Ukrainian girl rescued from Russian-held hospital by grandfather

Hiromi Uechi/The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kira Obedinska is hugged by her grandfather, Oleksandr, in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, on May 18.

CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — The grandfather of a 12-year-old girl orphaned by the war in Ukraine made a timely intervention to stop her being taken to an orphanage in Russia.

The girl, Kira Obedinska, was injured while trying to flee her hometown — Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine — and taken to a hospital in Donetsk, an eastern city under the control of Moscow-backed separatists.

It is believed that many Ukrainians have been transported to Russia for “re-education,” and forcibly made to work in remote areas. Kira may well have suffered a similar fate but for the actions of her grandfather, Oleksandr.

Kira’s mother died shortly after her birth, and her father was killed by Russian shelling around March 17. Kira had attempted to escape from Mariupol with her father’s girlfriend, but was wounded in an explosion and taken to a hospital in Donetsk.

“It was a terrible hospital,” Kira said. “The nurses weren’t kind at all.” Kira also faced the prospect of being taken to an orphanage in Russia.

Courtesy of Kira Obedinska
Kira Obedinska is seen in a hospital in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Oleksandr learned about Kira’s predicament on March 28 after being contacted by the girlfriend. Kira used social media apps to send her grandfather such messages as “When will you come for me?” or “I want to cry.”

Oleksandr, 67, appealed to Ukrainian and British media for help in rescuing his granddaughter. The Ukrainian government made moves to negotiate with the Russian side, telling Oleksandr to go get Kira and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would guarantee their safety.

The grandfather initially flew to Moscow via Poland and Turkey, then traveled south to Donetsk by train and car. On April 23, he was reunited with his granddaughter, who is said to have jumped for joy when he asked, “Are you ready to go home?”

According to Oleksandr, a number of people helped him during his journey, but he did not disclose any details due to concerns over their safety.

The pro-Russian armed separatists, meanwhile, emphasized their humane response in allowing the handover.

Kira and her grandfather have since sought refuge in the city of Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine.

“I believed my grandfather, because he promised to come,” Kira said, sitting alongside Oleksandr during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Kira enrolled in school in May, and attends classes online. But her experience of the war has seemingly left her shaken. “I don’t want to make new friends,” she said.

Her injuries were likely caused by a booby trap. The explosion that hospitalized her occurred while she was fleeing up a hill; shrapnel pierced her face and limbs. A child who was with her at the time may have triggered a wire that was stretched across the ground.

After Kira lost her father — she is reluctant to talk about how he died — she shifted from shelter to shelter in Mariupol with her father’s girlfriend and her children. “The shelters were cold,” Kira recalled. “We were wearing multiple layers of clothing but it was still almost unbearable. We had nothing to play with, and just had to sit and wait until the bombing stopped.”

While in Donetsk, the girlfriend and her children were taken to Russia; Kira has had no subsequent contact with them.

According to figures released May 21 by the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman, about 1.38 million Ukrainians — 230,000 of them children — are thought to have been forcibly transported to Russia.