A wartime Ukrainian boy’s memoir tells of grief and fatal loss

Before the war came to his village, Timofey Z. The 12-year-old has many of the usual preoccupations. His closest confidant was his diary.

There was a special girl, Yarina, wrote, but she ignored it. He loved the video game “Minecraft” and the semi-wild cats of the family. He occasionally grumbled about his non-evil 6-year-old brother Seraphim, who hadn’t always lived up to his angelic title. When his stepfather drank, he worried.

Those childhood reflections were interrupted by a horrific noise in the sky on February 24th. Tens of thousands of Russian troops pushed across Ukraine’s border and the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv – including the farming village of Timofei, Shevchenkov, about 30 miles to the northeast – soon overrun or threatened as the fighting approached.

Tymophy is sitting in his room.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

Yesterday in the morning there was a warning of an air strike. You could hear in our village how planes were dropping bombs,” Timofey wrote in a note dated March 3. Seraphim. His mother Yulia Vashenko, 37; and his stepfather Serhiy Yespenko, 43, known as Syrosa, hid in the basement.

The parents started talking about trying to leave. But where? They hesitated.

On the morning of March 8, less than two weeks into the war, the couple slipped in without waking the boys. The village market, a short distance away, was still open, and they needed the extra money they earned selling tea and other dry goods there.

Two people are sitting in one room, while a boy is walking around in another.

Serihi Provornov, center, and Olena Strelets are at home with their nephew Timofey.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

A few hours later, Timofey wrote later, his mother called him. She was feverish. Russian armor was rushing through the narrow alleys of the village. I told him to grab seraphim and hide in the bathroom. He didn’t know it then, but it would be their last conversation.

A little later, Timofey’s aunt and uncle – Olena Strelets, 47, Lena by family members, and her husband, Serihi Provornov, 63 – hurried the boys to their nearby house. They told the brothers that their parents had been summoned to Kyiv, but the fighting made it impossible for them to just return.

Tymophy, whose full name is withheld because he is a minorAnd the He was worried but not excessively. The rush of events – the thunder of artillery, the antics of Seraphim, the settlement of their aunt and uncle’s cramped house – made him distracted.

On March 13, he wrote: “I used to have shells flying over my head. We still don’t have electricity.”

Two handwritten pages.

Timofey’s Diary sitting at a table in his family’s home in Shevchenkov, Ukraine.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

More days passed, and Lena and Serihi made excuses about the absence of Yulia and Syrosa. It was Seraphim – the unnoticed little eavesdropper, who in a low voice hears the agonizing dialogues of the adults – who explained the truth.

Timofey broke out over his diary, and his anger at first overwhelmed his sadness. With slashed red ink, he drew a horned demon with angry arrows shooting out from its eyes.

“I found out what happened to my mom and Serosa,” reads an article on March 14, about a week after her death. “They were killed!”

His aunt and uncle were retracting the more unbearable news. The bodies of the couple – who had died from large-caliber fire aimed almost directly at their car by a Russian tank – were mutilated, uncomfortable and alone in their silver Opel Vectra for three days while Timofay’s uncle tried to negotiate a safe passage to collect him. residue.

Like hundreds of other civilians killed by Russian forces in the once-quiet suburbs of Kyiv—many executed-style, some bodies bearing signs of torture—Yulia and Syrosa had to be temporarily buried in makeshift graves. They were near a garden balcony.

Bombardment rocked the village for nearly three more weeks, before the Russians withdrew as abruptly as they came, abandoning their attempt to capture the capital and regrouping in the east.

Piles of earth in a field.

Flowers adorn the tombs of Timofia’s parents and Seraphim.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

The family wanted a proper funeral, but had to wait for the bodies to be exhumed and examined by forensic experts and investigators, who were gathering what was quickly becoming a mountain of war crimes evidence. More than 1,300 bodies have been recovered in the capital region alone. Russia continues to deny that its forces have deliberately targeted civilians.

Finally, of more than a dozen recent graves, the two were buried side by side in the village churchyard on April 12.

In the margins of his diary, whose blue cover is now decorated with drawings of a pair of ghosts and the face of a sad boy, Timofey writes: “Dreams do not come true.”

Timofey's diary sitting at a table in his family's house

Tymophy’s Diary.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

The war in Ukraine was uniquely horrific for its children. According to United Nations estimates, about a third of them, more than 7.5 million young people, have been displaced from their homes. Ukrainian officials said at least 348 children were reported killed as of mid-July, but those numbers, which do not include accounts from areas still occupied, are admittedly low, possibly significantly.

It is as if childhood itself has been swept away and something terrible has taken its place.

“I would say that every child in Ukraine, whose life has been affected by this war,” Afshan Khan, the regional director of UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, told reporters at the world body in June. “They have lost a loved one, or they have either witnessed the trauma themselves.”

In a brutal struggle that has been extensively documented on social media and in news photos, there was some reticence at first about posting pictures of the tiny corpses.

Two boys playing with toys in the room.

