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In Belarus, A Dedicated Mother Kills Herself, Leaving 11 Children Behind

This photo from 2010 shows Katsyaryna Onakhava (top right) and her husband Alyaksandr (middle), along with two biological and seven adopted or foster children.
This photo from 2010 shows Katsyaryna Onakhava (top right) and her husband Alyaksandr (middle), along with two biological and seven adopted or foster children.
It can take a lot of energy to raise even a single child.

But Katsyaryna Onakhava, who was raising 11, seemed to have energy to spare.

Onakhava, a 39-year-old psychologist with a sunny disposition and sleek auburn hair, spent her days teaching and caring for her brood, which included two biological offspring and a mix of adopted and foster children ranging in age from 2 to 18.

In between, she found time for cooking, home repairs, blogging, and time-management counseling for other mothers in Pruzhany, her hometown of 20,000 in western Belarus.

She had also started teaching Zumba exercise classes, and was even nurturing a growing menagerie of pets, including a newly rescued stray kitten, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Onakhava at a school she opened to teach Zumba in Pruzhany
Onakhava at a school she opened to teach Zumba in Pruzhany

But on October 28, Onakhava's energy appeared to run out. She was found dead in the family bathroom, having apparently hanged herself. Investigators have not indicated there was any evidence of foul play.

The reported suicide sent shock waves through quiet Pruzhany, with residents struggling to understand what would have pushed the hard-working, cheerful Onakhava to take her own life.

"She was a young woman. Maybe there were some problems in the family. It could be anything," said one local resident, who asked that her name not be used. "Maybe she couldn't cope with her responsibilities -- after all, 11 children is a lot of work. As a mother, I don't know. Sometimes I can't even cope with my own two kids, and she had 11."

'Investing' In Children

Onakhava and her computer-programmer husband, Alyaksandr, lived together with their children in a pretty, well-appointed house known as a DDST, an acronym standing for "detsky dom semeinego tipa," or a family-type children's home.
This undated photo shows the couple in happier times.
This undated photo shows the couple in happier times.

Such homes, with their instant simulation of ordinary family life, are seen as a progressive alternative for orphaned children in Belarus, Russia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

The couple, who returned to Pruzhany after receiving university degrees in St. Petersburg, were eager to share their relative prosperity with children less fortunate than their own.

Onakhava, who gave frequent interviews to the media, hoped to use her personal experience to make adoption and foster care an appealing cause for middle-class families -- people, she told a Belarusian TV station, with the means to "invest in these children and make them worthy members of our society."

The Plight Of Orphans

The plight of orphaned children remains grave across much of the former Soviet space, including Belarus, where an estimated 24,000 children live without parents.

Over the past eight years, some 7,000 orphans have been adopted by Belarusian families. Others are adopted abroad -- Belarus, unlike Russia, has no ban on U.S. adoptions. But thousands of children remain in state-run orphanages, with little affection, education, or preparation for adult life.

Advocates argue that the DDST system is an ideal solution for filling some of the emotional gaps in the lives of orphaned children. But enthusiastic volunteers have been hard to find in Belarus, where such group homes are subject to intense state scrutiny and a litany of bureaucratic obligations.

Failed Experiment?

A blog post written on the day before her death hints at her own growing frustration. She and her husband had been forced to cancel birthday celebrations and a picnic for their two 7-year-old children when state inspectors announced a last-minute weekend visit.

"So we sit and wait, and finally they call, saying they don't have a car so they'll come on Monday instead," she wrote. "Shura" -- her husband -- "offered to go and pick them up, but they pretended not to hear. How sick I am of all of this."

Some Pruzhany residents have speculated that Onakhava was driven to suicide by the stress of the constant inspections. Others blamed depression, magnetic storms, or the fact that Onakhava -- who frequently counseled tired mothers on the importance of "me" time -- rarely had time to tend to her own needs.

Onakhava had won numerous distinctions for her work with children, including a prestigious Order of Mothers award in 2010. (In her acceptance speech, she thanked the state "for allowing me to become a mother, not just twice, but many, many times, to so many children whom I love equally.") But there were also signs that she had grown despondent over the fate of her own experiment with motherhood.

At least one friend had abandoned her own DDST project, and Onakhava admitted her hopes for "global change" in the way society views foster families had "failed utterly."

"The only place there is love and goodness is inside the house, within a small group of people. Enemies lie beyond the threshold," Onakhava wrote on her blog. "I no longer have the strength to stand at the barricades, smiling and waving."

Onakhava's sudden death has left the fate of the family's still-unadopted foster children uncertain.

Tatsyana Hamanchuk, a child-welfare worker with the Pruzhany government, said it's possible all the children may remain with Alyaksandr Onakhau. "Of course, we'll decide together with the family and their relatives," she said. "This doesn't mean that we'll take away all of these children today, no."

Onakhau has refused to speak to the press since his wife's death. In an online conversation with RFE/RL, the widowed father of 11 offered only a brief message: "We'll manage."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report from Pruzhany

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