A collage of a childhood photo and the view of the central square in Vinnytsia after the attack

A collage of a childhood photo and the view of the central square in Vinnytsia after the attack

Foto:

Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

My Square Is Black When War Knocks on Your Door

Ukrainian photographer Julia Kochetova documents the suffering in her country for DER SPIEGEL. She long believed that her parents were safe, but then Russian missiles began striking her hometown.

We're standing in front of the closed doors of a mall in Dnipro, where we wanted to stock up on sweets, canned food and cigarettes for a longer reporting trip into Donbas. Trips to the war zone have been a routine thing for me since 2014. My east has almost become home.

Since Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded my country on a broad front and besieged my home in Kyiv, I have gotten used to the air raid alarms. Shrill beeps and a monotone voice: "Attention, air alert! Get to the shelters as quickly as possible! Stay there until the alarm is over!" Like most people, and after months of this war, I hardly look up when I hear it, because the launch of a Russian missile often triggers alarms across the country. We Ukrainians still want to live a little bit, without always having to worry.

About Julia Kochetova
Foto:

Julia Kochetova

Julia Kochetova, 28, is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. She works for well-known international media including Vice, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair and DER SPIEGEL. She has been traveling almost non-stop in her country since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. In addition to war, her work also focuses on feminism and the dreams and concerns of the younger generation in her country. She regularly publishes her photographs on her Instagram account @seameer.

It's July 14, and we're standing in front of the mall in Dnipro. Since the attack on a shopping center in Kremenchuk two and a half weeks earlier, which killed 21 people, evacuations of larger stores have become routine. The people in Dnipro stand together in small groups in front of the building, smoking, chatting, waiting for the situation to return to normal. I scroll through Telegram.

That's where I see the message. 10:53 a.m.: "Explosions in Vinnytsia, the information will be updated." I dial my mother's number. The phone rings for 10, maybe 15 seconds. It feels like an eternity. I think back to the impacts I experienced weeks earlier in Kyiv. Fire, dark smoke, the stench of burning plastic and fire-fighting water, the tired faces of rescue workers. My mom finally picks up the phone. "There were explosions," she says. "All the windows are shattered. I have to take the children down to the basement now."

I get cold and I start to shiver

I'm standing in front of the mall, 470 kilometers (292 miles) away, and I want to go home. I badly want to go to my parents. I look tensely at my phone, at the latest news coming in from Vinnytsia. On Telegram, they say that "the missiles landed in front of the maternity ward at a hospital. The number of victims hasn't been determined yet." I get cold and I start to shiver. My colleagues ask me what's wrong. I tell them that the rockets struck close to my home. I'm already starting to think about the consequences this will have for our work.

I was born on the third floor of the same maternity ward almost 29 years ago. My mother would point to the window as we passed it countless times. The building is located two minutes away from my parents' house.

The maternity hospital in Vinnytsia where the author was born

The maternity hospital in Vinnytsia where the author was born

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The Neuromed clinic in Vinnytsia after the rocket attack on July 14

The Neuromed clinic in Vinnytsia after the rocket attack on July 14

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Vinnytsia is in the western part of Ukraine, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest active frontline. My hometown is even farther away from Donbas, where I have spent the past eight years documenting the war. Even during the first weeks of this larger war, little happened in my hometown. It came as a shock to me that my parents had to go down to the shelter on Feb. 24. But that was as far as it went. Many others had fled to Vinnytsia. I had always been certain despite the suffering I photograph that the war wouldn't reach my family home. The war would not touch my family, not so close.

I try to imagine what else happened in my city

Now, I have the first photos from Vinnytsia – Vinnytsia! – on my phone, in front of my eyes, showing burning cars. The House of Officers, our city's Palace of Culture, in flames. As a journalist, I had experienced that kind of suffering firsthand, but elsewhere. In a way, the experience had given me a sense of security. The more I experienced, the better prepared I felt for what was to come. But now those experiences are driving me crazy. I try to imagine what else happened in my city, what might have happened to my father. My phone vibrates almost non-stop: Are your parents alive?

When my brother Sasha, who is two years older, and I were teenagers, we read the German writer Erich Maria Remarque. He always wondered why I also liked those books. "Everyone drinks Calvados and, in the end, someone dies!" I wonder if the book "Arch of Triumph" is still in its place in dad's library, or if it has gone up in flames. Thoughts like that suddenly flash through my mind.

When we were little, we played war at home. The big, cozy armchair in the living room was our fortress, stuffed socks were hand grenades. My brother is serving in the war now, and I'm photographing this war. This fight has long since become our purpose in life. It's not a game that can just be stopped at any time.

