In certain parts of Ukraine it is easy to forget that there is a war taking place.
Parents and their children walked through a nondescript Ukrainian town, playing in the playgrounds or waiting for older siblings who had finished high school to rejoin them.
All seems to be normal. No one seems to be stressed.
The spring is here, and there’s always a sense of joy in eastern Europe as the snow and ice months give way to months of sunshine and flowers, green lawns, blue skies and yellow wheatfields.
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There is a dark cloud that will never lift.
Even in the midst of laughter and children eating pizza and drinking soda, there’s a sadness permeating everything.
There are children who, in this seemingly normal environment, have seen things that they shouldn’t have seen and have suffered more than anyone else should have suffered.
Even though they may appear tough, their hearts are breaking.
I saw Oleksandr “Sasha Radchuk” sitting on a bench in a park, and I wanted to offer him comfort.
The Russian soldiers took the 12-year old boy from his mother in Mariupol a year before and sent him into Russian-occupied Donetsk territory.
He hasn’t been able to see her since.
He has only his grandmother Lyudmila, who traveled thousands of miles to bring him back home.
This little boy was hit in the eye with shrapnel by a rocket while he and his mom were cooking outside their basement in Mariupol.
Sasha said, “We were in the basement after 24 February. There was no electricity, no water and we didn’t even have enough food. We couldn’t afford anything, because our money was getting smaller and smaller.”
The family found safety in a nearby factory that houses Ukrainian soldiers, and the injured soldier received first aid.
They were looked after by the Ukrainian military until Mariupol was taken over by Russia last year.
Sasha, his mother Snizhana Kozlova, and a Russian soldier took them to a filtration camp where they were separated.
Sasha told me, “They asked my mum questions, then said child services would come from Novoazovsk and take me away from her. They also told me my mum didn’t need me, and that she wouldn’t get me back.”
“We were at a camp and they were doing a filtration process. They then took my mother into another tent and then took me away.”
I asked him what he said to his mother when they tried to take him away.
“They took me away from my mother and wouldn’t let me even say goodbye. It’s been nearly a year since the last time I saw her or heard her voice.”
Sasha showed pictures of his mother on his mobile phone in a café.
I watched his face light up as he played videos and scrolled through pictures of the two of you together, laughing and having fun.
Sasha has no idea what happened to his mother.
His grandmother saved him after doctors in Donetsk shared pictures of him online.
Sasha believes that the doctors are trying to find Sasha’s relatives.
Lyudmila, his grandmother, was furious and travelled to Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Belarus.
She struggled with getting her travel documents in order, and encountered some problems at the checkpoints on the way. But she eventually made it and found him.
“I hugged and told him that now you would be with me. I also told him that we will search for your mother, as he had earlier asked me: ‘granny are you coming to fetch me?’ “Yes, I’m coming to get me, I have to find you some way, he said there were shootings where he stood, so I told him I needed to get to you before they took you away.”
Lyudmila, like Sasha does not know what happened to her daughter. She chooses to hold out hope for the sake of her grandson.
She said quietly, “Maybe it’s a camp.”
Sasha believes that by sharing his story, and telling the world of his mum, they can be reunited.
There are thousands of stories like Sasha.