War diary of a Ukrainian boy tells of grief and fatal losses

Before the war came to his village, 12-year-old Timofey Z. had many of the usual teenage worries. And his closest confidant was his diary.

There was a special girl, Yarina, he wrote, but she ignored him. He loved the video game Minecraft and the family semi-feral cats. From time to time, he grumbled at his mischievous 6-year-old half-brother Seraphim, who did not always live up to his angelic nickname. When his stepfather drank, it bothered him.

These childish reflections were interrupted by a terrible noise in sky in February. 24. Tens of thousands of Russian troops crossed the borders of Ukraine, and suburb of the capital, Kyiv — including Timofey’s farming village of Shevchenkovo, about 30 miles to the northeast — were quickly overrun or threatened as the battle approached.

The boy is in the room.

Timothy is sitting in his room.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

“An air raid alert was issued yesterday morning. You could hear in our village how planes dropped bombs. Timothy wrote an entry in his diary dated March 3. Family – he; Seraphim; his mother, Yulia Vashchenko, 37; and his stepfather, 43-year-old Sergei Esypenko, known as Seryozha, hid in the basement.

The parents talked about trying to leave. But where? They hesitated.

On the morning of March 8 less two weeks of war, the couple slipped out without waking the boys. The village market nearby was still open and they needed the extra money they made selling tea and other haberdashery there.

Two people are sitting in one room, and a boy is walking in the other room.

Sergei Provornov (center) and Yelena Streltsov in their house with their nephew Timofey.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

A few hours later, as Timofey later wrote, his mother called him. She was furious. Russian armored vehicles rumbled through the narrow streets of the village. She told him to grab Seraphim and hide in the bathroom. Little did he know then that this would be their last conversation.

A little later, Timofey’s aunt and uncle, 47-year-old Elena Strilets, whom family members called Lena, and her husband, 63-year-old Sergei Provornov, arrived and hurried the boys to the nearest house. They told the brothers that their parents had been recalled to Kyiv, but because of the fighting, they could not return just now.

Timothy, whose full name is not disclosed because he is a minor., worried, but not too much. The rush of events – the roar of artillery, the antics of the Seraphim, the settlement in the cramped house of his aunt and uncle – distracts him.

“I am accustomed to having shells fly over my head,” he wrote on 13 March. “We still don’t have electricity.”

Two pages with handwriting.

Timothy’s diary lies on a table in his family’s home in Shevchenkove, Ukraine.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

A few more days passed, and Lena and Serezha apologized for the absence of Yulia and Serezha. It was Seraphim, an unnoticed little eavesdropper, eavesdropping on quiet, hysterical adult conversations, who blurted out the truth.

Timothy raged in his diary, his rage at first suppressing his grief. With slashing red ink, he drew a horned devil, from whose eyes angry darts flew.

“I found out what happened to my mother and Serezha,” the March 14 entry says, almost a week after the deaths. “They were killed!”

His aunt and uncle covered up another unbearable news. The bodies of the couple, who died from high-caliber fire directed almost at point-blank range at their car by a Russian tank, lay mutilated, not found and alone in their silver Opel Vectra for three days while Uncle Timofey tried to arrange a safe passage to take the ruins.

Like hundreds of others civilians killed by Russian troops in the once serene suburbs of Kyiv – many were shot like executioners, there are corpses with signs of torture – Yulia and Seryozha had to be temporarily buried in makeshift graves. They were near the garden gazebo.

Artillery bombardment rocked the village for nearly three more weeks before the Russians retreated as abruptly as they had come, abandoning their attempt to capture the capital and refocusing on the east.

Mounds of earth in the field.

Flowers adorn the graves of Timothy and Seraphim’s parents.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

The family wanted a proper burial, but had to wait for exhumation and examination by forensic scientists and investigators, who were gathering what quickly became a mountain of war crimes evidence. Over 1,300 bodies have been found in the metropolitan area alone. Russia continues to deny his troops deliberately targeted civilians.

Finally, among more than a dozen other fresh graves, the two were buried side by side in the village cemetery on 12 April.

In the margins of his magazine, whose blue cover was now adorned with drawings of a pair of ghosts and a sad face of a boy, Timofey wrote: “Dreams do not come true.”

Timothy's diary lies on the table in his family's house.

Diary of Timothy.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

The war in Ukraine was definitely awful for your kids. The United Nations estimates that about one third of them, more than 7.5 million young people, are forced to leave their homes. As of mid-July, at least 348 children have been killed, according to Ukrainian officials, but these numbers, which do not include counts in still-occupied territories, are considered low, possibly very low.

As if childhood itself had been erased, and something terrible had taken its place.

“I would say this war has touched the lives of every child in Ukraine,” Afshan Khan, regional director for the United Nations Children’s Agency, UNICEF, told reporters at the World Organization in June. “They either lost a family member or witnessed the trauma themselves.”

In the violent conflict, widely documented on social media and in news photos, there was at first some silence about the distribution of images of tiny corpses.

Two boys are playing with toys in the room.

