Inside a desperate Ukrainian mother’s 6,000-mile mission to rescue her 12-year-old son after he’s kidnapped by Russian soldiers
A boy from up to 20,000 children rounded up by Vladimir Putin’s invaders was rescued by his mother just days before he was due to be sent to Russia for forced adoption.
Twelve-year-old Kirill Sakalo was abducted along with 80 others after being told they were going on a school trip to the coast.
Desperate mother Natalia tried in vain to track him down for five months, until a charity found the boarding house in Crimea where he was being held.
Save Ukraine arranged passports for Natalia, 42, and Kirill, and planned and funded their 6,000-mile round-trip trip, which included four countries and two time zones.
In normal times, the journey from Kherson – which was occupied on the first day of the war – to Yevpateriya would take five hours. Instead, it took six days.
Natalia traveled from Kherson – which was now liberated – to the capital, Kiev, where she boarded a train bound for Poland.
Next was Minsk in Belarus and a flight to Moscow.
Natalia and other concerned parents then went on a 1,200-mile road trip to Krasnodar and across the bombed Kerch Bridge into Russia-annexed Crimea.
On April 3rd, she was reunited with Kirill – and just in time.
Three more days would have been six months since Kirill left home and was told he was eligible for forced adoption under Russian law.
Holding back tears, Natalia told The Sun: “At first I didn’t recognize him. He had grown so tall, he was so tall and his hair was as long as a rock star’s.
“Hugging him again was the best feeling in the world.”
The group returned with 31 children – the total number of children rescued from Russian soil by Save Ukraine so far is 96.
Tragically, two children had to be left behind as their grandmother died of natural causes on April 2nd on the final leg of the journey.
Save Ukraine said the camp authorities refused to hand over the grandchildren.
The Sakalo family’s nightmare began in October after Kirill went on a two-week school trip for students aged six to 16.
The teachers texted that they would be staying a few more days—then a few more. One by one the four teachers left.
On the days when Kirill was allowed to use his mobile phone, he asked Natalia and his grandmother Tatiana, 73, to take him home. He had never spent a night out before.
Kirill was then transferred to a boarding house in Luchysty. Classes were in Russian and he had to sing the Russian anthem in front of the visiting TV crews.
He said: “They punished us constantly – they forced us to run in circles for hours.”
The man responsible wore body armor and a helmet even though they were 100 miles from the front line.
Kirill recalled how one day the man announced: “Your parents don’t want you. We send you to Russia to new places.”
Meanwhile, Natalia and Tatiana were desperately looking for help.
Troops that had taken Cherson were forced to flee and Russian guns bombarded their neighborhoods.
All but two families left their block of flats, but Natalia and Tatiana did not dare to move.
At camp, Kirill hatched a dangerous escape plan that involved climbing over a wall, avoiding checkpoints, and detonating mines by throwing rocks.
He called Tatiana, who persuaded him to hold on.
Now they share a one-bedroom room in an emergency shelter in Kiev. Natalia said: “We don’t have much, but we have each other, we are together.”