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Alabama couple journeys into Ukraine's bloody riots -- to adopt four orphans

By Michael Martinez, CNN
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 0415 GMT (1215 HKT)
David Bundy, left, stands in Kiev's Independence Square with his wife Lisa, right, and the four orphans they are adopting.
David Bundy, left, stands in Kiev's Independence Square with his wife Lisa, right, and the four orphans they are adopting.
  • David Bundy, 47, and wife Lisa, 40, journey to Kiev just as protests begin
  • They are adopting four orphans while living in a flat near the bloody riots
  • Bundy will be coming home early with three adopted, blood-relation siblings
  • His wife will stay in Kiev to adopt a fourth child, a 16-year-old girl

(CNN) -- As the Ukraine seemed pushed to the brink of a fiery civil war this week, photojournalist David Bundy faced a quandary while in Kiev.

Should he put himself in harm's way photographing the violent clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces, or should he act like a new parent in the middle of adopting four Ukrainian orphans?

He chose parenthood.

"I had to remember that my purpose was to get the four children home safely and not get shot or arrested," said Bundy, 47, who's been a news photographer for 22 years.

The temptation to work was enormous, however.

Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months.
Unrest in Ukraine
Photos: Unrest in Ukraine Photos: Unrest in Ukraine

"It really was," Bundy said in a telephone interview from Kiev. "Whenever I would go out, the children were begging me not to. It was the work that I did, but I had to remember their wishes."

When Bundy, 47, and wife Lisa, 40, flew to Kiev from their Alabama home in November, little did they know that they would be arriving the same week that anti-government protests began in the capital city's main plaza -- known as Maiden, or Independence Square -- just a half-mile from their apartment.

Their adoption is extraordinary not just for its proximity to the bloody conflict but also for the number of children involved: Bundy and his wife, an emergency medical physician, are becoming a family of six in a virtual instant, as they complete the lengthy legal proceedings during their months-long visit to Kiev.

"This week, it's just been monumental," Bundy said of how the Kiev's main square became a war zone where anti-government protester used rocks, bricks and bonfires against riot police. The government says 77 people, including police officers, died in the violence, but protesters put the death toll at about 128.

"It's something that we've become truly concerned about, with bombs and explosions and people with guns. From our apartment, we can see and hear everything pretty well, so we stayed indoors and didn't go out unless we had to go to the markets for something," Bundy said.

"Yesterday and the day before, it was the worst to have ever been here," Bundy said Friday. "Back in January, you might hear a shot or explosion every 30 seconds. (But this week) it was constant all night and yesterday (Thursday)."

Only on a few occasions did Bundy take pictures of the civil unrest -- even though his wife "had forbade me from doing it," he said. He had worked at newspapers in Alabama and Mississippi such as the Montgomery Advertiser and Hattiesburg American and he has done freelance photography for the New York Times and Washington Post, he said.

"I told her I would go to the store -- and take a few pictures," he said. "And she chastised me pretty hard when I got home."

A view to the conflict from their apartment balcony became off-limits for the couple and the three children they just officially adopted -- as well as for the fourth child who could leave her orphanage on weekends and stay with her adopting family.

The flat is also near to St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, where Ukrainians dropped off supplies to protesters. The monastery also served as a triage area for those injured in the clashes.

"We were right in the middle of it," Bundy said. "It was scary for our children to be here to see people with masks and clubs and gunshots and bombs and see the smoke."

The couple just obtained the adoption decrees for the three blood-related siblings -- sisters Alla, 9, Karina, 14, and brother Max, 11 -- and are now going through a 10-day waiting period ending February 28 to complete the adoption of a 16-year-old girl, Nastia, who's not a blood relative to the other three children.

The Bundys, who live in Montgomery, Alabama, met the three siblings last June when the youths traveled from Ukraine to a central Alabama campground as participants in a cultural enrichment program.

The couple met the fourth orphan in the same program last August.

The Bundys, who've been married 17 years, served as house parents and chaperones at the camp in Billingsley, Alabama, organized by the Bridges of Faith ministry, which works with orphans and youngsters in Eastern Europe.

On Friday, when the government and opposition leaders brokered an agreement looking to end the bloody turmoil, the couple took their four adopted children for a walk through the protest area.

"We just showed them part of their Ukrainian history," Bundy said. "We walked into a funeral procession for one of the people who was killed. They got to see some of the burned buildings and some of the cars burned and meet some of the people who fought in the protest.

"Interestingly, on the walk home, we had to walk through barricades, and one of the protesters walked us home for a mile ... to make sure our small children got home safely," Bundy added.

In a sign of lingering uneasiness about the brokered agreement, that protester was wearing a helmet, an armor vest and a gas mask.

But the escort made the children feel safe.

"I think it made the children feel special that they had someone like that walk with them," Bundy said.

His four children, who each have been orphans for several years, are largely too young to understand the political turmoil of the Ukrainian crisis, in which the government wants an East-leaning economic alliance with Russia and the opposition wants a West-leaning alliance with the European Union.

But the youngsters do understand the violence: The 16-year-old girl performed her first duty as oldest sister in her adoptive family by having two of her new step-siblings -- her 14-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother -- sleep in her bed during a night of intense fighting outside.

The 9-year-old girl slept with her adoptive parents. The Kiev apartment features two bedrooms with a pull-out sleeper sofa.

It was a poignant moment because the couple just secured court approval that day to adopt the 16-year-old, pending the 10-day waiting period for any birth family members to lodge a challenge in the case.

"Our joy over adopting her in court was tempered by the bombs," Bundy said. "It was the fear and the joy all at the same time."

For now, Bundy will make an early return to the United States -- on Sunday -- with the three blood-related siblings "because of the craziness and the fluidity of the situation" in Ukraine, he said. The couple has adoption decrees, passports and visas for those three children.

His wife will move to a smaller, cheaper apartment and remain in Kiev with their 16-year-old girl until the 10-day waiting period is over and the court issues a formal adoption decree on March 3.

After living years in an orphanage, the four children are ready for their new home in the Bundy's Alabama residence, Bundy said. There won't be any family plans to return to the Ukraine for a few years, and the parents won't say no if the children, especially their 16-year-old daughter who has a 19-year-old brother in the Ukraine, want to return to Kiev soon for a visit.

The three blood-related siblings speak pretty good English, but the couple's 16-year-old daughter is still learning.

"They consider themselves Ukrainians as well as they will consider themselves Americans," Bundy said. "They're not involved in political thought much. They're still a little young for that."

The couple is planning several family vacations to show their adopted children new parts of the United States.

If there's one thing that bothers Bundy when he hears of criticism about his and his wife's adoptions, it's questions about why they went to the Ukraine to adopt when there are American children looking for adoption.

It comes down to the magic they all experienced at a summer camp in Alabama.

"We met these people and we fell in love with these people and it doesn't matter the nationality," Bundy said. "You don't choose these people. These people choose you. They are looking for parents, and they like you, and that's how it works."

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