Skip to main content

Yeva Skalietska turned 12 on Valentine’s Day, 2022. Yeva lived with her grandmother in a simple, yet comfortable, apartment on the east side of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Her grandmother’s room looked out over open fields to the Russian border nearby. Yeva spent her birthday celebrating with schoolmates, and her mother came from Istanbul to be with her for the day. The following Saturday she celebrated more with a bowling party at a nearby shopping mall.

She was the epitome of a happy girl eagerly anticipating becoming a teenager. She enjoyed studying geography, math, English, and German in school and was turning into a talented painter. She also kept a diary, which would take on added value just a few days later, as Russian rockets began to fall on her city.

Together with her neighbors, Yeva and her grandmother spent the first days of the attack hunkered down in a makeshift basement bomb shelter, trying to decide what to do. As the shelling became more intense, they moved to a friend’s place on the western side of the city. They were there when word arrived that their apartment had received a direct hit from a Russian bomb on day six of the war.

Yeva recorded the intense fear and sadness of her realization that the Russians had begun a real war. She managed to keep in touch with her schoolmates via iPhone, though she left her phone charger in the apartment, along with her favorite toy pink cat, Chupapelya. Fortunately, she grabbed her trusty diary before fleeing. Excerpts of it were published in late 2022 as You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine.

Learning that her childhood home was in tatters, she became depressed. The attack on her home was, for her, an attack on a piece of her. As she records: “There were such memories there! Our Italian furniture, our fancy dinner sets, the glass table. All those memories blown to bits. Tears are streaming down my face, and that’s only a fraction of my sorrow. I don’t care as much about the things themselves as much as I do the memories they held.”

Yeva also mourns the loss of her city. She writes that “Kharkiv has loads of beautiful places. The city center, the Shevchenko City Garden, the zoo, and Gorky Park… There is a beautifully paved street that leads up to Derzhprom, a group of tall buildings in Freedom Square. And whenever Granny and I need to soothe our souls, we visit the Svyato-Pokrovs’kyy Monastery.”

She records her escape with her grandmother first to the relative safety of Dnipro, and then, in an endless train ride west across Ukraine, to the border city of Uzhorod. Their trek is harrowing and comforting. Frightening uncertainty is balanced by the kindness of strangers who help along the way, including helpful train conductors and border officials.

By day nine of the war, as Yeva and her grandmother are leaving the train in Uzhorod trying to figure out what to do next, she encounters Flavian, a reporter from Channel 4, the British TV station. Flavian and Paraic, an Irish reporter working for Channel 4, undoubtedly picked Yeva out of the stream of arriving displaced persons because she is photogenic and can speak English. They feature her in a news story and then help Yeva and her grandmother on their way. Eventually, they will support Yeva in publishing her diary.

Several days later, with the help of Hungarian hosts and the Channel 4 news crew, they take an unforgettable nighttime boat ride along the Danube at Budapest and make their way to Dublin in time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Once in Dublin, Yeva enrolls in an Irish school. She is even reunited in Ireland with her toy pink cat Chupapelya, which had been salvaged by neighbors, with a handful of other mementos, from the wreckage of her bedroom.

For all her good fortune, Yeva remains mindful of how much worse everything could be. By day 25, she records that “each day weighs heavier on my soul.” Her grandmother, meanwhile, rejects all notions of being a “refugee.” Yeva adds the stories of classmates Khrystyna, Olha, Kostya, Alena, each of whom has tales even more harrowing than her own. At the end, she writes, “it pains me to see all this chaos around us. The tears, the sorrow, the hurry, the fear. But there’s nothing more painful than watching a loved one go to war.”

At the end, in her acknowledgements, Yeva notes that “I have met lots of different people since the beginning of the war. I’m grateful to many of them, but some of them I’d rather forget. Those terrible days have taken off a great number of masks.”

We all should be grateful for Yeva Skalietska for telling all of us about the terrifying, harrowing, and pitiless brutality of war from her own perspective as a child, and for reminding us of the incalculable compassion and generosity that humans summon in return.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more