She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

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Victoria Amelina stands subsequent to a cherry tree within the yard of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a Ukrainian kids’s e-book writer, the place he buried his diary of residing underneath Russian occupation in Kapytolivka earlier than he was killed. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Victoria Amelina stands subsequent to a cherry tree within the yard of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a Ukrainian kids’s e-book writer, the place he buried his diary of residing underneath Russian occupation in Kapytolivka earlier than he was killed.

Claire Harbage/NPR

KAPYTOLIVKA, KYIV AND LVIV, Ukraine — Final fall, the novelist Victoria Amelina discovered herself frantically digging up a fellow author’s yard in northeastern Ukraine.

She was searching for a diary belonging to kids’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko. He normally wrote offbeat, deeply empathetic poems for kids however his diary was about life underneath Russian occupation.

After hours of fruitless digging alongside the author’s father, Amelina felt a twinge of grief and panic.

“The second after I thought we would not have the ability to discover this diary maybe remains to be the scariest second for me,” Amelina mentioned late final Could. “At this second, I felt my head spinning, desirous about all of the Ukrainian manuscripts which were misplaced over the previous centuries, and this is perhaps one other one.”

In an essay for the literary and free expression group PEN Ukraine final yr, Amelina wrote that imperial and Soviet Russia had lengthy suppressed Ukrainian tradition. She described how, within the Thirties, Soviets murdered Ukrainian writers and intellectuals, destroying their manuscripts and confiscating literary magazines that revealed their work.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she mentioned, she felt prefer it was taking place over again.

“The Russians wish to exterminate Ukrainian tradition,” she informed NPR final Could. “They wish to kill these they can not flip right into a Russian.”

She had seen it occur to Vakulenko, who was taken from his house and murdered by occupying Russian forces.

Six months later, Amelina would lose her personal life whereas making an attempt to doc the atrocities of conflict. She was 37 years previous.

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Amelina stands with the dad and mom of Volodymyr Vakulenko in a room that memorializes his life. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Amelina stands with the dad and mom of Volodymyr Vakulenko in a room that memorializes his life.

Claire Harbage/NPR

“Like pages reshuffled in a e-book”

Born within the western metropolis of Lviv, Amelina studied pc science and labored in data expertise earlier than changing into a full-time author. She wrote award-winning novels, kids’s tales and essays, changing into considered one of Ukraine’s most promising authors.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, she additionally wrote a variety of poetry. The strains of 1 poem described the fact of conflict as “devouring all punctuation / devouring the plot coherence / devouring.”

She hosted displaced Ukrainians in Lviv and delivered humanitarian assist. However she needed to do extra. She recalled strolling round her hometown, the place the human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin as soon as studied, years earlier than he coined the time period genocide.

“I noticed a plaque devoted to him, and that made me cease and suppose that perhaps I can do greater than transferring the packing containers of humanitarian assist,” she informed me once we final noticed one another in early June in Kyiv.

So she skilled as a conflict crimes researcher, becoming a member of Reality Hounds, a Ukrainian group documenting such crimes. It was based in 2014, after Russian proxies forcibly occupied components of the jap area of Donbas. After Russia’s full-scale invasion, they wanted assist greater than ever.

“Whenever you discuss to survivors and eyewitnesses, these are people who find themselves, initially, deeply traumatized,” she mentioned. “Their reminiscence retains leaping from one place to the opposite.”

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Amelina sits with Vakulenko’s dad and mom — his mom, Olena Ihnatenko (left), and his father, who shares his identify. They tear up each time they discuss their son. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Amelina sits with Vakulenko’s dad and mom — his mom, Olena Ihnatenko (left), and his father, who shares his identify. They tear up each time they discuss their son.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Their tales had been out of order, like pages reshuffled in a e-book. She tried to piece collectively a story utilizing the novelist’s creed — “present, do not inform” — asking what the individual noticed or heard or felt. Typically she would attempt to jog their reminiscence by asking them concerning the climate or what garments they had been carrying that day.

“On the similar time, there was a hazard I used to be making an attempt to keep away from as a result of, considering as a novelist, I would attempt to make the story too small, as a result of novels typically have some good storyline,” she mentioned. “In actual life, not all questions can have solutions.”

The opposite author

Amelina traveled to the jap district of Izium final fall, not lengthy after Ukrainian forces had recaptured it. In Kapytolivka, a low-key village in Izium with unpaved roads and a white-washed, light-blue church, the dad and mom of Vakulenko, the youngsters’s writer, had been ready for information on his whereabouts after he had disappeared on March 24, 2022.

