SHEVCHENKOVE, Ukraine—The first entry in Tymofiy Zozulia’s war diary is dated March 12, days after Russian forces occupied this village east of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. By then, his mother and stepfather were dead, but the 12-year-old had yet to discover the truth.
“For four days my brother Serafim and I are staying with our auntie,” Tymofiy wrote in a blue notebook. “We often went to hide in their neighbor’s cellar. I have lost count of how many times we went to the cellar but that’s OK. My mom and [stepfather] Sirozha have been stuck in Kyiv since last week.”
For Tymofiy, the war began when he returned from school on Feb. 23 and learned he would stay home the next day. His mother, Yuliya Vashchenko, and her partner, Serhiy Yesypenko—nicknamed Sirozha—instructed him to switch off the lights early that evening, he recalled.
In the dark, he wrote in his diary before trying to sleep, but his mind was racing. “I had millions of questions,” he said. “The uncertainty was killing me.”
Russia invaded Ukraine the following day, but the war didn’t immediately come to Shevchenkove, about 30 miles northeast of Kyiv. Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko had spoken of leaving, but the danger didn’t feel imminent so they stayed in the village, according to relatives.
On March 8, Tymofiy awoke to find his mother and stepfather had gone to a local market, where they occasionally sold tea and other goods to supplement the income Ms. Vashchenko made working at a vocational school in Kyiv. Tymofiy switched on cartoons for his 5-year-old half-brother and poured him a bowl of cereal for breakfast.
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Around 11:30 a.m., his mother called. “Tymofiy, both of you hide in the bathroom! Quick!” she said, according to a later entry in his diary. Tymofiy took Serafim and his orange cat, Simba, down to the cellar. Russian forces had entered the village.
Several streets away, Tymofiy’s aunt, Olena Strilets, and her partner, Serhiy Provornov, had also sought refuge in their cellar. When the shelling subsided, Mr. Provornov went out. He returned with the color drained from his face, Ms. Strilets recalled. Russian forces had opened fire on the car carrying Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko, he told her. They were both dead.
Ms. Strilets and Mr. Provornov rushed to get the boys and brought them to their home, explaining that the children’s parents had gone to Kyiv.
Despite having just lost her younger sister, Ms. Strilets said she hid her anguish from the boys. Unbeknown to Tymofiy, the adults began negotiating with the Russians for permission to remove his mother and stepfather’s bodies from the street. With the help of a neighbor, relatives loaded their remains into a minivan on March 10, and took them to the family home, where they were buried in a shallow grave in the corner of the yard, according to Ms. Strilets and Mr. Provornov.
Tymofiy received messages from classmates expressing sympathy for his loss, and asked his aunt what had happened, she recalled. Perhaps his house had been damaged by shelling, Ms. Strilets told him.
“How do you tell the kids their parents are gone?” she said later. Then the power was cut and they could no longer charge their phones, helping her conceal the truth for longer.
In a notebook, Tymofiy was recording his experience of the war.
“The hope for victory is fading rapidly!” he wrote on March 13. “I’ve gotten used to shells flying over my head. We still don’t have electricity. We are running out of bread—and patience…”
As they grew accustomed to the rhythms of war, the kids were allowed out to play during lulls in the shelling, and Ms. Strilets’s story began to crack. Her teenage son said a neighbor’s daughter had blurted out that the boys’ parents were dead. Still, Ms. Strilets said nothing.
In the end, it was Serafim who revealed the truth. “Mum and dad were killed,” declared the boy, according to Ms. Strilets. Tymofiy asked his aunt if it was true. She said it was.
On March 18, Tymofiy scribbled in red, with a drawing of a devil shooting sparks from its eyes. “I found out what happened to my mum and Sirozha. They were killed!” wrote Tymofiy. “Auntie Lena hid this until the very last moment…”
The following day, he received another blow. “Today my dog Bonya died because of the shelling. He was killed by a fragment of the enemy’s shell,” Tymofiy wrote. “The shell itself struck my friend lllia Tyshchenko’s fence. The shrapnel damaged a lot; our neighbor’s fence…; a tree, our fence.”
In the margin, he wrote: “Dreams don’t come true.”
Timofiy, 12, whose mother and stepfather were killed during Russia’s occupation of the village of Shevchenkove, recorded his experience of the war in a diary.
“My mom and Sirozha have been stuck in Kyiv since last week,” Timofiy wrote in the first entry in his war diary, dated March 12. “For four days my brother Serafim and I are staying with our auntie… I have lost count of how many times we went to the cellar but that’s okay.”
On March 13, Timofiy wrote: “The hope for victory is fading rapidly! I’ve gotten used to shells flying over my head. We still don’t have electricity. We are running out of bread – and patience…”
The entry dated March 18 is “I found out what happened to my mum and Sirozha. They were killed!” wrote Timofiy.
The following day, Timofiy received another blow: “Today my dog Bonya died because of the shelling. He was killed by a fragment of the enemy’s shell. The shell itself struck my friend lllia Tyshchenko’s fence. The shrapnel damaged a lot; our neighbor’s fence…; a tree, our fence.
