson as he shook hands with the Ukrainian president from his hospital bed.
Over the next month and a half, Olena took care of her grandson in the city of Uzgorod in Western Ukraine, where they still live today. He fondly calls him Ilyushka.
“He was initially very reserved after what happened,” she says. “He was afraid of air raid sirens and thunderstorms.”
Over time, Ilya regained the ability to walk. “He’s still limping a little, but he’s feeling a lot better,” said Olena.
He was assisted by the “Museum of Civilian Voices” – a project led by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, from where he was helped to receive medical and psychological treatment.
The museum is a vast collection of stories of civilians affected by the war in Ukraine, and the mission is to share them with the hope of a better future.
Despite losing his parents and his home, Ilya – now 10 years old – made new friends and settled into his new home.
He is the first child freed from occupied Ukraine.
Ilya still has 11 pieces of shrapnel in his body, a lasting legacy of the missile strike that killed his mother a year and a half ago.
But Olena adds: “Now he feels alive. He knows he is loved here.”
“He makes me feel alive.”
Source: Sky News