“She lived in terror. Even when he would reassure her that it would not happen again.”
Trigger Warning* The following contains themes and descriptions of domestic assault and death.
Zlata Mihailiuk, a Ukrainian carer who lived in Italy since 2009, died in her home on the night of her tenth wedding anniversary, as a result of a fatal blow to her head she had received days before from her husband and father of her child, at whose hands she endured over a decade of physical and psychological abuse. She would have turned thirty-three exactly two months later.
Now her family and friends are demanding justice from the same institutions which failed to protect her when she was alive.
On the morning of 8 July 2019, Aldo Marotta was waiting for his friend and former neighbour Zlata in front of Forli’s town hall, in Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region.
He was supposed to help her with the paperwork required to update her home address, since she had recently moved to a new place with her husband, Oleksandr Zahariuk, after being evicted from their previous flat, allegedly due to her spouse’s failure to keep up with the rent.
Her friend had asked her to meet at 8am, but Zlata never made it to the appointment. In fact, shortly before they were due to meet, Aldo received a desperate call from Zlata’s sister, who lived in Ukraine, informing him that Zlata had died.
Frantically, he ran to her flat where police had gathered, where he was able to confirm what he had feared for many years. His worst nightmare had turned into reality.
“It was a pre-announced death,” seventy-four-year-old pensioner Aldo tells me, his voice filled with a mix of anger and pain.
He and his wife live in the flat opposite the one where Zlata, her husband, and their child used to live until a month before her death. They had been friends since she first moved there, together with another neighbour, Sofia Messous, a French lady living above them.
Aldo would look after Zlata’s son when she was working and could not pick him up from school. He would take him to the park, to buy ice cream, while Sofia would often invite Zlata for a coffee at her place to help distract her from the hell that her family life had turned into.
But Oleksandr, a day labourer who worked for a local farm, did not approve of his wife’s friendships. “He was very jealous and controlling,” Sofia, who set up a Facebook group and page to remember and demand justice for her friend, says. “She could not do anything. If she told Oleksandr something that needed to be done, he would say: ‘You have become a smarty pants. I don’t like you anymore.’ He always wanted to keep her under his control, he did not like her to be independent from him.”
Always smiling, sweet, affectionate, generous, humble, kind-hearted: these are some of the words the people who knew Zlata use to describe her. She was a committed mother who adored her son and devoted her life to him, helping him every day with the homework to make sure he would progress in his studies, and regularly accompanying him to his football training.
“She did not want him to grow up without a father,” Aldo, who alerted the authorities as well as a local women’s centre about the violence that was taking place next door several times, explains, pointing to that as one of the reasons why she was struggling with the idea of reporting her husband.
Zlata was a bright Maths university student in the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi, in the west of the country, when she met the man who rapidly turned into her abuser, and later her murderer.
Oleksandr and his family were already living in Italy at that point, so, after getting married, Zlata, who was pregnant with their child, was able to join him on a family reunion visa in 2009.
However, Zlata’s hopes for a better future in Forli’, the Italian town where she would settle with her husband and the baby they were expecting, were short-lived.
“Oleksandr’s mother opposed their relationship,” Zinoviya Hrechanna, Zlata’s mother, who lives in Piacenza, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Forli’, tells me. “She treated her son like a prince and did not want my daughter to have the child.”
Despite the lack of support from her husband’s family, Zlata did her best to build her new life in a new country, away from her own family except for her mother.
“At first, it was difficult to find a job because she could not speak Italian. But then she started working as a carer for an elderly lady, who helped her a lot. Zlata was just going to the market or the shops with her to keep her company,” her mum explains.
“It was a bit far, but I used to visit her and my grandchild every week. It was nice,” she adds with a broken voice.
Soon however, she started noticing that her daughter’s new life was not as happy as she hoped it would be.
Oleksandr would spend the family money on football bets and alcohol, she explains.
“One day I was at her flat and I found at least twenty receipts in the toilet. I asked her what they were about, and Zlata told me: ‘Where did you find these? Put them back, otherwise, Oleksandr will get angry at me.’”
“Another time, I noticed trainers’ imprints on the walls. She told me that was a way for her husband to release his anger,” she continued.
Just like most abuse victims, Zlata was terrified of her husband and his furious outbursts and ashamed of acknowledging them.
“She would always find an excuse not to turn the camera on when we were on the phone. Once I insisted and she appeared on video. She tried to cover her face with her hair, but when she moved, I could see she had a black eye,” Zinoviya tells me.