“We do not know what was mentioned about our son,” his mom, Olena Ihnatenko, informed NPR late final yr, after Ukrainian forces liberated the village. “Perhaps folks recognized him as a nationalist to save lots of themselves.”

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Vakulenko’s mom, Olena Ihnatenko. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Vakulenko’s mom, Olena Ihnatenko.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Vakulenko did not conceal his disdainful views on Russia. In a 2018 interview, he known as for Ukrainians to interrupt freed from Russian affect.

“I lived via the Soviet Union, and I hated it with all my coronary heart,” he mentioned. “We do not want them or their matryoshka dolls. We’ve to rebuild our personal tradition.”

After the Russians invaded and occupied Kapytolivka in early March 2022, Vakulenko began writing down what he noticed in a skinny, flimsy pocket book of graph paper. Lower than a month later, Russian forces raided his house. The subsequent day, he rolled the pocket book right into a cylinder, wrapped it in plastic luggage and buried it in his yard. And the day after that, Russian paramilitaries, wearing black, dragged him out of his house.

“He needed to save lots of [the diary] from the Russians,” his father, who shares his identify, informed NPR. “He needed Ukrainians to learn it.”

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A destroyed house is surrounded by blooming rosebushes in Could in Kapytolivka. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

A destroyed house is surrounded by blooming rosebushes in Could in Kapytolivka.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Beneath the cherry tree

Amelina arrived in Kapytolivka late final yr to interview residents for Reality Hounds, and spoke to Vakulenko’s dad and mom. She informed them that she had met Vakulenko at literary festivals in jap Ukraine, the place he learn his poetry aloud to kids close to the entrance line.

That is when his father informed her concerning the diary.

“We finally discovered it underneath a cherry tree,” Amelina mentioned. “And it was a really emotional second. This was a brief diary that was rapidly made, however it was the final work of a Ukrainian author killed by Russians.”

The diary’s pages had been damp after being within the floor for months. Together with his household’s permission, Amelina took it to a literary museum within the northeastern metropolis of Kharkiv. Conservators there restored it.

In one of many entries, Vakulenko tried to seek out hope in his circumstances. “I’ve pulled myself collectively and even labored within the backyard a bit, bringing potatoes into the home,” he wrote. “The birds chirp solely within the morning. As we speak, a small flock of cranes greeted me from the sky, as if to say, ‘I consider in victory.'”

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The older Volodymyr Vakulenko stands in a backyard devoted to his son with the identical identify, close to his house in Kapytolivka. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

The older Volodymyr Vakulenko stands in a backyard devoted to his son with the identical identify, close to his house in Kapytolivka.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Final September, seven months after Vakulenko wrote these phrases, Ukrainian authorities found a mass grave within the woods close to his village. A ledger itemizing the useless indicated that Vakulenko was buried there, and DNA assessments confirmed it. Police mentioned Vakulenko had been shot to demise shortly after his arrest. He was 49 years previous.

Amelina was at his funeral, comforting his mom, who was inconsolable as she embraced her son’s coffin.

Ukrainian tradition erased

Amelina informed and retold Vakulenko’s story, saying Russia shouldn’t be allowed to get away with killing Ukrainian writers once more, as that they had within the Soviet purges of the Thirties.

“I hope all the world sees what is going on on, that Ukrainian tradition is being systematically erased by our neighbor,” she mentioned.

In Could, Vakulenko posthumously was awarded a particular prize from the Worldwide Publishers Affiliation. Amelina accepted the award on his behalf on the ceremony in Lillehammer, Norway.

“I’m a Ukrainian author talking on behalf of my colleague who, in contrast to me, did not survive one other try of the Russian Empire to erase Ukrainian id,” she mentioned on the time.

Later that month, NPR joined Amelina in Kapytolivka as she introduced the award to his dad and mom. His mom embraced the plaque and wept. His father closed his eyes and spoke to his son, as if he was nonetheless within the room. “We’re so pleased with you,” he mentioned in a damaged voice.

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Amelina presents a particular award from the Worldwide Publishers Affiliation to Vakulenko’s dad and mom in Could. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Amelina presents a particular award from the Worldwide Publishers Affiliation to Vakulenko’s dad and mom in Could.

Claire Harbage/NPR

They huddled with Amelina, who wiped away her personal tears. “Each time, once they discuss their son, they’re crying once more,” she mentioned. “No awards can substitute in your baby.”

