The human cost of the conflict in Ukraine continued to mount on Thursday, as devastating images emerged of a father grieving for his teenage son, while families paid tribute to a Ukrainian-American who they said dedicated his life to helping children.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also confirmed the death of a member of its special Ukraine monitoring mission, who was killed while trying to get food for her family.
Images by an Associated Press photographer of a father weeping over the body of his dead son came out of the city of Mariupol on Thursday, as the city came under unrelenting Russian bombardment. The man, named only as Serhii, was photographed holding the head of his son Iliya, in a maternity ward converted into a hospital in the Black Sea city.
The OSCE said Maryna Fenina was killed on Tuesday during the shelling of Kharkiv and had died “while getting supplies for her family in a city that has become a war zone”.
Dozens of families paid tribute to Serge Zevlever, a Ukrainian-American adoption facilitator who helped hundreds of children with special needs find adoptive parents in the US and other countries.
An American dual citizen, Zevlever could have left Ukraine but chose to stay, and was shot and killed in Kyiv, two days after Russia launched an attack on his birth country, said friends.
Jessica Aubert, 36, the CEO of the non-profit Yaqar Project based in Cleveland Tennessee, told the Guardian that she became aware of Zevlever’s death on 27 February.
Through his agency Hand of Help in Adoption, which helps special needs children from Ukraine find adoptive families, Zevlever had helped hundreds of children, she said.
Aubert, who adopted her son from Odessa in Ukraine in 2017 with Zevlever’s help, said he wanted “every child to feel a sense of belonging”.
“He looks intimidating at first, but he’s just this incredible counsellor. Within five minutes, we could see that his whole heart and passion was in ensuring no child felt forgotten,” she said.
Zevlever guided her and her husband through the adoption process, from meeting them the day that they arrived in Ukraine until the end of the process, she said.
“He would always reiterate to us that ‘all that matters is that children find families’ […] His life’s work was being a force of good.”
New Yorker Nathan Wolfe, who adopted two boys from Ukraine through Hand of Help in Adoption said: “Serge spent his life working to unite orphans with families. Two of our boys are alive and thriving today because of the work he did.”
Nancy Cunningham Thornell co-founded Hand of Help in Adoption with Zevlever in 2014 after meeting him in 2010 when he and his wife helped her facilitate her own adoption in Kiev.
“He was always working, 24/7,” she said. “I’d always tell families Serge is like a big teddy bear, he sounds like he is always yelling but he’s a big softie. His heart was always in it for these kids and that’s what I loved about working with him.”
She added that the news of his death had been met with an outpouring of grief and love. “I have no idea what we are going to do now. Serge was a one-of-a-kind person who knew everything and would fight for these kids. It’s going to be really hard to fill his shoes because he was just amazing.”