Yeva Skalietska had just turned 12 when Russia invaded Ukraine. At 5 am on February 24, 2022, she woke up to what initially sounded like “a car being crushed into scrap metal,” she writes in the book’s opening pages. You don’t know what war is, which arrived in Portugal in October 2022 by Clássica Editora.
For a few seconds, that’s what he thought was happening, until he woke up and came to the conclusion that there was no scrap metal in the area of Kharkiv where he lived. At that moment, he realized that, after all, what was said about the intentions of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, were not “just rumours”. She was forced to leave behind the apartment where she lived with her maternal grandmother Irina and most of her belongings, with the exception of some clothes and the diary that she would start writing that very day.
“One day I was playing with my friends and the next I was fleeing the war to another country”, he says in an interview with P3. In total, he spent no more than 12 days in Ukraine, living in underground shelters, at friends’ houses and even at a school. As the Russian military advanced eastwards, Yeva, the daughter of separated parents who live abroad, fled with her grandmother to the west. The aim was to reach Europe.
The young woman, who only recently learned about the story of Anne Frank, managed to escape the war and has been living in Dublin, Ireland, since March 2022. A year after the start of the conflict, Yeva dreams of returning to Ukraine to see again friends, despite knowing that “those who survive the war will never be the same”.
How long had you been writing in this diary before the war started?
I started writing when the war started. I knew I wrote test compositions well, but I never thought I could write a book. I wasn’t interested in writing a diary, but the day Russia invaded, I decided to do it. I realized that it was my safe place and that I could share my emotions and sometimes, when I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I could express what I felt on paper.
In these first days, were you aware that you were leaving part of history in writing, as Anne Frank did with her diary, or was it just a way of abstracting yourself from what was happening?
I didn’t know anything about Anne Frank, I didn’t even know she existed. I only found out who she was when I arrived in Dublin with my book and it was explained to me that she was a girl who lived during World War II. I just wrote this diary to distract myself.
When did you think it could be a book?
In the first days of the war I didn’t think about it. But when I met a group of journalists [em Uzhhorod, no Oeste da Ucrânia] who ended up becoming my friends and told me that a publisher wanted to publish it is when I realized that the diary could become a book.
In You Don’t Know What War Is, you start by saying that everyone knows this word, but no one knows exactly what it means until they live one. What is war?
War is pain and suffering. You don’t know when it arrives and when it happens all the plans you had for your future life, for the next few years or maybe even for the next day are destroyed.
You feel your dreams are shattered and you can’t figure out if it’s reality or just a nightmare in your head. Then, day after day, you see the horror and realize it’s all real.
Is that what you thought during the first few days? That it was all just a nightmare?
I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. My hands were shaking, my teeth were chattering and my grandmother was trying to calm me down because if I didn’t stop we wouldn’t be able to get out of there. The first thing we had to do was leave our apartment and quickly go to the shelter and this was only ten or 20 minutes after the first bombs fell.
In the book, you say that on the second day of the war you left Kharkiv for your grandmother’s friend’s house and then describe your entire journey until you arrived in Ireland. Do you think if your grandmother hadn’t left Ukraine things would have gone well?
She knew she had to save me. On the sixth day of the war, when a plane was dropping bombs, we realized that we had to leave the house where we were and she knew that she had to save me because we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. My grandmother made the best of it.
Is the sound of the bombing still very present in your memory?
Yes, especially the sound of planes. I know it’s been a year, but sometimes I’m still scared of the noise and I think about when I was there and everything that happened. When planes fly low, it’s very scary. But then I realize I’m in Dublin and everything is fine.
Was there a moment that was particularly scary for you?
Yes, on the sixth day of the war. My grandmother and I had left Kharkiv the day before and during the afternoon we learned that our apartment had been destroyed. All memories of what I lived there, everything I loved, was simply destroyed. And then there was a moment when I thought I was close to dying: at night, at 7 pm, when plane after plane dropped bombs on people’s homes. I think it was a miracle we didn’t die.
When did you feel you were safe?
I still feel this pressure inside me, but when I arrived in Ireland I realized that life was totally different. I can walk freely and I don’t have to worry about a bomb falling on my head. Here people don’t know what war is.
What was your first impression of Ireland?
I thought it was a peaceful and beautiful country. When we arrived, we stayed at the home of a couple who showed us around and I really liked the city [de Dublin]. Everything is green and I’m not far from the sea. In the summer it’s a little cold, but I like it. The people are very kind and I am enjoying every day. But the news from Ukraine still disturbs me.
Halfway through the book you say that your other grandparents and uncles stayed in Ukraine. How do you think you would be living if you had stayed there?
Some have moved to other countries or other parts of Ukraine, but no one is in Kharkiv. In fact, I don’t even know if I could be in Ukraine. Some of my friends are still there and I don’t understand how they can live without electricity or water supply. I know that they study through the Internet and that the teacher only publishes what they have to do. I was so scared when the bombs fell that I had panic attacks, so it was going to be hard to live there. I would constantly be living in fear.
You say that you always had a connection to Russia because your great-grandmother is from Sochi and that your house was on the border. Do you find any explanation for this war?
Actually, I do not know. I can’t understand why they invaded us, we were so connected to the people of Russia. I’m just a kid, I can’t figure it out.
When you report your day-to-day life, you write about subjects that perhaps many people your age have never heard of, for example what chemical weapons are. When did you realize these things?
When I faced the war, I realized [isto]. Normally, children don’t have to understand these things and they like to play and spend time with their friends. I was like that. But when the war started, our lives were in danger and I realized that the most important thing is to survive. Many people continue to deal with the bombings and protect their possessions, but do not understand that they cannot take their money, clothes and homes with them when they die. My grandmother told me: ‘Don’t think about things or the house. Maybe one day we’ll get them back, but don’t think about that now.” I realized, from her, that the most important thing is life.
You became a refugee, a word that, you say in the book, you take as an insult…
I don’t use that word because it’s very difficult to say that I lost my home, that my hometown is destroyed and that I have nowhere to go. One day I was playing with my friends and the next I was fleeing the war to another country.
Can you imagine going back to live in Ukraine?
Yes. Probably, when the war is over and everything is rebuilt, maybe it will come back. I want to get my education in Europe, but I really hope I can go back and see my friends and classmates. I want to see how much they’ve changed and how they’re doing.
You say that “those who survive the war will never be the same”. Do you feel that the war made you to grow?
I think that didn’t make me grow up, but I realized these things that maybe other kids don’t understand. I still have hopes and dreams for my future. I dream of traveling the world, learning languages and studying at Oxford University. I could not understand when there was war in Donetsk and Lugansk. But when I faced that, I realized that people who lived like that would never be the same again, because they understood that the most important thing is life and that they had to escape and go somewhere else to find a safe place.
You dedicate this book to your grandmother. How do you think your grandchildren will read it?
As it happens, one of my main reasons for writing the diary was to share it with my grandchildren and children. I think they will read me and understand that war is bad and that we have to think about the future and the children who shouldn’t have to go through this. And I also hope that my children and grandchildren don’t experience a war.