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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Despair, Love, Betrayal — Then Death: A Ukrainian War Diary

Volodymyr Vakulenko was a Ukrainian writer killed by the Russians during the invasion. He left behind a diary that is intensely personal, yet encompasses much of the tragedy of his nation.

Photo of Ukrainian writer, Volodymyr Vakulenko

Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova

KYIV — Volodymyr Vakulenko lived in the Ukrainian village of Kapitolivka near Izyum, with his 14-year-old son who has autism. Volodymyr was abducted by the Russians back in March, in the weeks after the invasion. For months, his family, investigators, fellow writers, journalists and volunteers searched for him in vain.

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Volodymyr recounted in his diary, which was later found, the first weeks of the Russian invasion of the Izyum region in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv-based media Livy Bereg takes a look back at Volodymyr's life and publishes excerpts from his diary, the original of which is now kept in the Kharkiv Literary Museum.

This is his story:


Continuing volunteer work

His diary tells the story of a civilian whose only fault was a constant devotion to his country. Volodymyr had last taken up arms in his youth, while serving in the Soviet army. He was severely beaten twice there, which had left him with life-long disabilities — problems with his spine and hearing.

Volodymyr suffered another injury, this time to the head, during Ukraine's 2014 revolution, which was why he did not serve in the Ukrainian army. Instead, he continued his writing and volunteer work.

“My volunteering began long before these events, but it was different, such as helping people with disabilities, and it did not stop for many years [...]. Yet the fighting arrived, like an angry viper crawling closer and closer to my hometown.”

Silence and humiliation

Volodymyr raised his 14-year-old son Vitalik. The boy has a complex form of an autistic disorder. He does not speak and needs constant care. The boy's mother, Iryna Novitska, lost the ability to walk three years after giving birth, so after the divorce, the family decided that the boy would stay with his father.

The most difficult thing under occupation was the lack of information

Volodymyr did not like to leave his son alone, even for a minute, so he took him everywhere with him: even when he began to deliver aid to soldiers at checkpoints. Every day, they walked together for 5-20 kilometers. He collected money to help the military, like many others, through social networks. And sometimes, someone in the supermarket would come up to him asking to give soldiers a “package of goodies”, as he calls it in his diary.

The most difficult thing under occupation was the lack of communication and understanding of the situation in the country.

He says in his diary: “The mayor hid from responsibility, there was no connection at all, we didn’t even know if the city was still standing or taken by the enemy. There was absolutely no news, a complete lack of communication with any authorities to somehow clarify what was happening in our village — there were many occupiers and checkpoints every 100 meters. They were constantly searching, even empty bags. Another thing, I was terribly upset that my nerves could not stand such humiliation.”

To stay or go?

The Vakulenkos, like other residents of Kapitolivka, tried to assess the situation by the sounds of fighting.

“Those explosions that scared a little at the beginning of the war were even pleasing to hear during the occupation, depending on the direction. If there were battles, it means that the city is standing, it means that our boys are alive.”

The second hardest thing was how to ensure the stability of a teenager with an extremely vulnerable nervous system and explain to him what was happening. Volodymyr's mother, Olena, says that during the first two weeks of the invasion, she constantly asked her son to leave with her grandson, but he said that he should stay and help our people, and also take care of his father after a stroke. And then it was too late.

“It would be extremely dangerous for me, with my patriotic pro-Ukrainian views, to find myself trapped in an enemy ring, but I had no choice. I have a child with a special perception of everything around him, who stopped any communication with the outside world in the first days of March. In the end, I already understood that all these explosions... would affect his autistic psyche as well. [...] Kharkiv has been bombed and its rebuilding will take years.”

Betrayal

Natalia Ivashura, a specialist in working with autistic teenagers and the mother of a 17-year-old boy with an autistic disorder, says: “Since the beginning of the full-scale war, many Ukrainians have felt a loss of control over their lives. Frankly speaking, families of children with autism lost that control a long time ago. The fact is that children with autism are more calm and successful in situations that can be predicted... during war, this is almost impossible."

She continues: "The decision to evacuate is very difficult for many, because being with such a child in a foreign city, in a foreign country is a tough challenge. That is why some families stayed at home, even if the settlement was occupied by enemies, because a child, for example, falls asleep only in his bed... Often it is impossible to convince a child with autism to go into a bomb shelter, because there can be too many sensory stimuli, and this makes the parents feel helpless, unable to protect the child and themselves.”