I see the smoke rising above Victory Square in Vinnytsia on my iPhone. Thick and black. The touch of war. I can almost feel the vapor biting at my lungs. The little shopping center where I had my silver chain repaired when I was a teenager is burning. There are flames around the House of Officers where, four years ago, the dancers of Sukhishvili, the Georgian National Ballet, had thrilled me.

I know that the bravest are often among the first victims

There are new messages on my phone: More than eight dead now. The bodies are still being counted. The number will continue to rise. It always rises.

11:29 a.m.: My father takes my call. "Julichka," he says to me, "it's not so bad. Only one window is broken." I ask him to remember their promise that they would leave the city as soon as something happened as close as it did today. "But it's unlikely they would shell the same place twice," he says. I know for sure it could hit twice. I have experienced the deaths of friends and good colleagues in the past few months. I know that the bravest are often among the first victims. What gives my dad this certainty?

A boy mourns the four-year-old girl killed in Vinnytsia.

A boy mourns the four-year-old girl killed in Vinnytsia.

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Since Feb. 24, I have been in many homes with glass on the beds. I wonder if there are now shards in the the bedroom where I grew up, too? I can almost feel the tiny pieces of glass in my throat. How am I supposed to explain all this to my colleagues now? We type Vinnytsia into Google Maps and drive west in silence. All I think about is wanting to be with my family.

"Three children among the dead," reads a statement from the state emergency service. A pixelated photo shows a dead girl in pink, her body torn. The leg of another victim can be seen lying next to her. The child's mother is in intensive care. Who will tell her about her daughter's death if she survives?

11:33 a.m.: I call my friend Olena. She had been very worried when her father and grandparents were evacuated from occupied Irpin at the beginning of the full-scale war. That same day, another family died while trying to flee. Olena knows how it feels when death gets that close to your family. She now says: "Julia, calm down, your parents are alive!" She says I should ignore any further videos or heavy photos from Vinnytsia. After a few moments, I scroll through Telegram again. There are images of injured people bleeding.

Driving through the village, I see a stork's nest on a house and remember the folk wisdom that these animals bring health and happiness to us. We drive by. I think about how distant thoughts like that are now.

12:07 p.m.: My friend Ruslan calls. "Why are you crying now? Nothing happened to your parents. Do you cry every time someone dies? It's not like you can change anything now, anyway." He has been a soldier in this war for four years now. He serves as an officer. His sense of detachment helps him. But it doesn't work for me because I'm an artist. My emotions are extremely important to me. Except that now I'm no longer in control of them. The girl lying dead in the square is named Liza. She was four years old.

The family of Liza, the girl killed in the July 14 attack

The family of Liza, the girl killed in the July 14 attack

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

5 p.m.: "Twenty-two dead, only six identified, 39 people still missing," it says now on Telegram. I wonder what the bodies must look like and what happened to all the others. "Maybe there will be 50 more deaths," my colleague says. I find this numerical thinking obscene. Even more so because it has now happened in my own city. One of my friends or acquaintances could count among these statistics. I think about how people make suffering abstract. My friend Anastasia had told me how, in the poetry of World War I, people stopped talking of arms and legs getting torn off, but rather of "limbs." In the Soviet Union, the code 300 stood for wounded, 200 for dead.

7 p.m.: "Fifty-one seriously injured are being treated in hospitals, including three children. Five people are in critical condition." I would like to know their names. I'd like to find out where they grew up, where they bought ice cream, where they learned to ride a bicycle.

"This is a dark day," my colleague says as the evening sun streams through the window. We drive into the darkness. It is another 160 kilometers to Vinnytsia. After more than four months of war, grass has grown on the embankments. The trenches look like scars on the landscape.

A collage of a childhood portrait and the damaged plane monument

A collage of a childhood portrait and the damaged plane monument

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

I imagine how we will sit in our kitchen in a few hours and be silent, because words are of no use now, anyway. I imagine how quickly this catastrophe will also be forgotten. Vinnytsia, another scar on the landscape. When I was a girl, my parents always hid bad news from me. I usually found out about deaths and serious illnesses much later. When we protested for our freedom on Maidan Square in Kyiv in 2014, I experienced death firsthand. Five people who had been shot to death were laid out in rest in front of the Kozatskiy Hotel, their names written in green on their bodies. My square was red.

That's when I quit my job at a news wire, bought a bulletproof vest and traveled to the war zone. In Donbas, I saw how Russian shells hit. The dead included many volunteers, the bravest.