Timothy and Seraphim are playing in their room.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

But now, nearly six months later, war and outrage are sparking endless postings of disturbing photos and videos online: photos of dead children next to their dead parents, bandaged and bloody children in hospital beds – if they are lucky enough to get to one – babies crying and being knocked to the ground. confused or stunned and silent as they are stuffed into trains and vans taking them away from the war zone.

Sometimes relatives who see dead and crippled loved ones over and over again, especially the smallest victims, ask for a break from the graphic imagery. But they keep coming.

Before the Russian invasion, there were already at least 100,000 orphans in Ukraine, many of whom lived in harsh conditions in the care of the state. Now their innumerable ranks have swelled. There are many separated families: fathers go to the front, and mothers and children seek refuge in other places. Entire families have been sent to “filtration” centers in occupied Russian territories, while hundreds of children have ended up in Russia itself and given up for adoption, according to Ukrainian officials.

Every day at 8 a.m., Daria Gerasimchuk, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser on children’s affairs, receives a summary of the previous day’s events, including updates on those killed, injured, missing, or presumed deported. Or left without a mother or without a father, or both.

“This is the worst moment of the day,” she said. “It’s every day.”

Woman and boy in the garden.

Seraphim is talking to Aunt Elena Streltsov in the family garden.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

Lena said that there had never been a question that she and her common-law husband Seryozha – each in a second marriage, with adult children who had long since left home – would take Timofey and Seraphim to their place. But this is an impossible task.

Their dilapidated house consists of three tiny rooms: a bedroom with new bunk beds for the boys; a living room with peeling paint where the couple now sleep on a double bed that also doubles as the only sofa; a smoky kitchen with a shower hidden behind a plastic curtain.

Sergei is working on an extension of cinder blocks, but so far the yard is littered with construction debris, and just outside the entrance, a hole in the ground is covered with shaky boards.

Seraphim is in perpetual motion. He jumps on the sofa bed, demanding to be tickled, dragging a watering can almost the same size as himself, rolling around on the floor, legs dangling in the air. He giggles and squeals, but although he seems to crave attention, he is far less talkative than most children his age.

The boy climbs through the hole in the wall.

Seraphim plays in the family yard.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

“We have to work shifts with him,” said Lena, a former kindergarten teacher, ruffling his hair.

Timothy, fair-haired like his brother, has a sloping face, foreshadowing dull-witted masculinity. He can appear both childish and old, with pale eyes often either downcast or fixed in an anxiously intense gaze.

His main hobby these days is picking up “frags” from village alleys and yards—heavy, jagged fragments of shells and missiles that he likes to thrust into the hands of visitors.

The family receives some government support, including regular sessions with a psychologist for both boys. But Timofey frowned when asked about his sessions with a psychotherapist.

“I don’t tell him a lot of things,” he said, looking away.

The boy is holding a kitten, and the man is looking at a photo book.

Timofey holds a kitten, and his uncle Sergei Provornov looks at family photos.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

He doesn’t sleep well, he said. Sometimes he thinks he sees eyes watching him in the dark. The light of early summer worries him. He wakes up tired; at night he must console Seraphim when he cries.

It’s now the boys’ home, but perhaps only for now. Stepfather Timofey’s sisters, now separated from Lena and Seryozha, moved into the family house a few streets away. They want to adopt Seraphim, their blood relative, his aunt and uncle said.

Lena and Serezha are adamant that the boys cannot be separated and want to keep both of them. But the situation is complicated by family hostility, missing documents and the unknown fate of Father Timothy, who has not been heard of for many years.

According to him, now Timofey takes his diary only occasionally. Sometimes he writes in what he describes as a personal code, and makes other notes in invisible ink. He readily boasts about the volumes, but also angrily states that the magazines have given him too much attention. The once constant and comforting journaling has become as strange as the upside-down world around it.

Sometimes I just want to burn them!” he said.

The boy is riding a bicycle, and the older boy is watching what is happening in the yard.

Timothy and Seraphim are playing in their family’s yard.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

Some aspects of normal life begin to return to the village. Flowers break through the rubble. There is talk that someday a school will start. The market near the place where Yulia and Serezha were killed is open again.

Some of the family cats disappeared during the fighting, but others returned home or were born a few weeks later. Timofey picked up the limp gray kitten and rubbed his nose against it. According to him, it helps him sleep.

Lena, ten years older than her dead sister, cries when she remembers Timofey’s mother, although she does so only if she is out of his sight and hearing. Yulia’s stormy relationship with Timofey’s father almost broke her, according to her older sister. He abandoned her when the boy was still an infant.

The boy was seen in the yard through the door.

Seraphim plays in the family yard.

(Kirill Svetashov / For The Times)

But as a single mother not yet in her 20s, Yuliya packed herself up and finished her education in Kyiv, Lena said. She got together almost ten years ago with Seraphim’s father and returned to the village, and six years ago the couple rejoiced at the birth of Seraphim’s child.

Lena was the godmother of both boys. Years ago, she took Timofey to school in the back seat of her bike or, when he was small enough, pinned him right up against the front basket, where the breeze blowing over his face made him laugh.

In her sister’s place, she said, she would do her best to take care of them.

“We were a family before this war,” she said. “Now we will try to become a new family.”