That would not be the last time that she would find Zlata’s body covered with bruises and other lesions, but Oleksandr allegedly threatened to kill her, her daughter, and their family back in Ukraine if they dared report him to the police.
The police, however, came to their flat, more than once, alerted by Zlata’s neighbours who often heard desperate screams, along with the piercing sounds of broken plates and beatings coming out of her apartment.
One night, when the baby was only one year old, Zinoviya received a call from her daughter, but she could only hear confused voices shouting in the background.
Worried that something may have happened to her, she took the first train to Forli’ and arrived there four hours later, in the middle of the night, only to find Oleksandr’s mother and partner outside the building, preventing her from seeing Zlata.
She decided to call the police, which had already been called by a neighbour. To her surprise, when Zlata finally came downstairs to show the officers her broken tooth caused by her husband’s brutal beating, the two policemen did not react as she expected.
In fact, not only did they not intervene, but they also told her not to call them again, otherwise they would take away Zlata’s child, her mother tells me.
“From that moment onwards, she was so scared of reporting Oleksandr. She did not want to lose her child,” she says.
“She lived in terror. Every time though, he would reassure her that it would not happen again[…]Had I known everything they found on Zlata’s phone after her death, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The material later found on Zlata’s phone suggests that she could not cope with the constant abuse any longer and was getting ready to report the perpetrator to the police.
Oleksandr, who managed to flee to Ukraine a couple of weeks after his wife’s death, with the help of his mother’s Italian partner, has been found guilty “in absentia” and is now living there as a free man.
At a hearing on 14 May 2021, the judge responsible for the case approved the request filed by Oleksandr’s lawyer to adopt the so-called “shortened proceedings” (“rito abbbreviato”), which allowed the defendant to have the length of his sentence shortened by one third.
Another hearing was held on 22 October, where the killer received a provisional first-instance sentence of sixteen years in prison, plus €60,000 in compensation to Zlata’s mother and €100,000 to his son. The judge also banned him from public office for life and issued an international arrest warrant.
The sentence is subject to appeal.
As a person wanted by the Italian authorities, his name will feature on Interpol’s wanted persons’ list.
However, the lack of bilateral agreements between Italy and Ukraine may prevent the Ukrainian authorities from arresting him or extraditing him for a murder committed in another jurisdiction, despite legal documents by the Italian police describing him as a “socially dangerous” individual.
Following Zlata’s death, her son, now twelve, was placed under the care of the Italian social services. He is now living with his paternal grandma and her partner, who has been sentenced to 180 hours of community service for helping Zlata’s killer flee and providing false testimony to a public official.
“The social services said they did not want to unsettle the boy by forcing him to change city and school in order to live with his maternal grandma,” Aldo tells me, saddened and outraged at the idea that the child he has been looking after for so many afternoons, and that Zlata herself loved more than anything, is now living with the same people who helped Zlata’s killer escape.
“He is no longer the child he used to be. He does not even say hi to us anymore,” Aldo says.
Zlata’s mother has also been prevented from visiting her grandchild alone and talking to him about what happened to his late mother, Zinoviya says.
The only time she tried to speak with him outside of school, his parental grandmother and her partner filed a legal complaint against her, she explains.
She fears that her grandchild is being manipulated by his paternal family, to alienate him from her and hold her responsible for his father’s escape to Ukraine.
“If my grandchild is happy, I am happy, but the social services must urgently intervene and help him heal from his trauma,” Zinoviya says.
Then she adds: “I understand that every mother wants to defend her child, but Oleksandr must come back and pay for his mistakes.”
I am impressed at the dignified way she carries her grief, at how she can still show some understanding towards her daughter’s killer’s family.
Despite all the injustice and pain she went through, Zinoviya is not giving up hope of finding peace and justice for her beloved daughter and is doing all she can to cherish her memory.
In early September, on the day of Zlata’s birthday, she travelled to Forli’ and decorated the places Zlata used to visit with balloons and photos of her.
The same night, however, someone ripped them up.
I ask Aldo and Sofia what they think should be done to make sure that women are protected from their abusers and help eradicate the femicide epidemic that is currently rampant in our societies once and for all.
They have no doubt. “The laws should change. The authorities should not wait for a woman in an abusive relationship to report her partner to step in. But even when the woman finds the courage to report his abuser, nothing really happens,” Sofia says.
Aldo also believes that schools should adopt a tougher approach and be given the authority to enforce a zero-tolerance policy towards violent, anti-social behaviour and bullying.
Just a few days before her death, Zlata had received a warm-hearted message from her mother: “My doors are always open for you and [your child],” Zinoviya had written. Her killer, however, shut those doors forever.