Lidiia, 85, was shuffling through the Lviv train station in western Ukraine as a wave of commuters rushed by. Bent almost double from a spinal disorder, her eyes were fixed on the ground as she tried to keep up with her son a few steps ahead.
But his mind, he said, was on the town he had fled from and the daughter he was unable to save when a Russian bombardment destroyed their home.
Before the war broke out, Lidiia lived peacefully in the farming village of Dovhenke, near Izium, with her 61-year-old daughter, Iryna, who was paralyzed, and her two grandchildren. Three weeks ago, the Russians started bombing the village: the school, the shops and the people’s houses.
Lidiia and her son spoke on the condition that their last names not be used for fear of Russian retaliation.
At approximately 1:30 in the morning of March 26, Lidiia had gotten out of bed, frozen, to put more wood in the iron stove. Her daughter was asleep. They were alone. A grandson had been injured in a shelling the day before and was in hospital. Her brother was with him. Volodya, 62, was taking refuge in a friend’s house.
Then explosions sounded and the house began to shake. The roof collapsed on Iryna.
“The roof fell in and everything collapsed on top of her,” Lidiia said. “She was screaming, ‘Mom, save me’!”
There was not electricity. Lidiia tried to make her way through the darkness to her daughter’s bed, but she tripped and fell.
“I got up and then I fell, I got up and I fell, and then I crawled towards her,” he said. “He’d say, ‘Hurry, hurry, I’m suffocating,’” Lidiia said, wiping her eyes with the hem of the mauve skirt she wore over her flannel pajama bottoms.
The only light in the room came from the stars, visible through the hole in the ceiling, Lidiia said. She recalled painfully trying to move fallen wooden beams and chunks of clay off of her daughter. “She kept saying, ‘Quick, quick,’” Lidiia said. “I told him, ‘I can’t do it fast. I don’t have the strength.’”
Lidiia did what she could, removing small pieces of debris that covered her daughter until the sun came up. In the morning a neighbor came, removed the larger pieces of wood and debris, and wrapped Iryna in a blanket. She was still breathing, but her hands and feet were blue. They took her to a relative’s house but with the bombardment there was no way they would attend to her.
“If he lives, he lives,” Lidiia said her doctor told her.
She died the next day.
Slow deaths like Iryna’s have received less attention than other horrors of war: civilians found shot to death with their hands tied in places like Bucha or the bombing of a maternity hospital and a theater in Mariupol.
Lidiia blamed her daughter’s death on her hands, weakened by age and arthritis, and on her twisted spine that did not allow her to stand upright.
“What can I say? My daughter died,” she said, crying softly as she sat next to plastic bags of her belongings. “If it wasn’t for me, she would have survived.”
At the train station in the city of Lviv, the mother and son were on their way to stay with friends in Khmelnytski, central Ukraine.
Volodya, experience honed by years familiar with the conflict between Russian-backed separatists, recounted the types of rockets he said rained down on his village: “They fired mortars and started hitting us with Grads, Smerch, Uragan.”
“My house was demolished, the barn was demolished. My car burned down,” she said. “I had everything and now I have nothing.”