Yeva Skalietska was 12 when she first heard bombs exploding near her home in Kharkiv and the Russian invasion began. In the days and months that followed she kept a diary as a way to help keep herself calm. It’s now being published as You Don’t Know What War Is, a moving, upsetting, child’s-eye view of the conflict.
I’m sitting with Yeva, her grandmother Irina, and Catherine Flanagan, who took them in when they first arrived in Ireland. We’re in the small apartment in South Dublin where they now live. It’s owned by Mount Anville school, where Catherine is a guidance counsellor and which Yeva now attends.
There’s an electronic keyboard by the window. Yeva is a good piano player. Her great-grandfather was a concert violinist. Her grandmother shows me footage of Yeva playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme on a piano in an airport. Catherine tells her there’s a piano like that in Dundrum Shopping Centre and she’s intrigued. “Where in Dundrum?” she asks, and they start talking about the geography of that shopping complex.
One day it just happened and we weren’t ready. Nobody taught us what to do when war starts
Yeva speaks English, Ukrainian and Russian and now she’s learning German as well. She sporadically segues into Russian to check details with her grandmother or to translate for her if we’re laughing about something she didn’t catch. Before the war started, life was simple, she says. “I was living with my grandmother. I had a lot of friends. I was playing piano. I was painting ... After school on Wednesday and Thursdays we had English speaking class.”
Was she always good at school? Her grandmother nods. “She’s so proud of her all the time,” says Catherine. “She’s her biggest supporter.”
Before the bombs started falling, Yeva didn’t expect a war. “We heard rumours, but we actually didn’t believe them,” she says. “We knew we had tensions [with Russia] but nobody believed that it would be a war. One day it just happened and we weren’t ready. Nobody taught us what to do when war starts.”
How did she know the war had begun? “Explosions. Firstly, I didn’t believe that was what it was. It was not really loud, but it was really strange because car alarms started to go off … Then there was a powerful explosion and my grandmother came into my room and said, ‘Putin has started war with Ukraine’, and we started packing up what we needed to go downstairs into the shelter [the basement of the apartment block] … I fell into a stupor. I didn’t even understand what was going on. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t believe that it was happening and I was so afraid that the next explosion would happen and we wouldn’t have time to get into the shelter. I was trying to stay calm because we needed time to pack.”
A lot of people in the apartment block went to the basement, she says, 40 or 50 people. “It was a huge mess [down there]. Every time you breathed there was dust ... We were afraid because we didn’t know what would be [happening] tomorrow, or even after an hour, or after a minute.”
Over the next few days, she and her grandmother returned sporadically to their apartment to get things they needed. One of the things she retrieved was a diary she had been given as a present but hadn’t used. “I wanted to write everything that happened and probably after 10 or 20 years, I would be able to read it and live again through this … And maybe my future children would read it, if they were interested in how the war was in Ukraine.”
Silence was scary. We were trying to stay calm but sometimes an explosion would happen near us and we’d run into shelter
It also helped her to cope, she says. “Because I didn’t want to discuss my pain. I didn’t like to discuss it with anybody ... It was easier for me to describe everything on paper.”
When did she write in her diary? “Anytime. In the morning if I had any dreams in the night, or I could write in the middle of the night ... I could write in the darkness, because in the evening we couldn’t just switch on the normal light like now … I really wanted to turn on the normal light ... but if we switched off that light, it wouldn’t help planes [see us].”
While the adults tried to figure out what to do, the children played games to occupy their time. But they were constantly scared, she says. “Even with silence, we were so suspicious ... There was tension that at any time an explosion might happen. Silence was scary. We were trying to stay calm but sometimes an explosion [would happen] near us and we’d run into shelter.”
Eventually Irina decided they should go stay with her friend Inna who lived in a safer part of the city. “We just wanted to move further from the explosions,” Yeva says. “Going to the train station was impossible … There were crowds and pandemonium everywhere and panic ... It was so dangerous … People just went into the train station and left their cars.”
At night, Irina and Yeva would go to the cellar of Inna’s house while Inna stayed outside. Why didn’t Inna go to the cellar? “So she would be able to help us to get out of the shelter if the house was damaged and everything had fallen.”
At around this time, they spotted an unmanned bomber. There’s a short Russian conversation between Yeva and her grandmother at this point in our interview, about whether this should be called a “drone”. Her grandmother thinks not. “It was a huge plane, without a pilot, flying low,” says Yeva. “It was dropping bombs … We just fell on to the ground and tried to hear where it was flying. It was so loud … When it dropped bombs, I heard it. We were near death … We were together in the room when this drone made circles … And I was crying because I understood that every minute is important and I was counting every second [until] it would stop and this plane would be gone.”
