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UKRAINE

Kharkiv children fleeing bombs find refuge in Italy

An Italian aid programme had for years provided Viktoria Shakshyna with a respite from the children's home where she lived in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. When the bombs began falling, it became her lifeline.

Kharkiv children fleeing bombs find refuge in Italy
16-years-old Ukrainian refugee Viktoria (Vika) Shakshyna (C) is pictured in Cusago, a Milan suburb, on April 14, 2022 with her adoptive family, mother Michela Slomp (top), Anita (L) and Martina (R) at the family house which hosts her. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

“You could hear the shots and the sounds of missiles… many buildings in the city centre were destroyed, like our cinema,” the 16-year-old told AFP, recalling the torment in her city after Russia’s invasion.

But unlike so many others still trapped in Kharkiv, her nightmare ended on March 7 when, after a long journey by train and bus, she arrived in Cusago, near Milan, into the care of the family she has stayed with twice a year since she was nine.

Here, her room is filled with cuddly toys and happy memories of Italy that helped sustain her during the worst days.

READ ALSO: How can people in Italy offer Ukraine refugees a place to stay?

“If I have to die, I die. But I will have had a happy life, I was lucky, I managed to visit Disneyland in Paris, Berlin and Sicily,” she had told her
foster parents while in Kharkiv.

The Italian association “The Children of the East” (I bambini dell’ Est) grew out of European-wide efforts to give children from Ukraine fresh air and new possibilities after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. So far, the association has brought 280 refugees to Italy. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

Chernobyl disaster

Viktoria came to Italy with the help of “The Children of the East”, an Italian association which grew out of Europe-wide efforts to give children from Ukraine fresh air and new possibilities after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

She regularly spent three months in the summer and one month in the winter in the quiet, green surroundings of Cusago.

READ ALSO: Italy offers one-year residence permit to Ukraine refugees

It was a welcome break from Kharkiv, where she lived in one of Ukraine’s notorious children’s homes, which host orphans but also those separated from parents deemed unfit for various reasons, from criminality to alcoholism.

Since Russia invaded its neighbour on February 24, Ukraine’s second-largest city has faced a daily barrage of Russian rocket attacks, day and night.

When the air raid sirens went off, Viktoria — known as Vika — took refuge in a school basement. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, she passed the time by playing Burraco, an Italian card game.

The Italian aid programme had for years provided Viktoria Shakshyna with a respite from the children’s home where she lived in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. When the bombs began falling, it became her lifeline. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

With her host mother, 47-year-old graphic designer Michela Slomp, nearby she says her future is Italy.

“My house is here, I want to finish school and go to university,” she said in almost perfect Italian, her face lit up with a large smile.

READ ALSO: Can Ukrainian refugees save Italy’s ‘dying’ hill towns from extinction?

Vika was not even born when Chernobyl’s number four reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident, killing hundreds and spreading radioactive contamination west across Europe.

But the desire to help the children of Ukraine lives on through the “Children of the East” association, run by Federica Bezziccheri.

Since the war began, her telephone has rung day and night with Italian families searching desperately for their foster children — and young
Ukrainians trying to get out.

“We are experiencing the war live. When we call the children via videolink, we can hear the bombing,” Bezziccheri said.

‘Die like rats’

“The girls tell us how they only had to walk a hundred metres to see the dead. The boys signed up as volunteers, filling sandbags or digging trenches,” she told AFP at her apartment in Milan.

“Some young people say it is better to risk being injured or killed helping their country, than to die like rats in a cage under a building.”

READ ALSO: More than 500 Italian medics sign up to provide aid on Ukraine front line

So far, the association has brought 280 refugees to Italy, out of more than 100,000 Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the Mediterranean country.

The Italian foster family of Yana Alieva, 20, got her out of Kharkiv in January, anticipating Russia’s invasion.

20-years-old Ukrainian refugee Yana Alieva (L), from Kharkiv, is pictured in Milan on April 26, 2022 drinks tea with her Italian adoptive mother Carla Marini in the home of the family which hosts her. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

She too was brought up in a children’s home but is now safe in a Milan apartment, a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag draped from the balcony.

READ ALSO: Solidarity demos across Europe demand end to Ukraine war

“I am heartbroken. In a few days my world has disappeared. My boyfriend and my friends survived the bombs in the cellars before moving to safer areas, I fear for those who stayed,” she said.

She is also angry. Before the war, “we were all united, Russians and Ukrainians, as one people”, but now “we see who they really are”.

20-years-old Ukrainian refugee Yana Alieva, from Kharkiv, looks at pictures of her city in Milan on April 26, 2022 in the home of the family which hosts her. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

She has enrolled in the Catholic university in Milan, but hopes to return to Ukraine after the war.

“My home is there,” she said, adding she hoped “to participate in the reconstruction of my city and make it even more beautiful”.

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ENERGY

How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy's government has repeatedly said it plans to end its dependence on Russia for gas supplies following the invasion of Ukraine. But as the timeline keeps changing, when and how could this happen?

How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy is heavily dependent on Russian gas, but has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as part of an effort to end this reliance in the coming years.

But it remains unclear whether Italy can really end its dependence on Russia for its gas supply – or when this might be feasible.

READ ALSO: What does Italy’s Algerian gas deal mean for energy supplies?

The government has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, including with a recent deal to boost supplies from Algeria.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week the country could be independent of Russian gas by the second half of 2024 – the latest in a series of changing estimates.

“Government estimates indicate that we can make ourselves independent from Russian gas in the second half of 2024,” Draghi told the Senate, while adding that the “first effects” of this plan would be felt by the end of this year.

He said his government was also seeking to boost its production of renewable energy, including by “destroying bureaucratic barriers” to investment, saying it was the “only way” to free Italy from having to import fossil fuels.

Explained: Why and how Italy will pay for Russian gas in rubles

In April, Italy‘s Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani estimated the country would no longer need Russian gas within 18 months, following an earlier prediction that it could take until 2025.

Italy is one of Europe’s biggest users and importers of natural gas, importing 90 percent of its gas supply with 45 percent of that coming from Russia – up from 27 percent ten years ago.

Italy now imports 29 billion cubic metres of Russian gas a year, which Cingolani said in March “must be replaced” – but he didn’t specify with what.

Analysts have said there are “a lot of questions” about how helpful Italy’s gas deal with Algeria will be.

Despite its vast natural gas reserves, Algeria is already exporting at close to full capacity.

Draghi repeated his strong support for EU sanctions on Moscow last week, including a proposed ban on imports of Russian oil, although this is currently being blocked by Hungary.

“We must continue to keep up the pressure on Russia through sanctions, because we must bring Moscow to the negotiating table,” he said.

But for now, Italian energy giant Eni says it plans to pay for Russian gas supplies in rubles, meeting a demand from Vladimir Putin.

It was not immediately clear whether the plan would fall foul of European Union sanctions, although Eni said it was “not incompatible”.

The company said its decision to open the accounts was “taken in compliance with the current international sanctions framework” and that Italian authorities had been informed.

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