Tears are dripping from my tired eyes one by one onto cold, wet concrete. I’m in a bomb shelter in occupied Mariupol. I have been on the verge of life and death for two months. I feel nothing and want to leave this terrible place that became my second home. I want to eat, sleep, take a shower, breathe clean air, and see my relatives. But all that is in my field of vision are frightened people.
Someone is holding a little girl with blood on her arm. She’s pressing a small stuffed stork to her chest. Her firm grip doesn’t give the toy a chance to fall. That someone is her mom. She is crying in the cold, dirty shelter with a three-year-old daughter in her arms. The girl is screaming, “Daddy! Daddy, where are you?” I’m hurting inside because the occupiers had led her father away. A speck of blood on her arm is the cost of their lives. They will never see him again.
A hunched old woman is crying, sitting on the cold floor. A few days ago, she received a call that her grandson had been killed. She brought up a hero, and he gave up his life for her. No one can stop her from crying. However, no one makes sense of it, and everyone shares her pain.
A man and a woman are keeping stronger than anyone. Their son is defending Ukraine. He calls them at 8 p.m. every day. So, every day they look forward to only one thing–when the evening finally arrives. He doesn’t show any emotions — he is strong and sure of Ukrainian victory. He is their only son, their only hope. Despite his confidence, everyone in the bomb shelter understands that this day can be the last.
There is also a pregnant woman. She was in treatment for a long time to have this baby. The moment of happiness–when she saw two test lines — was unforgettable. Her husband has done everything for her and their baby’s health during her pregnancy. Although the first six months were quite calm, they are no longer certain about tomorrow.
Another young couple is also confused. She gave birth to a baby five days ago. The next day, the maternity hospital where she’d been was bombed.
The tiny newborn is crying endlessly. His mother is doing her best to calm him down because she understands the situation around her. However, the newborn does not.
There is also an old couple. It is happening for the second time in their lives. The fascists arrived again to destroy everything. The old man and woman are living in fear: they were born during the war and might die during it, too.
All these people are my neighbors. We have lived next to each other for more than 10 years. But only here and now have we gotten to know each other closer. Now I know that all of them are brave, attentive, and respectful. I wish I had known this before.
But… Why should we find ourselves in these conditions? Were we waiting for another peace? Do we really need the Russian world?
My life before the 24th of February was so fantastic; however, I didn’t realize it. All this time, I have been keeping a diary:
— — — — January 1, 2022 — — — —
It is the worst day of my life. My mom didn’t allow me to go out for the whole night!!! Imagine that! My friends won’t call me again! I look like a little girl with a super protective mother!.
— — — — January 15, 2022 — — — —
My teacher gave me a bad grade! I was studying hard for the whole week, and she didn’t give me the best mark!!!!! I’m not going to study her subject ever again!
— — — — January 27, 2022 — — — —
My father did not buy me the jeans I wanted! He always chooses only what he likes!
— — — — February 3, 2022 — — — —
I went to a pizza place with my friends! It was cool, but the iced tea was not my favorite! I left a nasty review!
— — — — February 15, 2022 — — — —
I had a hard week and want to relax a bit. However, my favorite shower gel with glitter has finished! As if it were not enough, my sister took my face patch. I didn’t allow her!!!! Why does she never think about me?
I was shocked when I re-read my notes in the bomb shelter. It was so difficult to believe that things like that made any sense to me! The most hurting are the notes about the war.
— — — — February 24, 2022 — — — —
I’ve been hearing some terrible noises throughout the night! Mom said it was just an explosion and everything would be fine in the morning. My friends texted me to pack my things and be ready to leave the flat. I can’t sleep and think only about the morning. When I checked my phone, I saw my teacher’s message, “Classes are canceled for today. More news soon.” After that, I was sure it was not just for that one day.
I always start crying when I read about that day. I will never forget what happened next.
A few days were loud, but at least we had electricity. A few of my classmates did not. The worst part of this story started on March 2. We had no gas, no water, and no electricity. The bombing was horrible, so my family decided to leave our flat on the twelfth floor and go down to the shelter. My dad decided to join the Ukrainian troops. Many people, including those I mentioned at the start, were already in the basement. In the first few days, I tried to reassure people and inspire hope for the best. I played with kids whose parents were crying and talked with older people.