In the margin, he wrote in red: “Dreams don’t come true”.
After Russian forces withdrew from Shevchenkove, Timofiy wrote: “Yesterday and today the police brought us stuff, clothes, sweets etc…”
The diary is blank for the next eight days. At some point he drew a smiling devil, two ghosts, and two sad human figures on its cover.
“We still have no electricity or gas. Connection (cell service) is starting to vanish and so is hope,” read an entry dated March 27.
By the next time Tymofiy wrote, Russian forces had left the village in a broader retreat from the capital as the front shifted east. “Yesterday and today police brought us stuff, clothes, sweets, etc.,” he wrote on April 10.
The occupation was over, but the mood in the household was somber. The adults were busy arranging a proper burial for Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko. Their remains were dug up from the garden by men caught looting during the occupation, who have been drafted to clean up after the Russians as community service, according to relatives.
“I cannot imagine my life without my parents,” Tymofiy wrote as preparations were made for the funeral on April 12.
Less than a month after the funeral, the family gathered again on the annual Day of the Dead, when Ukrainians visit the graves of their deceased relatives.
This year, the tradition served to take stock of the thousands of soldiers and civilians killed since Russia invaded the country less than three months ago, including 226 children, according to Ukrainian officials. Nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s estimated 7.5 million children were displaced from their homes within the first six weeks of the war, according to Unicef.
“Prayer and patience—I have no other remedy for you,” a priest told Ms. Strilets and her mother as they entered the graveyard.
While the adults grieved, the children darted around the cemetery collecting chocolates placed on the graves of the dead.
Buried beside Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko is the man who helped retrieve their bodies after they were killed. He was subsequently shot and incinerated in a barn—not by the Russians, but by a fellow Ukrainian who bore a grudge against him and is suspected of collaboration, said Mr. Provornov and Volodymyr Yovenko, the head of the village. The accused hasn’t been seen in the village since Russian forces left.
Over a spread of food laid on a table next to their graves, the family reminisced about Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko. As homemade wine flowed, the conversation turned to war.
On the way back from the graveyard, the family stopped to look at the silver-blue Opel Vectra in which the couple made their final journey, ending on a grass strip beneath a cherry tree—now in blossom.
If the couple had taken cover at the market instead of rushing home to the children, they might not have found themselves in the path of a column of Russian vehicles, relatives said. The car was hit from behind, smashing the rear windshield. Inside the vehicle were the blood-soaked hats the couple was wearing and a box of the tea they sold at the market. Looters had ripped out the radio.
“People died for no reason,” said Mr. Yovenko, the village head, who narrowly escaped death himself. The squashed remains of his car, which he said was run over by a Russian tank moments after he jumped clear, sat just down the road from Ms. Vashchenko and Mr. Yesypenko’s vehicle.
On his phone, Mr. Yovenko swiped through photographs of some of the 16 corpses found after Russia’s occupation of Shevchenkove, including several men who had been executed in a basement. All of them were unarmed civilians, he said.
One photo showed Ms. Vashchenko wearing a green padded coat and slumped forward, her blond hair falling over the dashboard. A head wound was visible through a gash in Mr. Yesypenko’s hat.
The Kremlin and the Russian ministry of defense didn’t respond to a request for comment about the Russian occupation of the village. Moscow has denied that it deliberately targets civilians.
The couple met about seven years ago, after Ms. Vashchenko divorced Tymofiy’s father. Together they had Serafim. They were saving up to buy a second car and planned to expand their home’s garage, relatives said. Ms. Vashchenko had also bought a plot of land on which to build Tymofiy a house, for him to occupy when he is an adult.
After the couple was killed, Mr. Yesypenko’s sisters moved into the spacious house where the family used to live.
The boys remained with Ms. Strilets in a small bungalow, but Mr. Yesypenko’s sisters wanted custody. The dispute was referred to a local body that ruled in Ms. Strilets’s favor. Mr. Yesypenko’s sisters plan to appeal.
Both sides agree the boys shouldn’t be separated, but the legal rights over Tymofiy and his brother are unclear. Mr. Yesypenko was Serafim’s father.
At Ms. Strilets’s house, Tymofiy offered a tour of the neighborhood where he has spent the war. The sights include a crater left by a missile that landed in a neighbor’s garden; the house of a friend whose windows were blown out by an explosion; another crater from the missile that killed his dog, and the spot where it is buried. “There was so much blood,” he said. “It was awful.”
Before the war, Tymofiy collected coins. Now he also collects fragments of shrapnel around the village “to have material evidence that this whole thing really happened,” he said. A younger cousin tagging along crammed the smallest pieces of shrapnel into the plastic casing found inside chocolate Kinder eggs.
“Probably they did this to intimidate Ukrainians, to show them how strong they are so Ukrainians would stop resisting,” he said of the destruction.
After the war, Tymofiy wants to finish his studies, undertake military service and attend the same college as his mother. He aspires to become a doctor.
Meanwhile, he plans to continue keeping a diary. “Maybe someday, someone will want to know about my story,” he said.
—Nina Tararuieva contributed to this article.
Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]
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