“I was going into the wolf’s lair but I had to overcome my fear because I was the only one who could rescue my grandson.”
Ilya’s mother was dead. The missile strike that killed her left him bleeding, shrapnel embedded in his legs.
Under the guise of an “evacuation”, Russian soldiers stole the nine-year-old from his home and brought him across the border into occupied Donetsk in March 2022.
He might never have seen his family again.
But as bombs rained down on Ukrainian cities and fighter jets screamed through the skies, his grandmother set out on a desperate rescue mission.
This is the story of how one brave grandma crossed four borders and risked everything to bring her beloved grandson home.
Sheltering in the dark
“Mariupol was flourishing, it was booming,” Olena Matvienko, 64, says. The city she had once called home was beautiful, she recalled, like a fairy tale.
But then the bombs came, and the soldiers.
Olena was living in western Ukraine far away from the Russian advances. But her daughter and grandson in Mariupol were not as lucky.
Huge areas of the city were razed to the ground, once proud apartment blocks obliterated and green parks scorched black. The rest was swiftly occupied, with the notable exception of the stoic defence of a steel factory.
In downtown Mariupol, Olena’s daughter Natalya and grandson Ilya hid in a basement with several others as explosions shook the building.
For 12 days they sheltered in that dark space, cooking what food they had on a fire outside.
‘My daughter died that 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 road they saw their home had been reduced to rubble.
Intense shelling rocked the streets around them, and the pair sought shelter in the building next door. Six days passed.
Then on 20 March, a missile hammered into their building, sending smoke and dust pouring into the air.
“My daughter was injured in the head and my grandson had shrapnel in his right thigh, his left thigh was torn away,” Olena says.
She’s speaking to Sky News from her home in Uzghorod in western Ukraine. There are toys on the shelves. Behind her Ilya is playing and flits in and out of view.
Olena looks down as she tells this part of the story, her face solemn.
“My daughter died that night. They buried her in front of the house where we used to live.”
The next morning, the Russians came.
Stolen away to enemy territory
The soldiers separated the adults from their children and sent them to district 17 in the centre of Mariupol.
Just hours after losing his mother, Ilya was snatched away from Ukraine into Russian-held territory like so many others. Thousands have never returned.
In a hospital in Donetsk doctors treated Ilya. At one point they considered amputating his leg but instead gave him two skin grafts.
There was talk about taking him to Moscow with other children. But Ilya told the Russians he did not want to go anywhere and that he was going to wait for his grandma.
Olena, meanwhile, was frantically trying to find out what had happened to her daughter and grandson. Eventually someone she knew passed on the devastating news.
“At first I felt hysterical. The pain was overwhelming,” she says.
“But the thought that my grandson was in Donetsk, alone without anyone, helped me overcome the pain and pull myself together.
“And so I started thinking about how I could take him back to Ukraine.”
‘I was the only one who could rescue Ilya’
Olena wrote to organisations, agencies, everyone she could think of, asking for help to get Ilya back.
Eventually she got a reply from the office of Ukraine’s president, written by deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
A plan was hatched and arrangements made for Olena to go and fetch her grandson. The details, including the route she took to get to Ilya, are being kept secret.
It was dangerous. Olena was leaving free Ukraine and heading to parts of the country that have been outside Kyiv’s control for nearly a decade.
“I was scared. I did not want to be there. I was going into the wolf’s lair but I had to overcome my fear because I was the only one who could rescue my grandson.
“The only thing I could think about was getting Ilya back to Ukraine.”
It took about six days to reach the city of Donetsk. Olena crossed four borders and was finally reunited with Ilya at the hospital on 21 April.
“I cried when I saw Ilya,” she says. “He couldn’t believe that it was me at first. He was very happy and we hugged each other.”
Ilya still had shrapnel in his legs and couldn’t walk, but they were able to leave the hospital together.
The long journey home
They travelled from the hospital by ambulance but ran into trouble at the border between the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia.
“They did not want to let me go because I was coming from the western part of Ukraine,” Olena says. “But when I showed them my passport and it said Mariupol they allowed me to cross the border.”
She’s asked if she was surprised they had let her and Ilya go. “Speaking honestly, yes. I was very surprised.”
Their route home is likewise being kept secret, but we can report that they travelled to Moscow by car. From there they were able to fly to Turkey and then on to Poland, and from there they took a train to Kyiv.
Finally, after weeks of worry, their journey was over. They were back in free Ukraine.
At this point in her story Olena seems to tear up, emotions bubbling to the surface as she speaks of the moment she set foot on familiar soil.
“It was a big relief when we finally crossed the border into Ukraine: we were home.
“Yes, all my property had been destroyed. But I was finally home and I was with my grandson.”
A meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ilya still couldn’t walk, however, and spent some time at a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Doctors took four more pieces of metal out of his leg.
They were visited there by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Olena looked proudly at her grandson as he shook hands with the smiling Ukrainian president from his hospital bed.
For the next month-and-a-half, Olena took care of her grandson – she calls him Ilyushka fondly – in the city of Uzghorod in western Ukraine where they still live today.
“At first he was very reserved after what happened,” she says. “He was afraid of things like air raid sirens and thunderstorms.”
With time, Ilya regained the ability to walk. “He still limps a little bit but he feels much better,” Olena says.
He was assisted by the Museum of Civilian Voices, a project run by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, which helped him to access medical and psychological treatment.
The museum is a huge collection of stories of civilians affected by the war in Ukraine, with a mission to share them in hope of a better future.
Despite losing his parents and his home, Ilya – now 10 years old – has made new friends and settled into his new home.
He was the first child to be liberated from occupied Ukraine.