Early on, it was bearable, as we had some food and water supplies. But then, around March 15, all supplies ran out. Men decided to put together a makeshift stove to cook food. They found a slice of canned meat. It was a snowy day, and they thawed snow to get water. They planned to make tea for everyone in a bomb shelter because it was cold down there. But the occupiers didn’t stop their fictional “rescue operation” while they were making a stove. The men weren’t coming back for a long time, so a few people decided to check on them. It turned out that a bomb had fallen near our house. All the men were dead, parts of their bodies scattered around the stove. The kettle was left to boil.
The next episode I remember happened three days later. We were sitting, as always, in the bomb shelter when the Russian soldiers came in. At first, they checked all our phones–or, rather, those that were charged. They killed everyone who had any Ukrainian things on their phones. My friend, a few women, and several men were killed in front of my eyes. Other men were drafted into the occupiers’ troops. Why must innocent people go fight others?
One day my sister felt so sick that she and my mom decided to go home to get some medicine. They left the bomb shelter at around 1:45 p.m. I waited for them for thirty minutes. I tried to think about many possible reasons they hadn’t returned yet, but only one came back to me again and again. They died. As it turned out later, I was right. At 6 p.m., I decided to go out to look for them. Our flat was bombed. Nothing was left. My mother and sister were most probably there at the time it happened.
Those dark days were the worst days of my whole life. But I tried as well to find pretty sides of it.
One day, an older man and woman dared to go outside because it was quiet. It was their golden wedding anniversary, and they were happy, despite the war. The man was smiling and complimenting his wife all morning. A projectile landed right on the bench where they were sitting. When we tried to carry away the bodies, we saw they were still holding hands. People lived together for fifty years and died together. It was a ray of sunshine in a storm. Real love lives on despite circumstances.
Another day, a missile hit the far side of our shelter. When it was safe again, we checked it and saw that a pregnant woman and her husband had been killed. Before their death, he was probably listening to his future baby’s heartbeat.
Yet another time, a brother and a sister wanted to make food, so they went outside. Unfortunately, that was when street fighting began. They’ve been trying to run away but were shot together at the same time.
Once when a mother was playing with her son, a part of the basement ceiling collapsed after a rocket hit it. She was still alive, but her neck was all bloody. Her baby was hugging her while people were trying to help her.
There were also many volunteers helping to evacuate people every single day. Many people started volunteering in the midst of the war, and that’s amazing — risking their lives for others. They helped with food, medicines, and transport. It shows how strong and dignified our nation is.
Many doctors kept working under these conditions. They worked tirelessly in shelter hospitals, stitching wounds and giving medications. Everyone did everything they could.
Around these people, I always thought about my grandmother who lived in another part of the city. One day, when it was quiet, I decided to check on her. I would have never gone there if I’d known that this day could have been the last for me.
I was walking through the streets, thinking about how pretty my city used to be. So, I didn’t even notice a Russian occupier in front of me. He was moving fast, and I didn’t have a chance to turn anywhere or hide. I decided not to show my panic and behave as usual.
“Hey, pretty,” the occupier called out to me.
“Good morning,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“How did you live with these fucking fascists all your life? Won’t you even thank me now? Come on. Say it!”
I tried to answer him as calmly as I could:
“My life in Ukraine was much better before you came and ruined everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly what I said. One day in Ukraine for me is a thousand times better than all life in Russia. We don’t need your fake liberation. My friends are getting killed, my family died, my home is ruined, and my city is bombed! What should I thank you for? You destroyed my life!”
Having said that, I wanted to run away as fast as I could, but he didn’t allow me to. He stepped closer and started tearing my clothes. I couldn’t do anything because he was much stronger. I thought it was over, but my life gave me a chance. Right at that moment, a projectile flew in and hit the occupier. I had a few minutes to run away. I did it as fast as I thought I could. Those minutes were a matter of life and death. I was running in a torn jacket, in torn pants, but I was fighting for my life. It was the first and I hope the last time in my life when I was thankful to the projectile. The Ukrainian army saved my life.
