Italy ordered a 10-year-old orphan, who had been spending her holidays with an Italian couple, to return home. The girl was brought back to the orphanage near Minsk, leaving her Italian foster parents desperate. Much in Vika-Maria's story remains unclear.
The girl claimed - reportedly - she had been abused at home. In a different report, the Italian couple said they surmised she was abused judging by the way she played with her Barbie dolls. The child underwent psychological tests, which confirmed those fears.
A court in Genoa ruled in late September that the child whose case has divided Italy and strained relations between the two countries was to return to Minsk. The Italian couple who hosted the girl (whom they call Maria though her real name is Viktoria) during the summer refused to return her, saying they believed she had been abused at the orphanage.
They hid the girl but police tracked her on September 29 to a monastery in Valle D'Aosta, in north-western Italy, after being given refuge by a priest. The girl had been brought there by the two women whom she called "grannies" - the mothers of her foster parents.
The girl had spent summers with the Italian couple for the past four years. She was one of thousands of Belarusian children who have treatment and holidays abroad under a program for children suffering the long-term effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Belarusian authorities have denied the allegations of abuse in the orphanage, and had formally complained to Italian authorities about what they called a "deliberate abduction."
Alessandro Giusto and his wife, Chiara Bornacin, denounced the Italian authorities for agreeing to the repatriation. "They took her away like thieves, hidden, without even her clothes, without saying goodbye to those who love her. It's disgusting, disgusting. I'm ashamed to be Italian," Chiara said.
Vika-Maria was flown back to her home country late on Friday evening in the company of Italian and Belarusian child psychologists. Belarusian authorities described her as "serene and tranquil" and said she may be sent to stay with a family that had already adopted her younger brother. An accord between the two countries will allow the Italian couple to keep in touch by letter and send her clothes, books and toys.
Earlier the girl said - according to her foster parents - that she would commit a suicide if she were forced to go back to her orphanage.
The couple, who speak of themselves as the girl's parents and had said they would rather go to prison than allow her to go back to Belarus, rushed to Genoa airport on the day she was put on board the Minsk-bound plane but were too late.
Alessandro Giusto and Chiara Bornacin said they began suspecting she was being abused after she tied up her Barbie dolls and made them kiss each other, saying it was a "game" played at the orphanage. They say psychological tests confirmed their fears that she had been sexually abused, possibly by older children.
Vika's case has split public opinion, and not in Italy alone. Given the shortage of details of the affair it is hard to take anybody's side in the dispute. It's hardly a secret for anyone that allegations of sexual abuse are extremely difficult to prove and are quite often used by children to meet their ends. A child of 10 is smart enough to understand that living with loving parents is much better than living in an orphanage, and living with loving parents in Italy is even more so:
On the other hand, the Europeans known for their respect for the law and all sort of formalities cannot ignore regulations governing international adoptions. Obviously being aware of how time-consuming and nerve-racking the adoption procedure is Giusto and Bornacin chose simply to retain the child thus effectively having stolen her from the orphanage. They call the police "thieves" but technically speaking they, too, acted like thieves, even though the hearts of many people go out to them these days.
It is hard not to feel sorry for the child also after all what she has gone through and will go through once she is back with other children at the orphanage. Her inmates, speaking on Russian TV earlier, said - rather angrily - they wanted her back because if she did not return they feared they would not be allowed to go to Italy in the future.
Also, there are people who took care of her at the orphanage. We don't know all the details but we do know that those people do their jobs for meager salaries and they really love and care for their children. Now they are being accused of sexually abusing the girl (or letting older kids abuse the younger ones) and we cannot rule out that the girl had invented the story and deliberately played sexual games with her Barbies.
Anyway, the case needs to be thoroughly probed and if any wrongdoings are detected after all those in charge must be brought to account.
As for the Italian couple, if they really care for the child they will ask Belarus for a permission to adopt her.