You Don't Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine

Image of You Don't Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine
Release Date: 
October 25, 2022
Union Square & Co.
Reviewed by: 

“her diary is a reminder that the voices of children from the frontlines of the modern world are seldom heard but always important.”

It is still less than a year since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but the coverage of the conflict has been immense and through. Indeed, between January and end of September 2022, Ukraine received five times more media coverage than the combined coverage of the ten worst conflict-affected countries in which to be a child in 2021. What has been missing in a conflict where coverage has focused on the fighting is the stories of Ukrainian children.

Hundreds of Ukraine children have been killed since last February, thousands more injured but the numbers forced to flee their homes goes into the millions. Two-thirds of children in Ukraine have left their homes, many moving to the safer western parts of the country but even more leaving the country entirely. One of these children is 12-year-old Yeva Skalietska from Kharkiv. This short book is her diary of the moment of the invasion and her subsequent flight from the country.

Her family made the decision to leave within two weeks of the invasion, and she traveled from close to the front line to Hungary and then onto Ireland where she was able in enroll in school by April. Skalietska’s experience is unlike so many different nationalities of children who’ve found themselves fleeing conflict in that her migration was legal and supported all the way, with a media crew from Britain covering the experience and helping where they could.

The diary shows in simple terms how the normality of school, friends, and the concept of home can be shattered by events of a global scale. Skalietska initially suffers from panic attacks but seems to quickly get used to the background of war, its sounds and rhythm. Critically important to her welfare is the ability to still be connected via her phone to friends, family, and a sense of the events as they started to unfold. Snippets of the diary show how rumour can dominate the chaos of war as civilians desperately try to piece together what is happening to allow them to make the choices that will keep their families safe. Knowing where her friends are, that they are safe and wrestling with similar challenges creates an instant sense of collective struggle that is reflected in a short appendix that captures their experiences.

Unlike her adult counterparts Skalietska is constantly asking “why” regarding events. The notion of living in a safe place to suddenly having missiles landing nearby and the boom of artillery as a constant background, is understandably more alien to a child. She writes that “attacking my home is like attacking a piece of me.” Being close to death is never a comfortable experience but questions about her own mortality again are seldom asked by those at the start of their lives.

In the space of a few weeks, she sees some of the best of humanity and some of the worst. She sees the generosity of strangers, the care her fellow citizens give to their animals and Ukrainians writing “children” on their cars as they flee westward. She also hears of cluster bombs being dropped and the houses of her friends being destroyed. Finally, from the safety of Ireland her emotions yoyo as she feels safe but homesick and has transitioned from being a participant in the conflict to a distant observer.

Skalietska, at the age of 12, is both a refugee uncertain about whether and when she can return to her country, and a published author whose diary is narrated in audiobook form by Hollywood star Keira Knightley. Most of all her diary is a reminder that the voices of children from the frontlines of the modern world are seldom heard but always important.