Italian village triggers diplomatic crisis by refusing to hand over girl abused at home

10-year-old from Belarus tried to kill herself twice

Foster parents who hid her face kidnapping charges

John Hooper in Rome
The Guardian

Whatever doubts remained were swept away by the trussed-up Barbie. "She was playing with the dolls and had tied the hands of one of them behind its back," the psychotherapist wrote. Then 10-year-old Maria put another doll up against the first "as if they were kissing".

Asked to explain, Maria - her real name is being kept secret - "recounted that it was a game the eldest boy in the institution where she lived had forced on her and the other little girls when the teachers weren't around. This boy tied them up, kissed them and then bit them all over their bodies".

The psychotherapist's chilling report is one of several documents, including Maria's drawings, in a dossier at the centre of a passionately charged struggle that has become a full-blown diplomatic crisis threatening relations between Italy and Europe's last authoritarian state, Belarus.

Maria was meant to have flown back last Friday to an orphanage in her native country after spending the summer in Italy as part of a programme for young victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Instead, she was being kept in hiding as Italians who have leapt to her defence vowed to defy their courts rather than see her flown back to a place where she says she has been repeatedly raped and tortured.

Yesterday, the outraged Belarussian authorities blocked all further visits by their children to Italy. Meanwhile, in Cogoleto, the riviera village near Genoa where Maria has been staying, journalists encountered a wall of complicitous silence.

Belarus's ambassador to Italy, Alexei Skripko , again demanded the implementation of an order made by a court in Genoa authorising her return. But Cogoleto's parish priest, Father Danilo Grillo, who was due last night to lead a candlelit procession through the village in support of Maria, told the daily Corriere della Sera: "For a girl with those terrorised eyes, I'm ready to sidestep the law and put her up in the church. Lots of priests did the same for Jews during the war."

The extraordinary affair has brought to a head two years of soul-searching by Maria's seasonal foster parents, Alessandro Giusto, a 35-year-old engineer, and Maria Grazia Bornacin. The girl first came to Italy for the summer in 2003.

The following August, concerned by marks on her body, they took her to a doctor. He certified extensive bruising to her throat, abdomen and legs, and a suspected burn mark in her genital area.

A number of the Italians who have taken in orphaned children under the Chernobyl programme, including Maria's summer "parents", have expressed a wish to adopt their charges. But, the year before, the Belarussian authorities had suspended all adoptions by Italians and, perhaps fearful of prejudicing their future chances, Maria's temporary guardians allowed her to return unhindered.

Nor did they interfere the following year when the psychotherapist winkled out of the girl the story of the binding and biting. It was not until three months ago, Ms Bornacin has said, that matters passed the point of no return.

Already, one of the volunteers who accompanied Maria from the airport had confiscated from her some razor blades she said she intended using to cut her wrists. Then, on June 8, on the beach at Varazze, the girl tried to drown herself.

In the words of the dossier presented by the couple to police in Genoa, "she jumped into the sea and did not re-emerge, forcing the lifeguard into an emergency rescue. Brought to shore, she became hysterical and tried to jump back into the sea, screaming "I want to die here. I want to die here."

The dossier also contains a report from a psychologist who said Maria had told him: "If I become an angel no one will be able to do me any harm any more and I shall stay forever with my [foster] parents."

Lawyers representing the couple raised the matter with the courts and this month the president of the juvenile court in Genoa, Adriano Sansa, put forward a compromise solution. Maria would be returned to Belarus, but she would be accompanied by two Italian doctors who would stay in the country for a fortnight to ensure she was well looked after.

Mr Skripko visited Ms Bornacin and her husband this week, but talks broke down, reportedly after Ms Bornacin referred to Maria as "my child". He later said:" We want the decision [of the court] to be respected, as must the sovereignty of the Belarus state be respected."

Two other Italian families who put up children from Maria's orphanage, at Vileika, 70 miles from Minsk, have reported stories of abuse, in one of which Maria was identified as a frequent victim.

At seven o'clock last Friday, the girl was to have boarded an aircraft at Forli airport for the return flight. One hour before the plane was due to take off, Ms Bornacin walked into the Carabinieri barracks nearest her home and told them the child had been sent into hiding.

She and her husband have since been formally placed under investigation on suspicion of kidnapping a minor following a complaint from the Belarus embassy. Ms Bornacin told the newspaper La Repubblica: "I cannot allow the little one to go back to Belarus to face violence and sexual abuse. I would rather go to prison."