While taking care of his son and father, Volodymyr continued to volunteer.

“Any kind of heroism, such as stopping an armored personnel carrier, takes place in big cities, and we are a small village, where the maximum that can be done is to gather patriotic people – no more than 2-3 people. I knew this for a long time, so I lived as a hermit. I always knew that I would be betrayed sooner or later, and as it turned out later, there were a lot of informers.”

Olena says that her son was very ardent and, perhaps, even overly fearless. He convinced fellow villagers to speak Ukrainian and not to trust Russian television. Someone from the locals, says Olena, betrayed him to the occupiers. At first, the Russians stopped him on the street, checked him, searching even empty bags.

Photo of Volodya with his son Vitalik

Volodya with his son Vitalik

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Capture

On March 22, five occupiers came to the yard of Volodymyr’s father and asked: “Where is your nationalist?” They took phones, documents and Ukrainian books "for inspection". The next day, Volodymyr and his son were taken away. They forced them to undress and show tattoos.

By evening, Volodymyr and his son were released. They said they would return the documents the next day, but of course, they did not.

The second time the writer was taken away was on March 24. This time he did not return home.

“The documents were found later, on May 12, in a purse along with the body, shot through with a bullet," says Volodymyr's ex-wife Iryna Novitska. "Volodymyr was picked up [after being released] by a volunteer from a group that drove the streets picking up bodies. Some enemy equipment was burning near the place where the body was found. And those Russians who came to put it out paid attention to the body and let the volunteers know. In the posthumous photo, the documents are laid out in his hands, unfolded. I don’t know where they disappeared to afterwards.”

The second time the writer was taken away was on March 24. This time he did not return home. But before that, he buried his diary under a cherry tree in the garden.

Olena was looking for her son for months. She knocked on every door of the occupation administrations and the so-called “militsiya”. At first, they told her “Don't worry, we'll let him go, we're not Nazis”. Then they lied that they had no information, but were looking for it.

“When I came to the Russian military commandant again," Olena says, "he didn't even look at me, he looked over my head, somewhere at the wall: 'We are working. We are searching'. And I understood that they all knew where he was and what happened to him. They were just lying to my face.”

In the autumn, the world would discover that there were 12 Russian torture chambers in Izyum.

Broken heart

While looking for Volodymyr, the family tried to survive. There had been almost no food in the city since the beginning of the occupation. Vitalik nearly died three times, but fortunately survived.

Other writers found out about Volodymyr's abduction on April 10, when his ex-wife Iryna Novitska reported it on Facebook. Since then and until the liberation of the occupied territories of the Kharkiv region in September, no one had any contact with Volodymyr's relatives in Kapitolivka. They did not even know that the occupiers, fortunately, had immediately released Vitalik. Human rights activists could only talk about Volodymyr's case on international platforms, but there was no way to check the facts and collect evidence.

After the liberation of the Izyum region, mass graves were opened. According to the book of records of the Izyum ritual service, the body of Volodymyr Vakulenko is in grave No. 319. Olena, who lived in hope all that time, says her heart broke then.

Aftermath

Two bullets from a pistol were found in Volodymyr's body. Head of the Investigation Department of the Kharkiv Region Police Serhiy Bolvinov announced the findings at the end of November. Witnesses noticed bullet holes in the body and in his documents. The body had been on the street for more than a month.

Birds chirp only in the morning.

Olena doesn't know if Vitalik understands that his father is gone. She says: “I still haven't figured out how to explain it to him, but when we talk about Volodymyr, he gets very nervous.”

An entry from Volodymyr's diary reads:

“At first, I dreamed of numbers, old calendars, my friends and boys (*Ukrainian soldiers), as if I were hugging them, meeting them. I'm afraid to think what happened to them. In the first days of the occupation, I gave up a little because of my half-starved state in general. Now I have pulled myself together, even worked in the garden a little and brought potatoes into the house. Birds chirp only in the morning... Finally, in the evening, music on my cell phone saves me. And today, on the Day of Poetry, a small flock of cranes congratulated me from the sky, seeming to say: 'Everything will be Ukraine!' I believe in victory!"

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