A colleague got killed by Russian troops

After Feb. 24, when the larger war arrived in my hometown, the cemetery of my acquaintances grew: friends, colleagues, people I had studied with. Some had to be buried in closed coffins – contrary to the custom in our country – because the bodies had been so badly damaged. Others had suddenly become unreachable by phone. And never spoke again. Towns and villages burned or were blown to pieces by shelling.

10:10 p.m.: We park at the end of Vinnychenka Street, where I grew up. Members of the National Guard have blocked the way. I first have to call the police spokesperson to get them to let me through. I look up at the window of my childhood bedroom. It's not damaged. The neighbors covered one of their broken windows with a teddy bear.

A view of the author’s family home and the window next to the room where she grew up as a child

A view of the author’s family home and the window next to the room where she grew up as a child

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The destroyed concert hall built in Vinnytsia

The destroyed concert hall built in Vinnytsia

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

I step onto Victory Square. This morning, three Russian Kalibr cruise missiles struck here. There's now a meter-deep hole in the asphalt. I think of the book "The Beekeeper of Aleppo," in which the narrator says of his hometown: "Aleppo is now like the dead body of a loved one." My square is black.

After midnight: The alarm has gone off again. We sit in the basement with neighbors, packed tightly. I stroke my mother's hand and speak to her soothingly: "Mom, you know that this, too, shall pass." Next to us are people who had been hit by the war months ago and had sought shelter in Vinnytsia. My mother led the children of the family from Mariupol down the stairs after the missiles struck. Her mother keeps assuring us how grateful she is for that. The family from Kharkiv is used to life in the basement. For a month and half, the parents had lived in the depths of that city, which had been under constant bombardment by the Russians, before fleeing to the west of the country with their children. Debris from the blast has now damaged the car they used to flee, which had escaped intact during the ongoing shelling back home. They want to wait before replacing the windshield. "Who knows what will happen next," says the father. "At the same time, nothing really happens in the same place twice. Right?" There's nervous laughter in the basement.

The backdrop for family photos: the plane monument dedicated to the founding of the Ukrainian air force

The backdrop for family photos: the plane monument dedicated to the founding of the Ukrainian air force

Foto:

Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

Until that Thursday morning, Vinnytsia had been my safe base. A reminder of the time when I didn't yet have any responsibilities and the war was still on the horizon. But now our windows are shattered. The barbershop where my brother would get his head shaved is burned out. People were charred to death within fractions of a second at the medical clinic next door to it. One doctor had both legs amputated and later died from her severe burns. In total, the Russian missiles have killed 27 people. There are no doors left on the internet café where we sent chat messages and played "Counter-Strike" as teenagers. The windows were blown out of the grocery store where we bought nut-flavored ice cream. Even the photo studio where I had my first film developed as a 12-year-old after my father taught me how to take pictures now looks like it's been thoroughly shaken.

The plane monument dedicated to the founding of the Ukrainian air force, a blue and yellow MiG-21, had served as our backdrop for family photos. I would stand in front of it posing with plaits my mother had braided. Now, the wings are pierced, and the fuselage scorched. When I was 16 years old, I was awarded a gold medal at the House of Officers, our former Palace of Culture, for excellent performance at school. All that's left of it is a charred mass soaked with fire-fighting water. Blue-covered rows of seats are still visible in some spots.

A few years ago, while I was making a documentary about a displaced person from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, she explained to me what it means to lose your homeland. The street corner where she kissed her boyfriend for the first time. The apricot tree she climbed as a child. She has lost all of that. Only now, on my square, I at least finally do understand her.

A resident of Vinnytsia, whose home was struck in the July 14 attack

A resident of Vinnytsia, whose home was struck in the July 14 attack

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL
The destroyed House of Officers, formerly the Palace of Culture

The destroyed House of Officers, formerly the Palace of Culture

Foto: Julia Kochetova / DER SPIEGEL

My hometown becomes a news story the day after the shelling. We drove through Vinnytsia from early morning until late at night interviewing victims, first responders and survivors. Now, I'm sitting at home again, looking at the veneer wood panel that my father stuck in the window. The first time he tried, my mother said it wasn't good enough.

"How did your medical checkup go, by the way?" I ask him. He's 57 years old and could be drafted for military service, just like all Ukrainian men up to the age of 60. He says he was given a two-month deferral: "Because I have a weak heart. It's too sensitive." – "Too sensitive for war?" – I say to him, nestling against his chest. I have the same heart, my dear daddy, and it is just right for me.

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