Ilya still has 11 jagged pieces of shrapnel in his body, an enduring legacy of the missile strike that killed his mother a year-and-a-half ago.
But Olena adds: “Now he feels alive. He knows that he is loved here.
“He’s my sense of life.”
Traders were told of Hamas attack on Israel in advance and ‘profited from tragic events’, researchers claim
Israeli authorities are investigating claims some investors may have known in advance about the Hamas plan to attack Israel on 7 October and used that information to make hundreds of millions of pounds.
Research by US law professors Robert Jackson Jr and Joshua Mitts, from New York University and Columbia University respectively, found significant short-selling of shares leading up to the massacre, which triggered a war that has raged for nearly two months.
“Days before the attack, traders appeared to anticipate the events to come,” the authors wrote, citing short interest in the MSCI Israel Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) they say “suddenly, and significantly, spiked” on 2 October.
“And just before the attack, short selling of Israeli securities on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) increased dramatically,” they added.
The Israel Securities Authority told Reuters: “The matter is known to the authority and is under investigation by all the relevant parties.”
The researchers said short-selling prior to 7 October “exceeded the short-selling that occurred during numerous other periods of crisis”, including the recession following the financial crisis of 2008, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war and the COVID-19 pandemic.
They gave the example of Leumi, Israel’s largest bank, which saw 4.43 million new shares sold short over the 14 September to 5 October period, yielding profits of 3.2bn shekels (£680m) on that additional short-selling.
“Although we see no aggregate increase in shorting of Israeli companies on US exchanges, we do identify a sharp and
unusual increase, just before the attacks, in trading in risky short-dated options on these companies expiring just after the attacks,” they said.
What is shorting?
Short sellers are investors who bet on a fall in the price of a security, in this case a stock.
They typically do this by borrowing shares in a particular company and then selling them.
If the share price falls, they will then buy those shares back at the lower price, sealing in their profit.
The shares are then returned to the original investor from whom they were borrowed.
Traders ‘profited from these tragic events’
The value of the MSCI Israel ETF fell by 6.1% on 11 October, the first day the American market was open for business after the attack, and later dropped by 17.5% over the 20 days following the massacre.
The researchers – who did not name the traders – identified two large transactions on 2 October, adding: “On these two transactions alone, the trader made several million dollars in profit (or in losses avoided).”
They also identified similar patterns in April, when it was reported Hamas was initially planning its attack on Israel.
While the researchers do not identify Hamas as being behind the trades, their paper suggests the information originated from the terror group: “Our findings suggest that traders informed about the coming attacks profited from these tragic events.”
Their paper, Trading on Terror?, was published on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) on Sunday.
Ex-US ambassador Manuel Rocha accused of being Cuban spy
A former US ambassador to Bolivia has been charged with secretly acting as a Cuban agent for “more than 40 years”.
Manuel Rocha, who was arrested at his Miami home on Friday, served as the top US diplomat to Bolivia between 2000 and 2002.
Prosecutors from the US Justice Department accuse him of promoting the Cuban government’s interests, Sky’s US partner NBC News reported.
This is not a crime unless it is done on US soil without registering with the department as a foreign lobbyist, the broadcaster added.
Rocha, 73, appeared in court on Monday and is alleged to have begun his “clandestine activity” on Cuba’s behalf in 1981 or earlier.
It was one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the US government by a foreign agent, department officials said.
He met Cuban intelligence operators, lied to US government officials about his travels and contacts and used a passport obtained through a false statement, prosecutors claimed in court documents filed in Florida.
The charges reflect a harsher approach by the department towards the prosecution of illicit foreign lobbying.
During his 25-year career as a US diplomat, Rocha served as ambassador to Bolivia and held another senior post – head of mission – in Argentina.
He worked for the US Interests Section in Havana in the mid-1990s, a time when the US lacked full diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s communist government.
Prosecutors claim Cuba’s notoriously sophisticated intelligence services first began using Rocha in 1981 when he first joined the US State Department.
They added that the alleged links continued well after he left government service more than two decades later.
The FBI learned about the relationship last year, it is alleged, and arranged a series of undercover meetings with an agent posing as a Cuban intelligence operator.
In one encounter in Miami last year, Rocha is alleged to have said: “I always told myself, ‘The only thing that can put everything we have done in danger is – is … someone’s betrayal, someone who may have met me, someone who may have known something at some point’.”
Born in Colombia, Rocha joined the US foreign service in 1981.
As ambassador to Bolivia, he warned Bolivians that if they voted for Evo Morales in the upcoming election, the US would cut off aid to the poor South American country.
Rocha also served in Italy, Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and worked as a Latin America expert for the US National Security Council.
Mother, 26, dies after attack by shark in Mexico while swimming with daughter
A 26-year-old mother has died in Mexico after being bitten in the leg by a shark.
The woman, who lived locally, was swimming with her five-year-old daughter when the attack happened.
She is understood to have died from blood loss from the massive bite wound on her leg. Her daughter was unharmed.
The attack happened in the waters off the beach town of Melaque in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico on Saturday, authorities said.
Rafael Araiza, the head of the local civil defence office, said the woman and her daughter were swimming towards a floating play platform about 25m (75ft) from the shore when the attack happened.
She is said to have been trying to boost her child onto the platform when the shark bit her.
Mr Araiza said despite their quick response, rescuers were unable to save her.
Authorities closed the beaches in Melaque and the better-known beach town of Barra de Navidad to swimmers in response.
Shark attacks are understood to be relatively rare in Mexico. A US diver survived a shark bite on the forearm in Magdalena Bay off the Baja California Sur coast in 2019.
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