The three then walked to a big backyard devoted to Vakulenko on the entrance of the village. They planted extra flowers there collectively.

With Amelina’s assist, Vakulenko’s diary was revealed final month underneath the title, I Am Reworking: A Diary of Occupation. It contains his chosen poems and a preface by Amelina. Vakulenko’s mom joined Amelina in presenting it on the Kyiv Ebook Arsenal, a big literary pageant in Ukraine’s capital.

Additionally there was Tetyana Teren, government director of PEN Ukraine, who informed the pageant that the principle process for Ukraine’s tradition within the many years to return shall be “preserving the reminiscence of our fallen fellow Ukrainians, persevering with their work and creating their concepts.”

“She was glad”

Amelina was just lately awarded a yearlong residency in Paris for Ukrainian writers. She deliberate to maneuver there this fall along with her 12-year-old son and end her newest e-book, which she described as “a diary of a couple of dozen girls, together with myself, pursuing justice.”

“After I began writing, I wasn’t positive that justice was even doable,” she informed NPR in June. “Now I’ve way more hope.”

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Amelina smiles as she vegetation flowers in a backyard devoted to Vakulenko. Claire Harbage/NPR conceal caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Amelina smiles as she vegetation flowers in a backyard devoted to Vakulenko.

Claire Harbage/NPR

She mentioned she felt torn about leaving Ukraine and was intent on persevering with her work there till it was time to go.

On the finish of final month, she returned to Kapytolivka with a bunch that included Colombian novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince and journalist Catalina Gómez. Abad, who wrote a best-selling e-book about his father’s homicide by the hands of paramilitaries, had invited Amelina to a literary pageant in Cartagena and has strongly campaigned for Colombia and different Latin American international locations to assist Ukraine.

Gómez recalled how Amelina and Abad stood collectively underneath the cherry tree the place Vakulenko’s diary had been buried. Amelina retold his story for Abad, sparking an emotional dialog.

“It was a dialog between two writers, two folks affected by conflict,” Gómez mentioned. “They usually talked like this for a very long time.”

Gómez additionally seen how shut Amelina appeared to Vakulenko’s dad and mom. “She felt liable for taking good care of his father, his mom, even his son,” she mentioned. “She was a part of the household.”

On June 27, the group finally ended up in Kramatorsk, in jap Ukraine. It is about an hour’s drive away from an energetic entrance line however is a serious hub for humanitarian employees and journalists. Gómez mentioned they stopped at a well-liked restaurant someday round 7 p.m. They had been about to lift their glasses for a toast.

“Victoria was laughing,” Gómez mentioned. “She was glad.”

After which, about quarter-hour later, there was an explosion. Gómez remembers practically everybody round being knocked to the bottom. Abad, who was barely injured, informed the Argentine newspaper Clarín in an interview that when the mud cleared, Amelina was the one one nonetheless sitting in her chair, “pale as a wax candle.”

“She was not transferring,” Gómez mentioned. “I shout her identify many occasions as a way to see if she react.”

She by no means awakened. Victoria Amelina died on July 1, on what would have been Volodymyr Vakulenko’s 51st birthday. That missile claimed 12 different lives.

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Holding a photograph of Ukrainian author Victoria Amelina, Sofia Cheliak hugs a lady throughout a memorial service for Amelina in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 4. The award-winning author died from her accidents after the June 27 Russian missile strike on a well-liked restaurant frequented by journalists and assist employees in jap Ukraine. Jae C. Hong/AP conceal caption

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Jae C. Hong/AP

- She saved the diary of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too

Holding a photograph of Ukrainian author Victoria Amelina, Sofia Cheliak hugs a lady throughout a memorial service for Amelina in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 4. The award-winning author died from her accidents after the June 27 Russian missile strike on a well-liked restaurant frequented by journalists and assist employees in jap Ukraine.

Jae C. Hong/AP

A number of days later, Amelina was buried in her hometown, Lviv. As a hearse carried her coffin to the cemetery, mourners alongside the streets fell to their knees. It is a signal of respect Ukrainians normally reserve for fallen troopers.

Her household and pals, tear-stained and clad in black, huddled round her flower-covered grave as a band sang verses from Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet who died in a Soviet labor camp in 1986.

His poem is about looking for gentle in a graveyard of souls. Amelina carried the sunshine for the legacy of a Ukrainian author killed by Russia’s conflict. Now her family members are tasked with doing the identical for her.

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