We turned off our telephones and locations so that nobody could see us. And the train switched off all the lights
For a long time after she left Ukraine the sound of planes frightened her. At the time, she compared notes with her friends about this kind of experience. They were all learning to tell the difference between different kinds of military ordinance. “We children of Ukraine, we understand which type of rockets there were and which vehicles were sometimes used in Kharkiv. Children shouldn’t need to know that.”
The book includes translated text threads between Yeva and her classmates. These are very touching. They talk to each other about what they have seen and they try to comfort each other. At one point in the book a classmate makes her laugh so much with funny videos of himself that she falls out of bed. “Because we were afraid all the time, he made really funny jokes. It was kind of stupid but it helped us a little bit to think about jokes.” She misses her friends. “We didn’t know when we would see each other again.”
Irina, Inna and Yeva soon decided to leave Kharkiv, but they had no car. Eventually, two Red Cross volunteers came and drove them to Dnipro. From Dnipro, Irina and Yeva took a train to Uzhhorod before moving on to Hungary. The train from Dnipro moved slowly to avoid detection and stopped for long periods of time. “We turned off our telephones and locations so that nobody could see us. And the train switched off all the lights.”
At one point, Irina saw big explosions in the distance, but she didn’t tell Yeva about this until later. It was on the Ukrainian border that they met a Channel 4 team including Irish journalist Paraic O’Brien, to whom she read extracts of her diary. This started the process by which Irina and Yeva eventually came to Ireland.
“I was watching the news and thinking, What can we do?” says Catherine Flanagan. “When I saw the news report about Yeva, I sent a message to Channel 4 News and I said, Why don’t you encourage them to come to Ireland and I can help them? Channel 4 put me in touch with them and we paid for their flights and they lived with us for a few weeks ... I’m a teacher here in Mount Anville, so Yeva came to Mount Anville and we got her enrolled in the school.”
Yeva had her heart set on going to England, but the UK’s restrictions on Ukrainian migrants made that more difficult. Indeed, the restrictions mean she won’t even be able to go to London for the book launch there. “It would still be Yeva’s dream to go to England,” says Catherine. “I keep trying to tell her Ireland’s better.”
“When I was small, I really wanted to study in Oxford, that was my dream,” says Yeva.
Our translator thought it was a real cat and that we were cruel to leave it … When I saw that Chupapelya had survived it just made me feel hope
Being safe here in Dublin is a bittersweet experience for her because of all she has left behind in Kharkiv. The day after they left the city, a shell punched a hole through the wall of their apartment. Irina shows me pictures. Inside their belongings are broken and scattered. “My childhood was there,” says Yeva.
Yeva and her grandmother are bolstered by their strong Ukrainian orthodox faith and the support of new friends like Catherine. Little things also give Yeva solace. When a kind man went to retrieve some of their belongings from their flat, he sent them photos in which she could see her favourite toy, Chupapelya. “It’s like a pink sausage cat, his belly is white.” She laughs. “Our translator thought it was a real cat and that we were cruel to leave it … When I saw that Chupapelya had survived it just made me feel hope … Everything is damaged, but my cat survived.” She grins widely.
Her book is an important record of the war. Author Michael Morpurgo wrote an introduction and the audio book is read by actor Keira Knightley. Yeva is already writing something new. She has thoughts about the future again. She thinks she would like to be a lawyer or a journalist when she grows up. She hopes to someday return to Ukraine and see her friends once more.
She likes Ireland. She has been swimming in the Irish Sea and went to Dublin Zoo. She likes that our buses are double-deckers so she always sits on the top. She has new friends — “good and nice girls” — but she keeps in touch with her classmates who are scattered around Ukraine and abroad. One chapter features short sections written by her friends about their own experiences. “I really want the world to hear what we lived through and understand how a child feels in a war. When a war starts, a child just drowns in themselves … I didn’t want my short life to end … I was afraid of bombs. I was worried about things a child shouldn’t worry about. A child should worry about their tests and their environment, not be afraid of how they can survive and where they will be able to escape.”
Does she think the war changed her? “Yes,” she says, softly.
Catherine thinks for a moment. “I remember we were talking about going somewhere and doing something,” she says. “And I said, 100 per cent this is what we’re doing. And Yeva said, No, nothing is 100 per cent. That really stuck with me. At 12, this is what she has realised — that nothing is for sure.”
Yeva nods. “We have a lot of plans for our lives,” she says, “but everything can change in one moment.”
You Don’t Know What War is by Yeva Skalietska is published by Bloomsbury