By Jeffrey Donovan
PRAGUE, September 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For thousands of visitors each summer, the picturesque Italian town of Cogoleto, on the coast near Genoa, is a slice of paradise. There's a long sandy beach, a sea perfect for swimming, and a festive atmosphere that first made the area popular with stars such as Sophia Loren in the 1950s.
But now, Cogoleto is making headlines for different reasons: as the center of a struggle over the fate of a Belarusian orphan that has sparked a row between Rome and Minsk, with possible major consequences for tens of thousands of Belarusian children who come to Italy each summer to recover from the lingering effects of the nuclear accident at Chornobyl.
"We strongly hope that this little girl can receive care in Italy, and that she can have what every girl or woman who has been molested needs: that is, the warmth of loved-ones, the love of a family."
Italians are never ones to hide their feelings, and this week in Cogoleto, there has been an outpouring of emotion in support of the 10-year-old Belarusian orphan and her local foster parents.
Town Rallies Around Couple
About two weeks ago, the couple, Maria Grazia Bornacin and Alessandro Giusti, hid the girl to prevent her return home after Italian doctors said she had been repeatedly abused at her orphanage northwest of Minsk.
"On [September 19], there was a candle-lit vigil," Cogoleto Deputy Mayor Anita Venturi. "More than 1,000 people marched through the center of town, in complete silence and with signs on which were posted the United Nations rights of children."
The couple says they acted only to save the girl's life. But they are now under investigation for "removal of a minor" -- a crime, however, that falls short of full kidnapping in Italy and does not include arrest.
Strong Measures Threatened
Alyaksey Skrypko, the Belarusian ambassador to Italy, told reporters on September 20 in Genoa that Minsk would be forced to take "both bilateral and international measures" against Italy should the girl, who has been given the pseudonym "Maria," not be returned.
Italian and Belarusian media reports say those measures could include holding up around 600 pending Italian applications to adopt Belarusian kids, and also at least partly halting a program that sends nearly 30,000 children to Italy each year on "therapeutic stays" for victims of the lingering effects of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.
Those threats are grave, says Venturi, who nonetheless has thrown her weight behind keeping 10-year-old Maria in Italy. "The consequences are clearly very serious," she says. "Among other things, it's pitting children against other children, and that's very grave."
The Chornobyl program is what first brought Maria to Cogoleto in 2003. Her foster parents says they first noticed bruising and signs of abuse on Maria in 2004 and alerted doctors.
But this year, after the girl tried to drown herself in the sea, apparently out of dread at returning home, her foster parents took dramatic measures.
They put her in hiding after the Juvenile Court of Genoa ruled that she must be repatriated, following assurances from Minsk that Maria would be given proper care.
Luigi Massoletti, who runs a local hotel, agrees it was a dramatic move. He also says Belarus appears to be in the right, with regard to international law. Yet, Massoletti says he and most of Cogoleto support the foster parents out of concern for Maria's physical well-being.
"We understand the position of the [foster] parents, who know that with everything that's happened, they won't see the girl again if she returns home," he says. "The whole town is with the family."
Pitting Child Against Child
He adds that many people in town believe Belarusian authorities have acted too rashly by immediately threatening to block the Chornobyl program and adoptions.
The couple say it would be enough if Maria were adopted by another couple in Italy (epa file photo)The couple say it would be enough if Maria were adopted by another couple in Italy (epa file photo)"They should let it play out a bit longer first and then think about that later, but not put it on this level already," he says. "Because they are putting all the other families against this young couple who are defending the girl. That's why a lot of Italians are saying now, 'Think about it before taking any further steps.' That is, both the foster parents and Belarus, because it's the kids who will be punished by not being able to come here anymore."
Maria's young foster parents reportedly put in a request to adopt her three years ago. But they have been quoted in the Italian press as saying that they would not mind if another Italian family adopted her, provided she receives adequate medical and psychological care in Italy.
Danilo Grillo, Cogoleto's parish priest, tells RFE/RL that Maria's physical well-being is the main concern of all the townspeople. "We strongly hope that this little girl can receive care in Italy, and that she can have what every girl or woman who has been molested needs: that is, the warmth of loved-ones, the love of a family," Grillo says.
But Grillo, like many others in Cogoleto, is concerned that the case will negatively impact the other Belarusian children who come to Italy. He urges the Belarusian authorities not to use the children in retaliation.
"I'm hoping for a good resolution both for Maria and the other 30,000 kids," Grillo says. "Our parish hosts other [Belarusian] children. Our parish is making arrangements to host five or six or 10 kids during the summer. That is, we are completely willing to cooperate. Our interest is not sentimental; it is concern for the life of this girl."
Italian media reports say Belarusian Ambassador Skrypko is due to meet in Rome today with Foreign Ministry officials in a bid to find a solution.
Reports say many in the Italian government would like to resolve the issue in a way that would send the girl back to Belarus to receive the proper care.
But some Italian jurists and politicians have come out in favor of keeping Maria in Italy, noting that the country, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is obligated to take its own steps to protect the girl's well-being.
(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)