Ukrainians grieve for an 11-year-old girl killed by a Russian missile
KHARKIV, Ukraine — It was a moment when there was a buzz of excitement across northeastern Ukraine. It was mid-September. Ukrainian troops had just staged a major counteroffensive. The relentless Russian shelling that had pounded Kharkiv for months had finally eased.
Iryna Grycenko and her husband, Andriy, proposed to their 11-year-old daughter, Anastasiya, that they should get out of Kharkiv for a few days and spend the weekend at their dacha, a traditional country home, in nearby Chuhuiv. "Nasta," as the girl's family called her, was excited about the plan. She had a bike in Chuhuiv that her parents let her ride.
Soon after they arrived, Andriy and Iryna went out to deliver some food packets to local elderly residents. Nasta stayed home. Then three large explosions rocked the city.
"This is where she was lying," says neighbor Mychailo Kantemyriv, who found Nasta after the missile struck. He says she was still alive and conscious, lying next to the crater where the house had once stood.
"And she asked, 'Why did this happen to me? I didn't do anything bad to them.'" The burly man who says he's the chief of this street chokes back tears as he recalls Nasta in her final moments before she died.
Across town, her parents heard the explosions. They could see the smoke. Iryna's first thought was, "Nasta!" and she raced toward their cottage.
Every day, local officials in Ukraine announce grim statistics about the war. This number of people were injured. That number of people died.
United Nations human rights workers have verified at least 6,221 civilians killed in the more than seven months of war — hundreds of them children — but say they believe the actual civilian death toll is much higher.
Nasta's father, Andriy, is adamant that his 11-year-old daughter isn't just a statistic.
A statistic isn't someone you pick up from the loading dock of the morgue back in Kharkiv.
Andriy and Iryna stood in a cold, drizzling rain behind the city's main public hospital. The loading dock is a concrete slab that drops off sharply to allow trucks and ambulances to dispense their cargo more easily. It could be the loading dock for a commercial kitchen.
Eventually, a pink, satin-lined coffin holding Nasta's body is carried out. Iryna throws herself on the coffin, wailing. Eventually Andriy gently pulls Iryna back. Friends of the family carry Nasta's body down from the loading dock and slide the coffin into the back of a waiting white cargo van.
Leaving the morgue, NPR translator Polina Lytvynova notes that the scene there was incredibly hard to watch. And she says listening to a mother sobbing over her daughter's body was even harder.
"I could hear her saying [in Russian], 'Forgive me. Forgive me,'" Lytvynova says.
"She said: 'I don't want to live without you. Who will meet me when I come home from work?'"
The white van carries Nasta's coffin to a complex of simple Soviet-era apartment blocks. The Grycenkos' apartment is on the fourth floor. Nasta grew up here. Despite the rain, her open casket is placed on the walkway leading up to the apartment building.
Neighbors place bouquets of flowers on her coffin. A girl who appears to be about Nasta's age, 10 or 11, cries inconsolably.
One of the Grycenkos' downstairs neighbors, Valentina Ovcharenko, who says she's known Nasta since she was born, passes out small bags of sweets. Ovcharenko has a flat two floors below the Grycenkos and says people in the neighborhood have been crying for days over Nasta's death. But she says it's been the worst for Nasta's mother.
"Her mother wanted to jump from the balcony," Ovcharenko says. "But she was rescued from this."
Nasta's parents both work for a clothing manufacturing company. Their apartment isn't fancy. Their cottage in Chuhuiv, with its apple trees and a vegetable garden, was also a simple, unassuming house before it was obliterated. It wasn't on a prime piece of land. It backed up against an oil storage depot.
The same barrage of Russian missiles that killed Nasta also blew up several large fuel tanks.
Like most kids in Ukraine, Nasta had been attending online classes.
Sitting on benches in the playground outside their apartment block, Nasta's parents recount how she had always wanted a dog. This year, her 23-year-old brother found a white Labrador for her that she loved. She also liked to sing and to watch patriotic videos on YouTube of Ukrainian soldiers.
"Every time I came back home from work, she showed me videos," Iryna says of her daughter. "And she said, 'Mom, look at them. They're having so much fun.' She really believed that they would protect her."
Iryna stares into the distance as she talks about her daughter.
Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, is about 30 miles south of the Russian border. The city is predominantly Russian speaking, and it maintained close economic, cultural and social ties to Russia before the war. Iryna and Andriy go back and forth between speaking Russian and Ukrainian as they talk about their daughter being killed by a Russian missile.
"You know, I believe that not all people in Russia are so cruel and horrible like Russian soldiers," Iryna says. She pauses as if she's pondering all of the Russians, all of the soldiers. Then she adds, "But I just want the war to stop."
Nasta's funeral takes place under a chilling rain at a sprawling graveyard named Cemetery 18 in Kharkiv.
Just a few hundred yards from her grave, a funeral is also taking place for a soldier in a section of the cemetery adorned with yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags.
After the nails are pounded into Nasta's pink coffin and she's lowered into the ground, Andriy comes over to me and Lytvynova. "Tell the world what the Russians did to my daughter," he says.
Iryna can barely walk. Her sister eases her into a car as they leave.
A few days after the funeral, Iryna says she's still trying to accept the fact that there's a person in Russia who pushed the button that launched the missile that killed her daughter.
"I don't wish them death," Iryna says slowly. "Because I never wish anyone dead." She seems to be trying to picture the killer in her mind. "But I wish them to suffer," she adds. "To suffer like we suffer and to feel all our pain, like we feel this pain."
Iryna wipes away tears as she talks. Staring into the void in front of her, she says, "Because losing a child is the worst pain in the world."
Polina Lytvynova contributed to this story.
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