I was running to my grandmother. The moment I saw her was unforgettable. I hugged her and asked how she had been going through it all. I was thrilled to see, hear, and touch my grandmother. At that moment, I understood that life did not cost a hryvnia if you were alone. The curfew was approaching, though, and I needed to go back to the bomb shelter.
A few days later, tears were dripping from my tired eyes one by one onto cold, wet concrete. I was in the ruined bomb shelter in occupied Mariupol. A rocket flew through the floor and killed everyone in the basement. Except me. I was sitting alone among the corpses and didn’t know what to do. The fact was that I had no home, no family, nothing. I was living under occupation and didn’t lose my life, but it lost its meaning. My life was empty. I had nothing.
A week later, I received a message saying I needed to go to school. It said that I would need to stay for a second year if I didn’t go. I didn’t have any choice, so I went. It was so hard to see so many unfamiliar faces. I saw many teenagers the same age as me, but something was wrong. The eyes of my new classmates were empty. I assumed that everyone had their own terrible story. They looked older than they should. Everything seemed as usual, but it was not like that at all.
One girl behind the first desk was scrolling her phone endlessly. Her hands were shaking, and her eyes looked tired. She was re-reading her dad’s last message. He died during the war. She loved him, and they spent every weekend together. But she would never hear his voice again.
One boy was sitting with a gold medal in his hands. It belonged to his younger sister, a national champion in artistic gymnastics. His sister was killed by a rocket. The future of Ukraine died at the hands of the Russian occupiers.
A sad girl was sitting behind the last desk. She could not stop crying. She wept quietly, her tears dripping on the floor. All her family died in the bombing, and she was living with her neighbors now.
There was also a boy without an arm. He was injured while trying to protect his brother from a projectile. His brother was dead, but the love between them would live forever.
Those days gave me nothing except pain for what everyone had gone through.
I was going home one day, and a car pulled up next to me. My dad got out of it in a military uniform, holding a bunch of blue violets. I was lost for words, feeling happy for the first time since the 24th of February. Blue violets were a symbol of our family; he gave them to my mom, my sister, and me for every holiday. We didn’t say anything, but we didn’t need to. His eyes were full of pain and pride. It looked like the whole Ukraine was in them. Ukraine won. Ukraine survived. Our Ukraine is free and will be free forever. Ukraine will live as long as the spirit of its nation lives.
I have never thought that someday I would become a prisoner of horrible events that would not let me see my dad. But the war taught me that nothing can last forever. The moment you didn’t appreciate might never happen again.
My dad and I bought a new flat and started a new chapter of our life. It is empty and painful without our loved ones. However, we need to live and remember that they are always with us. They are the angels that will never leave us.
I’m sitting on a cold bench in the rain. I’m waiting for my therapist, and I want to ask only one question: “What’s the price of freedom and human life?” Did we need fake liberation? Did our loved ones have to pay with their own lives so we could live free in our country? How to rebuild our beautiful cities after the occupiers ruined them? We will never forgive and forget millions of broken souls, towns, and destinies. Is this a world we need? We lived safely and will always live that way in an independent, sovereign, and blooming country! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!
THE HARD PART
It’s easy to lie, at first.
People want to believe you.
And betrayal — a cinch.
You control the first move.
Killing is so easy, it’s absurd.
People didn’t see it coming.
Even war, if you’re the one
to start it goes well for a while.
Sure, people hate you, fear you,
looking down as they surrender.
Once you win, for a thin moment
you enjoy the ornate word: Victory.
It glitters in your hands like dirty gold.
Dedicated to all those who survived the war.
* This text was written in English in 2022 for “Antytvir”, a writing contest for teens. It is an educational project of Mystetskyi Arsenal within the International Book Arsenal Festival. Its goal is to promote creative writing among high school students and create a platform for expressing yourself in a non-standard way. The organizers designed this project in 2020 and 2022 to support Ukrainian youth in highly stressful situations by allowing them to write and make their voices heard. Illustrated by Cultural Hub NGO within the “Wars. Ukrainians. Humanity.” programme.