Ukrainian schoolgirl Yeva who settled with family in Ireland captures horror of war in diary
An intimate portrait of a human tragedy as 12-year-old travels to safety in Ireland
Refugee crises are vast, monolithic affairs, and at the same time deeply intimate and personal ones. Since the war in Ukraine started, I’ve travelled along the country’s borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. I’ve witnessed first-hand the fastest-growing refugee emergency since World War II. There were moments when I just had to stop, sit down on the ground and absorb the scale of what I was seeing.
On March 8, we were standing on platform 5 at the train station in the Hungarian town of Zahony. As we waited, one of the long evacuation trains pulled into the station from Ukraine. The doors opened and over a thousand Ukrainian refugees disembarked. They were mainly women and children; men of fighting age had to stay behind. They got off the train in an orderly, calm way. People waited patiently while the elderly were helped off first, some in wheelchairs.
Soon, the platform was full. When it was safe to do so, the crowds walked across the rails to the station building where the Red Cross and others gave them food and water.
Train stations have provided the backdrop for many of Europe’s refugee emergencies, so the scene felt vaguely familiar. I stopped what I was doing, imagined it all in black and white — a single image, monochrome, straight out of a history book.
Then there were the moments when the intimate and personal came roaring out at you from the pages in full colour. On February 27, we were reporting from a border crossing called Vysne Nemecke on the Slovakian-Ukrainian border. The war was two days old. We met an elderly couple named Nina and Viktor, who had just arrived. Their daughter-in-law, Anya, had come out with them and was dropping them off with volunteers who were in turn driving them to extended family in Germany.
Anya hugged them both, explained their situation to the volunteers, then turned away with tears in her eyes and walked back into Ukraine to join her husband. The volunteers guided Viktor and Nina over to some seating near where the food and drink were being distributed. Nina was holding on to Viktor’s elbow throughout. Every so often he would try to turn around and go back into Ukraine. His wife would gently guide him back around in the right direction to safety, away from war.
Viktor has dementia. His family told us that every 20 minutes or so, he forgot why he and his wife were on this journey. Every 20 minutes, Nina would take his hand, whisper in his ear and remind him again that the life they had built in Ukraine had been destroyed, that they were refugees now.
A volunteer offered Viktor a cup of tea from a tray. Viktor thought she was asking him to help, so he tried to take the tray off her and offer the teas to other refugees. Nina intervened again and explained to him why they were here: “No darling, the tea is for you.”
The UN’s refugee agency (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) publishes the most recent daily recorded numbers of refugees leaving Ukraine on its online portal. We checked the numbers at around 4pm GMT every day to include in our reporting for the Channel 4 News bulletin at 7pm.
The problem was that during that three-hour lag, the numbers increased by thousands, so our reporting was out of date within hours. By the time this article is published, for example, the numbers of refugees leaving Ukraine will probably have crossed the four million mark. Poland has taken over half of them. Nearly 20pc of Warsaw’s population is now made up of refugees.
Then take Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, which has taken more Ukrainian refugees per capita than anywhere else. On March 10, we reported from the athletic arena in the centre of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. It has been converted into a refugee shelter.
By and large, the first wave of Ukrainian refugees had money and family connections in neighbouring countries, so they could move fast. The people we met languishing in the athletic arena, many from the Roma community, were poorer and were bedding in for a longer time.
The second wave of refugees coming out of Ukraine now will be in a more desperate situation than the first. This will present a unique set of challenges to host countries. In particular, to places such as Moldova, where the institutions of state, education and healthcare are more fragile.
That’s the macro perspective; now back to the micro. On March 4, myself, my producers Freddie Gower and Piotr Zakowiecki and cameraman Flavian Charuel were filming at a school in the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod.
The city, close to the Slovakian border, has become a major transit point for refugees on the way out. The school is now one of a network of shelters, mattresses laid out in the gym. As we filmed, a 12-year-old girl named Yeva and her grandmother Irina arrived in from Kharkiv and were allocated two mattresses in the corner of the hall. Yeva’s parents were separated, her grandmother has been looking after her since birth. Their apartment in Kharkiv had been partially destroyed during shelling.
On February 23, the day before the war started, Yeva started writing a diary. It’s a mix of quite intimate, personal observations and sweeping, profound takes on how war affects an entire people. The first line of the journal reads: “Everyone thinks they know the meaning of the word ‘war.’ Yet hardly anyone knows what that word means for real. They say it’s terrible, it’s dreadful. But they don’t know. Not really.”
By the time we had met her, she had written 80 pages. She’s up to nearly 200 pages now. Her journal entries include getting the evacuation train out of Uzhhorod to Hungary, then on to Budapest. As a result of our TV reports about her, dozens of people in Britain and Ireland reached out with offers of support and accommodation.
That’s in the diary as well. She and her grandmother opted for Ireland in the end as they deemed it a more straightforward choice. They are currently staying with an amazing family in Glasnevin, Dublin. Yeva’s story has been covered extensively, and several big literary agents have been in touch, interested in helping her publish her journal. Yeva’s working title: War 2022 — Through the Eyes of a Child .
I’ll never forget that evening in the refugee centre in Uzhhorod when we first met her. We spent several hours with her as she read aloud sections of her diary late into the night. The women and children lying on the mattresses around us were listening as she recounted the moment when the bombs starting falling: “I started having a panic attack. My hands were shaking. My teeth were chattering.”
You could hear a pin drop in the shelter that night as this child’s voice echoed around the hall. Women and children listening to their own story, told by one of them, on their terms.
Hardly anyone knows what war really means. The people in that room on that night listening to Yeva’s Diary definitely did.
Paraic O’Brien is a correspondent for Channel 4 News
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