Emma awaits her friend, Sara, at her last day of school in Russia
ST. PETERSBURG – Emma clasps tight in her hand a small card, as if it were a trophy. “This is priceless,” she tells her mother, skipping. Inside is the name of her dear friend, in Italian and Russian. It is priceless because that card is proof of an encounter that took too many months to occur. Mission accomplished. Emma and Sara, “friends for life,” finally managed to hug and now Emma is skipping as her dark eyes brim with joy. Her emotion from clasping that card so tight prompts her mother, Francesca, to tuck it safely into her purse so it doesn’t crumple.
Emma had to come to Russia to see her friend, and while preparing for this important trip she seemed much older than her nine years. She waited for Sara for nine months in Florence, for her return from summer vacation. She was supposed to celebrate her birthday but that party never took place because Sara, together with her brothers – all in the custody of their father by a court decree after the parent’s separation – was taken away to Russia, far from the father, the aunt and uncles, from their friends and from the lives they had always lived.
The criminal code refers to this as parental child abduction, a polite term for kidnapping, but for Emma it is simply called injustice. “Why did they leave without even saying goodbye?” she kept asking. For months her parents hid the truth, and gradually her mother tried to explain.
Even Edoardo, 13 years old, last summer waited in vain for his friend Elliot to return from vacation. He waited because after having devoured together many fantasy novels, they decided to write a book based on real people. “We wanted to see who could write more – explained Edo – when he came to sleep at my house we would stay awake until late playing videogames and bouncing ideas off of each other about what to write.”
Elliot got all the way to 90 pages. That book is now in a computer file that remained in Florence when Elliot was forced to burn all of his bridges with the life he had always lived.
Michael, the “orphaned” father of his four children (Sam, 14, Elliot, 12, Sara, 9, and Ezra, 6) is an American lawyer who has spent his life in Italy. Accustomed to difficult cases, he now finds himself with the most difficult battle of all. But he refuses to treat it as war. “I never declared war on anyone. I only want my children to be well,” he repeats. Notwithstanding the odyssey that he’s living through, he doesn’t use ferocious words against his ex wife. Of her he says only that, “she is ill and needs help, but refuses to accept any. She doesn’t realize the harm she is doing to the children.”
The Florence court two years ago awarded him sole custody of the children. A court-appointed psychologist painted a clear picture of the cyclone that was raging through Marianne’s mind. “Psychologically suffering with unpredictable and bizarre behavior, driven by paranoid fantasies” and victim of “plots and persecutions.”
Despite this psychological portrait, the judge allowed the mother to take the children on vacation as if that evaluation had never existed. Since last summer Michael’s life has been a pursuit without end. When he discovered where the children were located, he went to find them, a battle against his ex wife – who wants to prevent any contact with the children – and even the Russian media since Marianne presents her situation as an escape from Italy rendered necessary by a violent husband. Only one newspaper, Fontanka, dug further, thanks to a reporter, Irina Tumakova, who did not limit herself to Marianne’s accusations but who actually read the documents, spoke with the protagonists, and in the end arrived at a different truth. It was she who called the police when, a month ago, Michael came to the school where the children had been recently enrolled.
Only after the police arrived did the school director allow the children to see their father. “He has his parental rights,” the policemen explained, “why are you not letting him see them?” Since that moment, Michael’s life has been based on those trips to Russia, round trip Florence-St. Petersburg, to see his children, if only for a few minutes.
An apartment on the outskirts of town, three school changes: nine months of life as fugitives
A neighborhood of tall apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city, near the sea, with the occasional playground: this is where the fugitive children are now living. By car, it takes about an hour to get from there to the center of this imperial city, which was the court of the tsars. This suburb with its construction works strewn about seems so far from the postcards containing palaces and churches.
Since they arrived in Russia, at the end of August, the children have a fugitive’s life. They have changed school three times: first one, then to an ultra-orthodox Jewish orphanage, from which the mother took the children out only on weekends, and finally this blue institute near the apartment where they now live.
Today the school is festive because it is the last day of elementary school. There’s a play, music, and song, and the presentation of end-of-the-year reports.
When Sara sees her dear friend she panics and runs away. Emma is holding a present for that birthday that was never celebrated. She drew two little girls who are holding each others’ hands. She wrote, “Emma and Sara: friends for life” and she had it printed on a t-shirt.
Edo meets Elliot and gives him a videogame as a present. They talk non-stop the entire morning. It’s the magic of children who manage to latch onto an uninterrupted thread months later, as if no time had gone by.
There she is, the fugitive woman. Wearing a fuchsia pullover and with a camera in hand, she mingles with the other mothers. When she sees the friends from Italy, together with her ex-husband and the children’s uncle Kevin who came from the USA, she cannot hide her anger. She speaks to the children’s friends, scolding them, “Why did you come without telling me? This shows a lack of respect!”
Emma tries to say hello to her friend from the distance, and then breaks out in tears. She only manages to deliver her gift as Marianne takes Sara away. But a couple of hours later the unexpected call arrives: the children can come to her house. When Sara opens the door, she is wearing the t-shirt that Emma made. Edoardo and Elliot play ball like old times.
In order for this to occur, however, Marianne had imposed her rules, which seem like those dictated by a hostage-taker negotiating the release of one of the hostages: telephone calls only from a Russian phone number, no adults may be present, the children must arrive on their own to the gate, and she alone will come down and get them.
Earlier in the day, Marianne had explained to Edoardo – why him is anyone’s guess – that she has little money left. She said that because dentists are expensive, she had to have the children’s braces removed from their teeth. I wanted to ask Marianne why she refused to accept the father’s offer to pay for all of their health expenses, dental included, in one of the best medical clinics in the city. But she didn’t want questions and instead just shouted, “go away, I’m calling the police.”
The meeting of the children lasts an hour. When they leave the apartment, Emma and Edoardo have happiness painted on their faces. “Can we come back tomorrow?” they ask. Marianne will disappear into a void for the nth time. Her phone will ring unanswered in the days that follow.
The mother’s lies: “Papa, why do you want to lock my brother up in an asylum?”
The next day, the father returns to the school with Edo and uncle Kevin. The only one present is Elliot. Sam – the previous day – had attacked the father from behind, when he saw him at school, and doesn’t want to see him.
The meeting with Elliot takes place in a room in the presence of the school psychologist. At the beginning he refuses to speak with his father or to look him in the eye. Then, between laughs at his uncle Kevin’s clowning and his friend Edoard, he levels the following accusation at his dad: “you were here in court on February 7, my birthday, and you didn’t even give me a present. You want to take us away from here in order to put my brother Sam into an insane asylum.”
Michael calmly explains that this isn’t true at all, that he didn’t even know where they were then [NDR and that the accusation of putting his brother in an asylum is false]. And in a moment he understands that the hardest rock to climb won’t be to win a judicial battle, but to combat the lies and phantoms that Marianne is fabricating day after day in the minds of the children.