Timofey and Seraphim play in their room.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

But now, nearly six months later, war and rage are driving the endless online posts of disturbing photos and videos: pictures of dead babies next to their deceased parents, bandaged and bloodied babies in hospital beds — if they’re lucky enough to make their way to one — The little ones sobbing and bewildered, or dumbfounded and silent, as they are gathered into the trains and trucks that carry them away from the battle zone.

Relatives who are repeatedly exposed to the sight of their dead and maimed loved ones, especially the youngest victims, sometimes beg for respite from the graphic images. But they keep coming.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine already had at least 100,000 orphans, many of them living in bleak conditions under the care of the state. Now their ranks swelled still uncountable. Family separation abounds: fathers are deployed to the battlefronts while mothers and children seek shelter elsewhere. Entire families were sent to “nomination” centers in occupied Russian territory, where hundreds of children ended up inside Russia and put up for adoption, according to Ukrainian officials.

Every day at 8 a.m., Daria Herasemchuk, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s advisor on children’s affairs, receives a summary of the previous day’s events, including the latest events relating to children killed, injured, missing or believed to have been deported. Or leave an orphan or orphan or both.

“It’s the worst moment of the day,” she said. “every day.”

Woman and boy in a park.

Seraphim talking with Aunt Olena Strelets in the family garden.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

Lena said that there was no doubt that she and her husband Serihi – both in their second marriage, with adult children who had long since left home – would be accepted in Timofey and Seraphim. But it is a daunting task.

Their dilapidated house consists of three small rooms: the bedroom, equipped with new bunk beds for the boys; A living room with peeling paint where the couple now sleeps on a double bed that also serves as only a sofa; Smoky kitchen with shower crammed behind a plastic curtain.

My bed is working on adding a cinder block, but for now, the yard is littered with construction debris, and just outside the entrance, there’s a hole in the ground covered in rickety boards.

Seraphim in perpetual motion. He jumps on the couch bed for a tickle, pulls around a watering can about his size, rolls on the floor, waving his feet in the air. He laughs and screams, but although he appears thirsty for attention, he is much less vocal than most children his age.

A boy climbs a hole in a wall.

Seraphim playing in the family yard.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

We have to take shifts with him,” said Lina, a former kindergarten teacher, curling his hair.

Headed like his brother, Tymophiy has a sloping view that foreshadows a sharp-faced masculinity. It can appear simultaneously as a child and an adult, with often pale eyes that are either frustrated or fixed in an intense, unsettling stare.

His main hobby these days is collecting “fragments” from the village paths and squares – heavy, jagged pieces of shell and missile casings, which he loves to throw into the hands of visitors.

The family receives some government support, including regular sessions with a counselor for both boys. But Timofey frowned when asked about his sessions with the therapist.

“There are a lot of things I don’t tell him,” he said, looking away.

A boy holds a cat while a man looks at a photo book.

Tymophiy holds a cat while his uncle Serihy Provornov looks at family photos.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

He said he’s not sleeping well. Sometimes he thinks he sees his eyes watching him in the dark. He is bothered by the early summer light. wakes up tired. At night, Seraphim must rest when he cries.

This is the boys’ home now – but maybe only for now. Timofey’s step-sisters, who had moved away from Lena and Serihi, moved to the family home a few streets away. His aunt and uncle said that they wanted to adopt Seraphim, their blood relative.

Lena and Serihy are adamant that the boys should not be separated, and they want to keep them. But the situation is complicated by the acrimony of the family, lost documents and the unknown fate of Timofey’s father, about whom he has not been heard for years.

Tymophy said he only picks up his diaries intermittently now. He sometimes writes what he describes with a special symbol, and makes other entries with invisible ink. He willingly shows the volumes but also angrily declares that the magazines have brought him a lot of attention. Once steady and at ease, journaling became as strange as the upside-down world around it.

Sometimes I just want to burn them! ” He said.

Boy riding a bicycle while watching a big boy in the yard.

Tymophy and Seraphim play in their family yard.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

Some aspects of normal life in the village are beginning to emerge. Flowers scattered among the rubble. There is talk of school starting at some point. The market near the place of death of Yulia and Syrosa was opened again.

Some of the family cats disappeared during the fight, but others made their way home or were born weeks later. Tymophiy picked up a gray cat with a limp appearance, filling it in. He said it helps him sleep.

Lena, older than her deceased sister by a decade, cries when she remembers Timofey’s mother, although she only does so if she is far from his sight and hearing. Yulia’s turbulent relationship with Tymophiy’s father almost broke her, says the older sister. He abandoned her when the boy was still a baby.

A boy appears in the yard through the door.

Seraphim playing in the family yard.

(Kirillo Svitashov/For The Times)

Lena said that Yulia, as a single mother still in her twenties, rallied and completed her education in Kyiv. She met about a decade ago with the father of Seraphim and returned to the village, and six years ago the couple rejoiced at the birth of the child Seraphim.

Lina was the godmother to both boys. Years ago, she would take Tymophiy to school on the back of her bike or, when he was young enough, snuggle him right in the front basket, as the breeze on his face made him laugh.

She would do her best in her sister’s place for their mother.

“We were a family, even before this war,” she said. “Now we will try to be a new kind of family.”

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